Paths to Mesa Verde depends on easements

Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017 8:37 AM
Jim Mimiaga/The Journal

Trail consultant Pete Loris explains the planning process for Paths to Mesa Verde at a community meeting Monday at the Cortez Recreation Center.
Jim Mimiaga/The Journal

Cortez City Manager Shane Hale and local resident Greg Kemp look on as a proposed trail is explained that would connect Cortez with Mancos.
Jim Mimiaga/The Journal

Red indicates landowners unwilling to put a trail easement across their property as part of the Paths to Mesa Verde project.

Planners are still seeking the optimum path of least resistance for a proposed nonmotorized trail linking Cortez, Mesa Verde National Park, and Mancos.

Paths to Mesa Verde envisions a 20-mile trail connecting local towns and area attractions, including the Montezuma County fairgrounds, the Phil’s World trails, and Southwest Colorado Community College.

The ambitious project is in its third year of a planning phase being funded by local county and municipal governments and a $400,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“The main challenge is right of way agreements through private property for the trail,” county land planner James Dietrich said Monday during a community meeting attended by about 40 people.

For the past year, trail contractors and the county have been knocking on doors of dozens of landowners to see if they will consider offering easements, either through leases or by selling segments of land.

They were asked to mark up property maps – red for no way, yellow maybe, and green for yes – on the easement potential.

“An issue we have run into is that some of the private land is owned by absentee owners or investment groups difficult to reach,” said project planner Kathy Fulton.

The trail could run on the north or south side of the highway, or both. Maps show a lot of red, but there are still potential routes around them, Dietrich said.

“It is likely the trail would need to travel along the highway corridor in some places, and have at least one highway crossing,” he said.

Public surveys show overwhelming support for the trail, and there is a strong preference for it to be through the countryside, rather than along the U.S. 160 shoulder.

Planners have narrowed in on four possibilities for the trail based on topography and best opportunities to gain easements.

One option shows the trail beginning at the Montezuma-Cortez High School and connecting to the county fairgrounds. From there it could cross the highway through a tunnel or elevated bridge to connect with Phil’s World. Surface crossings of the highway are not being considered.

Pending successful easements, it could continue to the community college. If needed, it may cross over U.S. Highway 160 via the Mesa Verde National Park overpass.

An audience member said there is concern about liability to property owners if a trail user has an accident or wanders off the trail and is injured.

Trail planner Anthony Pratt, of Loris and Associates, said Colorado has strong recreation laws that protect property owners from liability when trail users get in trouble on or off the trail.

“You can thank the ski industry for the strong laws protecting property owners from recreation use liability,” he said.

It was noted that some ranchers have expressed concerns about the trail having an impact on ranching operations, including dogs that stray from the trail and harass livestock.

Fulton said it is not uncommon for recreation trails to successfully cross through ranching areas. Fencing, education and signage has been shown effective in keeping recreationists and livestock separated, she said.

Width and surface of the trail have not been determined, and total costs have not been estimated. Horse enthusiasts urged that a trail parallel to the main one be considered specifically for horse travel.

The next step in the process is obtaining additional funding for the trail through state and federal grants, negotiating easements, conducting federal and state environmental reviews, and trail design work, Dietrich said.

“We will begin applying for grants in 2018 and will be setting up a fund for private donations as well,” he said.

In 2016, Paths to Mesa Verde was listed as a top priority for the state, which puts the project in a good position to be awarded grant funding, he said.