Through these blocks of color, land planners could overlay the region’s network of public hiking trails and roads and see how they interface with the underlying ownership structure. Maybe, they’d be able to identify areas of concern, where public access might be at risk if steps were not taken to broach the delicate matter of public access with private property owners.
It seems natural that such a map should exist. But with so many different entities at play, and so much research to be done to determine which of the county’s hundreds of roads and trails should even fall into the category of public access, who would take on such an enormous project?
The answer came in the form of the Public Access Group of Ouray County (PAG), a diverse group of stakeholders in Ouray County that has been quietly gathering since 2008 to pioneer a model process for determining and preserving public access on the county’s historic roads and trails.
After years of hard work, research and collaboration, the group unveiled to the public its pièce de résistance, the Ouray County Public Access Group (PAG) Route Map, last Wednesday, May 23 at the Ouray County 4-H Event Center in Ridgway.
The map, considered a living document that will always be in draft form, represents the culmination of years of collaboration among local government entities, federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and special interest groups to ensure continued noncontroversial access to historical public lands roads and trails in Ouray County.
“Public access is a big issue around the entire nation,” said Kate McIntire, the third PAG coordinator to work with the group since it formed, and the one who has been charged with ushering the project across the finish line. “It’s a huge challenge to land managers; we’ve been successful because we’ve tackled it through a collaborative approach.”
PAG hopes to pre-empt potentially costly conflicts with private property owners who may wish to block public access when these roads and trails pass through their land.
Using a formal evaluation methodology, the PAG developed a priority route list, identifying routes that are most at risk of losing public access due to potential conflicts with private property owners. The priority routes were announced at Wednesday’s presentation. They are all in the Ironton Park vicinity, and include:
• Silverton Railroad Grade
• County Road 20A/Corkscrew Road and vicinity
• County Road 31 and vicinity
• Spirit Gulch/Barstow/Greyhound Road
• County Road 20/Brown Mountain
The PAG has divided into subgroups to gather more information on these routes and identify tools that may be used to preserve access.
The first, most important step, is to initiate dialogue with landowners. “An initial, formalized dialogue should reveal whether or not a landowner is willing to consider granting a public easement,” McIntire noted. If not, PAG has identified other legal tools the county can use to claim public access.
These tools include R.S. 2477 (a federal revised statute in effect until 1976 whose purpose was to promote access, development and settlement to otherwise remote areas of the United States), adverse use (asserting that a road across private lands has been used adversely for 20 years) and condemnation – which is considered a last resort.
An important step in the PAG’s early development, noted McIntire, was to suggest that a local government jurisdiction draft a resolution that addresses public access issues. Toward this end, as a member of PAG, Ouray County drafted a resolution in 2008 that defined the County’s position on public roads within the County.
The resolution claims all public highways (including roads and trails) are open to the public unless they have been specifically abandoned by the county. “It helps to mitigate public access issues in the future and clarifies the county’s position,” McIntire noted.
With this resolution in place, the PAG then spent the better part of two years in information-gathering mode, in order to create a detailed map of all the trail systems that is accurate according to all groups. Often, gathering this information meant delving deep into the county’s historical records, and converting them into an electronic format. “The Ouray County GIS department then compiled and mapped the data the PAG members had collected, accurately mapping all parcels in the county so the PAG had a reliable way to determine ownership as it related to existing and potential routes,” McIntire said.
McIntire hopes the county will now adopt the PAG map to go with its resolution.
But, she and the PAG stakeholders stressed, the map itself, and the PAG, do not have authority to force issues of public access. They are merely advisory and informatory in nature. For example, a trail that passes through USFS land would still have to go through the Forest Service’s own travel management plan process in order to change its use. The group doesn’t have the authority to overrule that process.
“Once it is determined who has authority over a route, PAG serves as a research body and then can come forward with a recommendation,” McIntire explained.
The group’s work has been sustained by a grant from the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife. The creation of the map, and its presentation to the community, were two of the grant’s deliverables. The grant was administered by Ouray County.
The collaborative nature of the group, and its commitment to consensus-driven decision making, were two things that made it so unique and, McIntire argued, so successful. She has used this model as subject of her capstone project at the School of Public Affairs at CU Denver, where she recently earned a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in environmental policy, management and law.
“I’m hoping this model will spread far and wide,” she said.
PAG members themselves also valued the collaborative approach.
“I’m really appreciative of Ouray County for taking the lead on this issue,” said USFS ranger Tammy Randall-Parker. “A lot of the roads and trails are truly multi-jurisdictional, and they also cover old mining claims, etc. If there are times when we come across gates on public roads and trails that private property owners have put up, this group can come together and with our collective tools and negotiation, we might be more successful than one entity.”
The process model, draft map, and other PAG documents can be downloaded and viewed online at http://ouraycountyco.gov/pag.html. PAG is currently soliciting public comments on the draft map it has just released. The comment period lasts through June 8. At that time the group will come back together, sift through the comments, and figure out how to move forward to the next step of the process, which may include more active outreach to private property owners.
PAG meetings are open to the public. The next one is scheduled for June 13 at the Ouray County Land Use building.