In Steamboat Springs, Colorado, It’s Mountain Bike Trails Versus Hunting Groups

Mountain bike trail advocates in Steamboat Springs, Colorado have faced an uphill battle for close to ten years over their Mad Rabbit trails project.
A trail from Rabbit Ears Pass. Photo: Greg Heil

In 2013, when residents of Steamboat Springs, Colorado approved the 2A Ballot initiative in a vote, it cleared the city to appropriate funds from a lodging tax and use them for recreational trail projects. Little did the Routt County Riders know that the measure would be one of the lowest hurdles to clear in making the Mad Rabbit Trails Project a reality.

The initiative, supported by 70% of voters, would put $300,000 per year for three years and $600,000 for the following seven years toward projects listed in the Trails Alliance Proposal, a collaboration between Steamboat running, outdoors, and biking advocacy groups, led by the Routt County Riders.

The proposal identified 46 opportunities for the Steamboat Springs area, extending and expanding trails, removing user-created trails, adding new trails and giving the town the “most accessible and progressive trail network in Colorado.”

Among the projects were new trails on the City of Steamboat Springs’ Emerald Mountain, and trail decommissioning–focusing on rogue trails–and expansions at Mad Creek, Buffalo Pass, and Rabbit Ears Pass.

The Mad Rabbit project name encompasses the goals to expand and connect trails at both Mad Creek, northwest of Steamboat, and Rabbit Ears Pass, east of town.

“The idea of the original plan was to try to create a really well-connected trail network where you could do big, epic rides from the north to the south end of the whole area or pick and bite off whatever you want to choose for loops, out and backs, whatever,” said Craig Frithsen, the Routt County Riders board president.

The RCR’s vision of the project consisted of a network of diverse trails starting on Rabbit Ears Pass and leading into the Mad Creek trails, with everything from beginner-level green trails to climbing trails and exciting downhill trails, all accessible for heading into and out of Steamboat Springs.

The plans were grand, with over 90 miles of new trail proposed, but after more than six years of intense review and some of the strongest opposition facing new mountain bike trails in recent years, RCR has halved its proposition, cutting about 60% of the original plan. RCR says they have over $2 million allotted for trail projects they’re waiting to act on.

“We’re basically sitting on a couple million dollars in the bank of local taxpayer money that we would love to spend to build trails, but we can’t get approval,” said Frithsen.

Signs of trouble

The Buffalo Pass area was the first to receive attention from the project. It’s one of the closest areas to access from town, but lacked USFS trails, and unsanctioned trails were growing as a result. The agency completed an environmental analysis in 2016, green-lighting 40 miles of trails around Buffalo Pass. Work on those trails wrapped up a few years ago without much difficulty.

In 2018, the Routt National Forest began collecting public input and received over 400 comments. Keep Routt Wild (KRW), a hunting, fish, and wildlife conservation group in Northwest Colorado, supported by several premiere hunting organizations such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Rocky Mountain Elk Federation and more, spearheaded the opposition.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources also expressed “concern about he number of new trails in the 2018 and 2019 proposed action and the locations of specific trails,” according to a letter from the USFS.

By 2019, because of pushback and public comment, proposed trails in the Mad Creek area had been completely eliminated, bringing the total amount of proposed trails down to 52 miles, and eliminating the connection trail between Mad Creek and Rabbit Ears Pass.

The town of Steamboat from Emerald Mountain. Photo: Greg Heil

More people, more trails

While many mountain biking groups may not always feel that the USFS is receptive to their asks, Routt National Forest identified a need for the Mad Rabbit trails from the start. Existing National Forest trails don’t meet current trail standards or match the needs of current trail use, and a lack of trails has led to the creation of unsanctioned bike trails, the agency said.

Visitation has also increased dramatically since around the time of the initial proposal in 2017. The USFS notes a 23% increase in visits to the Routt National Forest between 2012 and 2017, from 1.6 million visits to 1.9 million. The increase has contributed to heavy use of existing trails, conflict and safety issues, resource damage and poor experiences, and unsanctioned trail development, the USFS noted.

When Frithsen moved to Steamboat Springs in 1990, he remembers very few trail opportunities for mountain biking. There were not bike-specific trails, there weren’t near as many multi-use trails, and at the time, the USFS wasn’t very receptive to mountain bikers as a user group, he said.

Since then, singletrack has grown but hasn’t kept pace with the growth of the user group itself, RCR said.

On the City of Steamboat Springs’ Emerald Mountain, the RCR sees more than 100,000 visits per year and roughly 50,000 visits on Buffalo Pass.

Trail development on Rabbit Ears Pass is a win for several reasons, said the Routt County Riders. First, it’s located right off of Highway 40, the main entrance and exit to Steamboat Springs, making it convenient for visitors. Two, there are already trails and trailheads developed on Rabbit Ears, so there wouldn’t be a need to interrupt a different area, and only one proposed trail would extend more than a mile away from the road.

“It really is trails along a highway corridor on the main highway in and out of Steamboat and it really is underutilized in the summertime,” said Frithsen.

Elk in Golden, Colorado. Photo: Matt Miller

Recreational trails versus wildlife

Keep Routt Wild formed in late 2018 as a response to trail development plans such as the Mad Rabbit in 2018.

