Wednesday, August 25, 2004

BLM to close popular trail

Some residents lament Sun Peak Trail decision

Express Staff Writer

To the chagrin of some residents, the Bureau of Land Management is preparing to close one of the northern Wood River Valley?s most popular early- and late-season hiking trails.

Last week, BLM Shoshone Field Office Recreation Planner John Kurtz announced to a local trail advocacy group that his agency has chosen to close the Sun Peak trail, which climbs the sunny south ridge of Sun Peak from Trail Creek Road near the Sun Valley Gun Club.

The trail is extremely popular, particularly during spring and fall when it is one of the only paths in the valley that is free of snow. But it climbs into an area the BLM designated in 1987 as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern because of fragile plant species found there.

A sign, which will be posted at the beginning of the trail in about a week, concludes: ?Let the mountain heal.? It explains that erosion, the spread of weeds and trampling of ridgeline plant communities are unacceptable risks.

?The intent of the ACEC designation is to maintain human impacts at a negligible level. Recent recreational use of the area has increased to a point that is inconsistent with ACEC designation.?

Kurtz said the BLM was unaware the trail existed until a member of a local trail advocacy group began looking at whether steep, erosive portions could be rerouted. In fact, the 1987 decision notes that ?no trails or roads occur? within the 560-acre area. Local hikers contend the trail, which was built by local citi-zen use, has been there much longer than that.

?As time goes on, it?s difficult for us to monitor every square inch of the ground we manage. The first time it came to our attention was through the trails group,? Kurtz said.

The 1987 decision notice for the Area of Critical Environmental Concern states the area is ?closed to all surface disturbing activities except for research activities approved by the area manager and less than one acre size.? On the other hand, the decision allows domestic sheep grazing and oil and gas explora-tion, an irony Big Wood Backcountry Trails member Nancy Humphrey could not help but point out.

Kurtz said it may be possible to look for other trail routes in the area, and he urged local residents to offer suggestions.

?We will consider options,? he said. ?We?re not going to look at building trails within the ACEC, but you don?t have to go too far until you?re out of it.?

A ridge east of the one the existing trail travels could be considered for a new trail, Kurtz said.

But Humphrey said she wants the BLM to consider options that would keep the Sun Peak trail open to the public.

?What I?m really doing is questioning the land management in an edict that came out 14 years ago, and all of a sudden is put in place,? Humphrey said. ?It?s an important hill for all users, and there are a lot of users. It provides, really, the ideal. It?s close to town. It?s in the sun. It provides an excellent workout in a short period of time. It?s a great grade.?

Humphrey said she has been hiking up Sun Peak on the existing trail for 32 years.

?It isn?t just one woman?s campaign for one piece of dirt,? she said. ?It is a hill that is part of the community and should rightfully be part of the Sun Val-ley trails system.?

Steve Deffe, another member of the trails group, said it may be difficult to keep people off the trail, despite the BLM?s plans to post a sign explaining the situation.

?That was such a sad thing, and I don?t really know what to think about it,? Deffe said. ?The sad thing is that the BLM didn?t even know it was there, and it?s been there for more than 20 years.

?They do a god job, and John does a really good job, but this one?s going to be hard for them.?

Mother Nature made that ridge the perfect natural stair climber, Deffe said: ?It?s got the right sun, the right pitch and the right exposure so it melts out quickly.?

Deffe estimated 20 people use the trail each day during the summer and as many as 40 people use the trail each day during spring and fall. He and his family have been regular users, going to Sun Peak about once a week in the summer and two or three times a week in the spring.

?They?re going to have to educate people,? Deffe said. ?The sign won?t be there more than a day, I bet.?

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