Congressman pushing to connect Continental Divide Trail

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— Hikers tired of detouring off the Continental Divide Trail onto a state highway so as not to trespass on private land may get some help from the federal government.

U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, is hoping to get a bill passed during this congressional session that would allow private landowners to sell their land to the federal government. McInnis, who represents western Colorado, is especially interested in passing the bill because the Continental Divide Trail east of Steamboat Springs runs across private land. About 10 miles of the trail near Muddy Pass is privately owned and would be available to the government if the bill is passed.

"We've been trying to get a right-of-way or an easement through those lands," said Ed Patalik, a recreation planner for the U.S. Forest Service in Steamboat. Currently, hikers have to walk along Colorado 14 for about 12 miles at the Muddy Pass section of the trail, Patalik said.

"Sounds great if there's a process where we can facilitate the government taking control of those lands," said Patalik, who had not previously heard of the bill.

There are 3,000 miles of trails that make up the Continental Divide Trail, but about 700 of those miles are privately owned. At points, the "trail" is 50 miles wide, McInnis said. Hikers must figure out how to bypass the private land and find public land on which to camp.

Bruce Ward, the co-director of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance, a non-profit association located in Pine, is working with McInnis to promote the bill.

The alliance looks to "promote, construct, and manage a primitive trail along the Continental Divide and to link and protect significant resources along the trail by the support of volunteers and public and private memberships." Ward has enlisted a huge number of volunteers to service the trail from New Mexico through Montana.

Volunteer hours on the trail are already up to about 70,000, McInnis said. The alliance is financed by the government and through private grants.

McInnis's amendment will affect more than just the Colorado, though.

His "willing seller" amendments to the National Trails Systems Act would allow private landowners to sell on nine federally-maintained trails throughout the country. Under existing law, owners of land on those trails are forbidden from selling their land to the government for inclusion in the national trails system. Out of 20 national trails, only landowners on 11 of those trails can sell their land.

"To administer an equitable national system of trails the authority for the trails should be consistent," McInnis said in a written statement to Congress.

The bill has been introduced in the House for a number of years in the past but was rejected due to fears of land condemnation, McInnis said.

"I never gave rights of condemnation in my bill," McInnis said. "I know of no opposition to this bill. It's got the sponsorship of the most conservative private property advocate clear up to the other side of the aisle, some of the people that they would call the extreme environmental aspect. I mean, this is a team effort."

McInnis is confident that the bill will pass in the House, but is unsure about Senate support. The senator most responsible for pushing the bill is Sen. Ben Campbell, R-Colorado. Although the current congressional session is ending soon, McInnis will push to have the bill considered before the session ends.

"Our biggest enemy here is time," he said.

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