“Sometimes we love the mountains too much,” said member Nick Metzler at the group’s innagural event, according to the Steamboat Pilot. “We’re loving it to death, meaning the amount of use that our forest is getting is greatly concerning us. This is with or without any new trails going in.”

All in all, the RCR’s Mad Rabbit Trails plan has received objections from Keep Routt Wild, Routt County Commissioners, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the Department of Natural Resources. Their concerns are wide, but biggest is the potential for recreational trails to displace wildlife, fragment habitat, and affect elk calf recruitment.

Kaplan, Kirsch, and Rockwell, a Denver-based group of attorneys representing Keep Routt Wild filed an objection with the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests in September of 2023.

The group claimed the USFS’s FONSI (Finding of no significant impacts) was conducted improperly and relied on an outdated forest plan; the agency relied on invalid significant information to establish a buffer for elk habitat, and a handful of other objections. The group claims that rather than an environmental analysis, the agency should have conducted an environmental impact state. Routt County Riders insist EIS’s are usually reserved for much more impactful development.

Keep Routt Wild insists that since many of the proposed trails are in Colorado Roadless Areas (CRA), the proposal necessitates an EIS, however the USFS said the Colorado Roadless Rule intentionally does not limit trail development.

Even if the USFS gives the Mad Rabbit Trails project the green light, the RCR knows that attorneys for Keep Routt Wild may try to sue the agency to slow trail development even further.

“We are at a point where we’re looking at the reality of how powerful and vociferous the hunting and wildlife advocacy lobbies are,” said Laraine Martin, the executive director of RCR.

While Colorado boasts the largest elk herds in the world, the animals have faced several challenges in recent years: residential and industrial development from population growth in the state; habitat fragmentation, often brought on by road development and fencing; and frequent vehicle collisions. The Colorado Department of Transportation sees over 3,000 wildlife collisions each year.

Harsh winters like the 2022-2023 season can have devastating impacts on ungulate populations. In November of 2023, CPW said current elk populations may not be sustainable over the next 20 years.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife have also continually cited recreation development and pressure on public land calving grounds as having an effect on the survival of calfs.

CPW’s 2022 Draft Elk Herd Management Plans for the Southwest Region note that elk avoid popular human recreation areas and the avoidance results in habitat compression and loss of functional habitat. Because elk spend more time roaming for new habitat, they spend less time feeding and resting, according to different studies, ultimately affecting calf survival rate.

Mountain bike trail advocates two hours south in Vail have been facing similar challenges with trail development. After reports in 2018 of decreasing elk populations and poor recruitment numbers, recreation advocates like Ernest Saeger of the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance (VVMTA) became caught in the crosshairs of the conversation. Saeger said trail development was only part of the greater picture affecting elk populations.

“There are so many factors that play into this conversation beyond the impacts that development, recreation, and population growth including increased predator populations and even climate change,” Saeger told us in a 2021 interview.

Seager and the VVMTA employed ambassadors to educate riders who disobeyed seasonal wildlife closures and many of their newly developed trails have seasonal openings and closures thanks to the organization’s partnership with the White River National Forest.

The Swamp Park trail at Mad Creek. Photo: Greg Heil

A Mad Rabbit, still on the run

In December, the USFS released their response to objections on the Mad Rabbit Trails, finding that many of the objections from opposing groups were unfounded. The agency concluded their FONSI and environmental analysis were conducted properly, they used best trail development practices in considering wildlife, like consoliding high density trail networks in less sensitive or already disturbed habitats and that they properly analyzed the impacts to elk populations.

Now, the Routt County Riders await a decision. And though the USFS seems to support the need for the Mad Rabbit trail project, the RCR isn’t sure what they’ll decide. Martin and Frithsen say despite dramatically reducing the amount of proposed trails and adding seasonal wildlife closures, Keep Routt Wild has been a difficult group to compromise with. Trails along Rabbit Ears Pass would not open until June 30 and would close around mid-October when snow starts falling.

“The riding season [for Mad Rabbit] is incredibly truncated,” said Martin.

Keep Routt Wild’s latest proposal still calls for eliminating several trails that have passed environmental analysis, including all of the proposed trails in the Ferndale portion of Rabbit Ears Pass. And in an October newsletter, the group said they are “prepared to litigate Mad Rabbit if the Forest Service does not fundamentally change the project. Even with the facts and the law on our side, litigation is not inexpensive. We are the sentry standing guard between this ill-conceived project and Routt County’s wildlife.”

Martin and Frithsen know their project ten years in the making could be denied and are keeping the pedal down on other potential trails too. RCR plans to break ground on a new downhill trail on Emerald Mountain this spring and are reviewing opportunities to build on the backside, governed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Mad Rabbit Trails project is a massive proposal and Martin understands it must go through scrutiny and pass the review of myriad stakeholders, but she questions what amount of time that is worthwhile for their nonprofit to spend.

“That’s not to say we don’t think Rabbit Ears is going to happen so we need to think about other stuff, but we can’t waste all of our time putting all of our eggs in that one basket then have not thought outside that box for years.”