A diverse group of stakeholders in Ouray County has been quietly gathering since 2008 to pioneer a model process for determining and preserving public access on these historic roads and trails.
Calling themselves the Public Access Group of Ouray County, the group has recently completed work on a draft map that delineates historical roads and trails in Ouray County that are considered to be open to public access. This map, described as a “living document” that will continue to evolve over time, will be unveiled at a presentation from 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23 at the Ouray County 4-H Event Center in Ridgway.
PAG, through its collaborative approach, hopes to pre-empt the kind of scenario that is happening over the hill in Telluride, where real estate developers Tom Chapman and Ron Curry have acquired mining claims in the Bear Creek basin and, citing liability concerns, closed them to all recreational traffic.
Ouray County, too, has seen public access to some of its historic corridors jeopardized by an onslaught of private property transactions and development proposals in recent years. Often, the proof of modern public access rights lies deeply buried in records from the past.
In his work with PAG, Ouray Mayor and Ouray Trail Group member Bob Risch has put in countless hours going through historic Board of County Commissioner meetings at the Ouray County Courthouse, starting with the very first meeting in 1875. “It was fascinating,” he said.
He was looking specifically for information about the Old Horse Thief/Gold Belt trails, which at the time faced issues similar to the contentious Bear Creek area near Telluride, as a private property owner sought to block public access along the trail as it passed through his property.
Through his research, Risch was able to prove that the Old Horsethief Trail has provided public access for a very, very long time. In fact, he said, it was an old Ute trail that predates all of the mining activity in the area.
“It shows up on the earliest maps, the Wheeler Survey and Hayden Survey,” he said.
The county itself built the Gold Belt Trail to provide access to mines in the area. But even if miners had built it, Risch said, they would have pled with the county to convert it into public access, thus relieving themselves of the burden of trail maintenance.
“It would never occur to them to close a trail,” Risch said. “That kind of mentality is a very recent development.”
The Gold Belt Trail has recently been rebuilt by the Ouray Trail Group and is now in service and open to the public.
“The county has determined that it’s ours,” Risch said, referring to a Colorado law established on May 1, 1921 that states that anything that was a public trail then, is declared public in perpetuity.
Another example of what is at stake locally occurred in 2006, when the county went to court to protect its right to keep a road passing through the Lower Camp Bird Mine open to the public.
While the county prevailed in this case, using evidence dating back all the way to the 1870s, PAG coordinator Kate McIntire said that the group prefers collaboration and consensus building to litigation.
“The PAG effort is a unique and exciting demonstration of proactive community involvement by diverse parties with a common goal,” McIntire said. “It demonstrates a collaborative, groundbreaking approach to the policy process in its attempt to bring together local government, public agencies, nonprofit organizations, the public, and private interests in the pursuit of creating a generalized model for protecting public access to trail systems that other groups in Colorado can use in the future as a guide for best practices.”
PAG stakeholders include the Board of County Commissioners of Ouray County, Ouray County Historical Society, Ouray Trail Group, Thunder Mountain Wheelers, Uncompahgre Valley Trail Riders, United States Department of Agriculture, United States Forest Service, United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, and Western Slope Four Wheelers.
“It’s a wonderful example of a collaborative effort between small local entities and big powerful agencies,” McIntire said. “I’m pretty proud of them for doing that.”
As the group enters its next phase, it hopes to engage private property owners as well.
The Wednesday, May 23 presentation, which McIntire describes as a celebration of the group’s accomplishments, will include an overview of the background, purpose and mission of PAG, an explanation of the Colorado State Parks grant that made its work possible, and an outline of PAG’s primary work products including the PAG Process Model, after which the draft PAG map will be unveiled to the public. The evening concludes with discussion about the future of public access issues in Ouray County.
“This is the culmination of many years of diligent work, and we’re really exciting we’ve approached things so collaboratively,” McIntire said.
All regular PAG meetings are open to the public. For more information, contact PAG Coordinator Kate McIntire at firstname.lastname@example.org.