TELLURIDE — The San Miguel Board of County Commissioners has announced it unanimously supported a proposed land exchange between several private entities, a nonprofit organization and the U.S. Forest Service, which would provide permanent public access to the summit of Wilson Peak via the Rock of Ages trail.
The proposal also would ensure recreational access to the Alta Lakes area, reduce the risk of future development in sensitive high alpine zones and remove private in-holdings from land adjacent to federally designated Wilderness areas.
Three of the four federally-owned parcels are adjacent to private land owned by Skyline Ranch Trust, LLC and Alta Lakes, LLC and are located east of Highway 145 in the Alta Lakes and Upper Turkey Creek area. Much of the land contains unauthorized bicycling and hiking trails that were created by visitors through the years.
USFS Public Service Staff Officer Corey Wong said that the Forest Service would work with local mountain bikers to possibly adopt trails that do not pose environmental damage and can be incorporated into a larger trail system.
Citing the adoption of permanent mountain bike trails, Commissioner Joan May said she believes that the proposal offers substantial public benefit.
“It will make permanently public some mountain bike trails that are currently on private land and could be shut down to the public at any time if this exchange doesn’t happen,” she told The Watch, “It moves some public land that is not that valuable to the public into private ownership and moves some private lands that are valuable to the public into public ownership.”
Commissioner Art Goodtimes said he’s been in San Miguel County long enough to see similar land exchange proposals not work.
“Some federal ones have turned south around Telluride. But this one, while complicated, seems to make a lot of good sense,” he said. “Especially if we can get some reasonable bicycle trails in the Alta Lakes area.”
Stephanie Fanos, attorney and representative for Skyline Ranch Trust, LLC and Alta Lakes, LLC, is pleased with the commissioners’ comments.
“We are encouraged that the [commissioners are] supporting the Wilson Peak exchange,” she said. “We have worked diligently with the [commissioners] to ensure that any issues were addressed up front. We look forward to concluding this exchange and strongly believe that the exchange results in significant public benefits.”
The exchange proposal stems from the lack of public access to Wilson’s summit on the Silver Pick Trail, a popular route up the 14,000-foot peak, which used to cut into a portion of private land belonging to Rusty Nichols, who for years did not grant public access across his land.
To mitigate the loss of access using that trail, the U.S. Forest Service constructed the Rock of Ages Trail to bypass Nichols’s parcel, and rejoined the Silver Pick Trail beyond his property.
In 2007, the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization aiming to restore public access to Wilson Peak, purchased 180 acres from Nichols for $4.5 million, reopening the popular trail.
Pending completion of the environmental analysis and a successful appraisal process, TPL’s Wilson Peak property would be exchanged for private parcels, including several near Alta Lakes and Skyline Ranch. Organizers hope the exchange would be concluded no later than 2015.