Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Galena trails plan clears big hurdle

SNRA officials considering 60-mile network

Express Staff Writer

Volunteers with Big Wood Backcountry Trails work on a lower portion of the Rip and Tear Trail near Galena Lodge inside the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. SNRA officials are in the process of considering a proposed expansion to the network of trails in the Galena area.Photo courtesy of Big Wood Backcountry Trails

Local trail advocates have succeeded in getting Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to look at ways to accommodate the creation of a non-motorized trail system in the western Boulder Mountains near Galena Lodge so it doesn't conflict with a pending wilderness bill for the area Congress is considering.

The proposed backcountry trail system would consist of 60 miles of single-track pathways, 36 miles of which would be new and 24 miles of which already exist, open to equestrians, mountain bikers and hikers. The trail system would be located within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area about 20 miles northwest of Ketchum in portions of the Smoky and Boulder mountains.

A map of the proposal shows the trails on both sides of state Highway 75 in the upper Big Wood River drainage below Galena Summit.

Simpson's legislation, dubbed the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, is a sweeping and controversial wilderness and economic stimulus package for the Boulder and White Cloud ranges as well as for the communities surrounding the mountains. The bill proposes federal designation of 318,765 acres of wilderness covering both ranges.

Importantly, CIEDRA would also establish a 503,737-acre Boulder White Clouds Management Area covering all of the White Cloud Mountains and large portions of the Boulder Mountains. As the legislation is currently drafted, Highway 75 would act as the western boundary of the management area from Ketchum all the way to Stanley.

But the bill would also prohibit construction of new roads and trails within the large management area, even on lands not designated as wilderness. That would stop construction of the portion of the proposed Galena trail system inside the proposed management area on the northeast side of the highway.

On Tuesday, Simpson's chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, confirmed that the congressman is interested in finding a way to allow both the trails plan and CIEDRA to move forward. Slater said any change would have to meet with the support of the Democratically controlled Congress while still keeping CIEDRA's fragile coalition of supporters in Custer and Blaine counties intact.

"We are going to try to come up with an accommodation to make that (trails plan) work," he said.

Slater declined to say how that might be accomplished. He said they have several ideas that would allow the proposed trail network to move forward.

"But we don't know which one the Democrats will accept," he said.

Accommodating the Galena trails plan is not likely to lead to a flood of similar requests by other interest groups wanting their own changes to the wilderness legislation, Slater said. He described the trails plan as "a very unique situation," and said CIEDRA already represents a number of accomodations that were needed to bring together the bill's broad support among ranchers, non-motorized and motorized recreationists and some environmental groups.

"This bill is walking a fine line," he said.

Leading the charge to bring the Galena trails network from concept to reality is local trails advocate Chris Leman, spokesman for local trails group Big Wood Backcountry Trails. The organization is an all-volunteer, trail-user coalition and trail-advocacy group made up of motorized and non-motorized recreationists from the Wood River Valley.

Last Thursday, Leman sat down with representatives from the SNRA to discuss the Galena trails plan. He said the officials, including SNRA Ranger Sara Baldwin and Recreation Manager Ed Cannady, indicated strong support for the community-generated trails plan.

"I was really pleased," Leman said.

Leman said the SNRA officials have already received the master plan for the proposed trail system. Before the SNRA officials can make a decision on the proposal, the plan will have to undergo a rigorous environmental assessment under the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Leman said that Baldwin seemed especially pleased with the community-developed aspect of the trails plan. However, he said she indicated the summer of 2009 will be the earliest point at which the SNRA can likely begin considering the plan.

"They're just too busy to start (right now)," he said.

Another hang-up that could delay the NEPA assessment is its projected $25,000 to $45,000 price tag.

"It's a costly process," Leman said.

Leman said Baldwin told him the assessment could be completed either by an outside consultant or in-house by SNRA employees.

He said one possibility that's been floated is to launch a local fund-raising drive to seek private funding to help complete the assessment. He said representatives from the trails group and the Blaine County Recreation District have both signaled that they might be willing to help out with such an effort.

Another possibility would be to seek private and federal grants to help fund the assessment, Leman said.

He said one idea that's been discussed to allow CIEDRA to accommodate the Galena proposal is to pull back the management area boundary uphill from the highway and the trail network.

The Galena trails proposal would improve upon the existing system of non-motorized warm-season dirt trails in the Galena Lodge area. For now, trails follow a system of rough access routes that were used by early miners, stockmen and loggers.

Trail designers from the International Mountain Bicycling Association helped draw up the master plan for the trail system, which was designed for long-term sustainability.

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