Singletrack Mind: Inside Steamboat’s Unprecedented and Contentious ‘Trail Tax’

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This iconic Colorado mountain town, Steamboat Springs, has taken its ‘tourism tax’ to the next level. And mountain bikers are among the biggest beneficiaries.

In 2013, over 70 percent of residents of Steamboat Springs approved an unprecedented referendum. City measure 2A now siphons $600,000 yearly from an existing accommodations tax for new infrastructure and expansion on multiuse trails.

Downtown-Steamboat-Springs
Photo credit: Bike Town USA

Steamboat is well-known for producing the most Winter Olympians on the planet. And the trail-focused funding furthers the town’s new objective: to become a world-class mountain biking destination.

“Steamboat has an incredible network of intermediate cross-country trails, but a true mountain bike destination must have something for all levels of riders,” said Kelly Northcutt, executive director of Routt County Riders. “In order to actually become ‘Bike Town USA,’ we have to have an outstanding trail network.”

How Steamboat Trail Funds Are Allocated

The 10-year trail tax fund started 5 years ago. For the first 3 years, the fund allocated $300,000 annually to biking and hiking trails; for the final 7 years, the trails are to receive $600,000 per year. It’s a boatload of money. No other town has passed a recreation measure with a financial package anywhere close to this.

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“From the city’s perspective, we said, ‘We have the money; now we have to see what’s feasible,’” said Winnie DelliQuadri, assistant to Steamboat Springs’ city manager. She is tasked with implementing the 2A trails project and coordinating with partners, including the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

Additionally, the city funded a private group to bring together bikers, hunters, and other concerned citizens to discuss the potential impact of trail development.

Emerald-Mountain-Steamboat
Photo credit: Bike Town USA

In the lead-up to the ballot measure, the Steamboat Springs Trails Alliance created a 264-page document detailing priority development areas. “The committee rank-ordered them and started at the top of the list, based on feasibility,” DelliQuadri said. “Most of the trails are being built as approvals roll in.”

The projects range from a paved city trail to a large network of “lunch loops,” which are rideable right from downtown, to wooded trails much farther out on Rabbit Ears Pass, which already comprises a vast, stacked, looped, multiuse trail network.

Steamboat-Springs-pass
Photo credit: Bike Town USA

Many trails intersect USFS lands — and therein lies an additional challenge. As it stands, the city funds the environmental impact, or NEPA, process. The USFS uses those funds to carry out the federal NEPA process and make the ultimate decision on what trails will move forward.

The massive cache of funds has already benefited low-hanging fruit like the popular trails network off of Emerald Mountain, near the town’s famous ski-jumping hill. But the wishlist is long, DelliQuadri said. And it’s just that — a set of dream trails.

“It’s not in any master-planned document,” she said.

More Sides Weigh in on Future Trail Projects

There’s been a lot of engagement from the biking community. But very little general community conversation has occurred until recently, according to DelliQuadri. City residents (about 12,000) overwhelmingly approved the 2A ballot measure. But the rest of Routt County didn’t get to vote.

Now, locals, especially hunters, are questioning the impact of trail development on wildlife. There are also questions around trail degradation, enforcement, maintenance, and legality, not to mention private property issues.

Keep Routt Wild is the organization leading the pushback. “We all love recreation, and no one is anti-wildlife,” said Larry Desjardin, the president of Keep Routt Wild, an avid cyclist, and a member of Routt County Riders. “But biologists are ringing the alarm bells.”

Elk grazing and calving are of primary concern.

“Elk are like our canaries in the coal mine,” Desjardin said. “They are most sensitive to human disturbance.” And one of the most pristine mountain bike trails in Steamboat, Flash of Gold, runs right through prime elk habitat.

What About the Impact on Wildlife?

Using the Freedom of Information Act, Desjardin recently obtained game-camera footage. He wants to prove that the USFS isn’t doing enough to protect wildlife.

“We have deep concerns on how the USFS manages the NEPA process for these trails. The USFS has chosen to use the lightweight environmental assessment process for trails, which is not adequate,” he said.

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Photo credit: Larry Desjardin

“The photos from one camera showed an elk herd consisting of cows and calves living their lives on a beautiful summer day,” Desjardin continued. “The date was stamped June 26, 2015, and the location is now traversed by the Flash of Gold trail. Sadly, and incorrectly, the USFS chose an opening date of the trail of June 15, though they had possession of these same photos from their own cameras showing elk there later in the year. This is what happens when you try to push through a project on the cheap.”

But there’s a bell curve, DelliQuadri said, with bikers and people focused more on wildlife and habitat throughout the curve. “On the ends are folks that want what they want and don’t feel like they should have to compromise,” DelliQuadri said.

Desjardin may be on a far end. “But most people are in the middle,” DelliQuadri said. “So far, several round tables have brought all parties together. There’s been no consensus — but a better understanding.”

Steamboat Wishlist MTB Trails

If the biking community gets its way, trail expansion could include hundreds of new, connecting, and rerouted miles of singletrack on Rabbit Ears and Buffalo passes, as well as Spring Creek in the near future and Mad Rabbit, a more contentious area, over the longer term.

Steamboat-Springs-trails
Photo credit: Bike Town USA

Builders should complete an alternate on the popular Spring Creek trail this summer. “The new Spring Creek directional, bike-only trail will be one of the most fun trails we have,” said Northcutt. “There have been numerous conflicts with cyclists descending Spring Creek, and this will solve those issues.”

But Northcutt said her group is most excited about trails on Steamboat Springs’ iconic Rabbit Ears Pass. “The trails proposed here will offer a range — advanced and beginner trails, and a skills area.”

“The Lower West Summit Network is our No. 1 priority area,” she continued. “It, along with the proposed longer-distance trails and connectors (like Walton Rim and Fish Creek Connector), will be actual motivators to bring people to town. It concentrates the use in one area and will provide something for all levels of riders.”

2A Trail Tax Doesn’t Cover Trail Maintenance

The trail tax doesn’t account for maintaining trails once they’re built. But the community solved that. The Yampa Valley Community Foundation Trail Maintenance Endowment Fund, which had a goal of $1 million in 10 years, is over 50 percent funded just 4 years in.

“If you’re a biker, there’s significant peer pressure that you donate to this endowment fund each year,” said DelliQuadri. “When you do, you get that year’s sticker.” It’s a symbol of pride for local riders.

Female-mountain-bikers-Steamboat
Photo credit: Bike Town USA

But that’s just a sticker. Bikers (and hunters) want a say, too. Steamboat Springs City Council appointed a 2A committee, whose role is to recommend funding trails from within the massive Steamboat Springs Trails Alliance proposal.

While the committee takes public comments at meetings, it’s not in the position to consider citizen input on what to do about Mad Rabbit, for example, which is in USFS hands. That can be frustrating for residents.

“They are simply a steering committee for the funds, but the public show up to every meeting wanting to provide input into which trails they want to see,” Northcutt said.

“I think they are underestimating their power in this process. These trails have been looked at solely under the lens of increasing tourism, and it is important to look at how they will impact and meet the needs of the community as well.”

For now, Steamboat Springs is home to one of the country’s most progressive trail taxes. The money is there. But what will come to fruition is still a great unknown.


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