Residents look for alternative route

Access to forest in North Routt has homeowners striving for solutions

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— Bryan Heselbach doesn't mind snowmobiles. He just doesn't want them in his backyard.

And he's not alone.

Heselbach is one of many residents in Hahn's Peak Village who has few qualms with motorized winter recreation but is troubled by the thought of snowmobilers recreating outside his window.

The North Routt homeowners' anxiety stems from plans to construct a summer and winter use trail adjacent to the village. Steamboat Lake State Park purchased more than 8 acres of land last January to give outdoor enthusiasts direct access from the park to the Routt National Forest.

The would-be neighbors don't mind summer hikers and bikers and winter cross country skiers and snowshoers accessing the proposed trail, but they are dubious of snowmobilers speeding by their properties.

"We're not a bunch of whackos opposed to snowmobiles," Heselbach said. "We're not trying to stop people from getting to the (national) forest."

No public access currently exists to get people from state to federal land and back. Ken Brink, director of Steamboat Lake State Park, said the state took the opportunity to purchase land when it came along.

Property that could realistically link a trail from the state park headquarters on County Road 129 with Forest Road 410 to the north is sparse.

Private land surrounds the state park, and opportunities for the state to purchase any of that land wanes as more people move to North Routt and buy up property, Brink said.

"There are very few pieces of land that connect with the forest," he said. "This was the only card we were dealt."

But many in Hahn's Peak Village aren't convinced the property adjacent to their homes is the only option.

They are proposing an alternative route a few hundred yards north of the village and directly across from the state park's visitor center.

Heselbach and a half-dozen other homeowners have researched plausible alternatives for several months.

"We want to help (Colorado State Parks) achieve their goals in a manner that is not offensive to us," he said.

The villagers' suggested trail would wind through federal and private land before running into Forest Road 410 further north of the junction planned by Steamboat Lake State Park.

But time and patience is in order if such an alternative route is pursued.

A land exchange would be necessary between the Bureau of Land Management and an adjacent private landowner. The exchange would involve about 2 acres of land and plenty of bureaucratic wrangling.

BLM realty specialist Phillis Bowers said the process could entail four years of environmental assessments, public notices, surveys and feasibility reports.

"It's not an overnight process," Bowers said. "A land exchange will take a minimum of two years, and it can take longer."

She said another entity is currently eying the piece of land. The BLM would like to help the public and the state reach a solution, but the federal agency cannot do anything until it receives a land exchange proposal.

"There has been no action taken on our part (because) there is no proposal," she said.

Brink said plans for the summer use trail would likely proceed, with completion set for next summer. The state park's property has already been staked out, in a few places 90 feet away from homes.

The residents of Hahn's Peak Village, while willing to find an alternative to snowmobiles in their backyard, argue the entire situation could have been avoided had Steamboat Lake State Park alerted them to its plans to build the trail.

State agencies, however, are not required to go through the county planning process, said Chad Phillips, assistant director of the Routt County Planning Department.

But state parks in the county, including Yampa River State Park in Hayden and Stagecoach Lake State Park, have been mindful of the process and participated in it, County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.

"There is a history of doing that," she said. "It would be my hope that that history would continue."

Resident Gail Garneau hopes for the same thing.

"In the absence of community and local government participation in the planning process as a whole, the state's current policy will break down and our communities will not be able to sustain themselves," she said.

Brink said Steamboat Lake State Park communicated its plans to residents and the county, and perception that those plans were held under the public radar is unfair.

Neither the state park nor the residents want the search for a public access to become a war of words or an issue of us-against-them.

They collectively hope to get ear of the powers that be. Involvement by county, state and federal agencies and officials can only speed up what could otherwise be a slow trudge toward a solution.

Jon Hawes, president of the Steamboat Lake Snow Club, said club members had hoped to have a winter access trail in place by next winter.

A public trail that connects the state park and national forest would minimize trespassing and parking complaints by private property owners, he said, while boosting the local economy.

The residents of Hahn's Peak Village also recognize the financial gain brought by out-of-town snowmobilers who access the trail and then stop for fuel, groceries, meals and lodging in North Routt.

The Snow Club recognizes the frustration of homeowners who do not want to live next to a motorized use trail but understands the state park's responsibility to the public to provide an access.

The state park is not trying to ramrod its plans for a trail adjacent to the village, Hawes said.

"If that were the case, the trail would already be there," he said.

And the homeowners are no different than anyone else who might enjoy snowmobiling but unwittingly find their backyards the proposed location for a snowmobile trail, he added.

"We are tying to keep things positive," he said. "There is a sense of cooperation and a sense of will to get something done."

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