Road, Trails Protection Pact to Be Signed Soon | Effort to Preserve Public Access to Roads, Trails in Perpetuity
by Christopher Pike
Jan 02, 2008 | 291 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print

OURAY, Jan. 2, 8:11 a.m. – Two documents currently being finalized will empower multiple agencies in the Ouray County area to preserve access to public roads and trails, dating back to when the county was created in 1877.

The first document is a Memorandum of Understanding that will create a “partnership” between public land managers, members of the recreation community – including motorized and non-motorized users, and Ouray County public officials. Members of the various organizations are uniting in a unique effort to identify and codify which public roads and trails merit future protections from private encroachments.

The purpose of the agreement is to “preserve and protect” trails “at risk of disappearing,” and with that historic public access into perpetuity.

The Memorandum of Understanding provides for “acquisition of necessary easements” from private landowners, negotiation, reciprocal easements as may be acquired by the county through its development processes, and the United States Forest Service through “any appropriate regulations permitting land trades.”

The scope of the work ahead, done in a collaborative fashion, encompasses identifying those trails or roads that are most at risk; prioritization of specific public trails and roads; addressing immediate threats to a given trail or road; developing possible funding mechanisms for acquisition or assertion of rights-of-way; and assertion of a claim of right, if necessary.

But Ouray County Commissioner Don Batchelder added a qualifier, saying the county is merely reserving its right to litigate, if necessary. “It’s not an assumption,” said Batchelder. “Nor would we try to resolve a pissing match by wanting the county to settle it. No!”

The agreement provides that the public land managers retain their authority to make decisions about the assertion of rights to public trails or roads and to improvements to public trails and roads within their jurisdictions.

Parties to the agreement include: Ouray County, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management, the Ouray Trail Group, the Ouray County Historical Society, the Thunder Mountain Wheelers and the Western Slope Four Wheelers, and the Uncompahgre Valley Trail Riders.

A second document, a draft resolution “defining public roads within Ouray County,” is declaratory in scope, cementing the county policy to engage in the process of protections that “will serve notice on private property owners that all public roads or ‘public ways’ located within Ouray County that have not previously been formally vacated or abandoned by the Board of County Commissioners will be designated as ‘public highways’ or ‘public roads’ and are open to the public.”

Included in that category are highways, roads, mining roads, logging roads, wagon roads, trails, horse trails, hiking trails, and foot paths.

Additional tweaking of legal verbiage and the correction of an oversight that omitted the Bureau of Land Management as a signatory on the documents delayed the approval and signing of he Memorandum of Understanding. The documents are expected to be signed in the next few weeks.

One major challenge for the signatories will be addressing future mining operations, which are experiencing a resurgence in the area.

“We will compile a history for the Department of Justice and work with [County Attorney] Mary [Deganhart],” said Bob Risch, Ouray Mayor-elect and representative of the Ouray Trails Group regarding landowners’ and mining corporations’ right to assert exclusivity.

Unexpected road closures have occurred in recent years by property owners through the use of gates.

“Throughout most of the past 130 years of history Ouray County road construction and maintenance was driven by the need of miners and mining companies to access their properties,” said Risch in a memorandum to the county commissioners. “Their focus was the subsurface mineral values, and their interest in the roads and trails was primarily that they be maintained at public expense. Only in relatively recent times have new owners, with primary interests in surface real estate values, begun to consider these historic routes as impediment to their personal enjoyment of the land.”

All interested parties are now submitting detailed documents including ancient maps, lengthy lists of trails and trail guides, mining roads and mountain passes dating back to the mid 1860s. The materials will be used to compile and eventually log into the public record a comprehensive listing of all trails and roads where it is determined that access has survived as a matter of public right.

“Trails and roads are at risk,” Batchelder said. “Trails and roads have an economic benefit to the county. It is all of the parties’ best interest to preserve those and identify all motorized and non-motorized trails; then prioritize those that are at risk; then take any action to ensure that they remain in the public domain.”

The next workshop is set for Wednesday, March 12, at the county land use building at which time a final Memorandum of Understanding draft will be reviewed and approved, a spread sheet produced and a budget estimate given to cover research and staff time attributable to data collection and publication.

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