by Sally Wier
On March 8, four valley residents will co-present at the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute’s 28th annual Western Places/Western Spaces Conference at the University of Denver. The conference’s theme this year is “Designing for the Future: Building Enduring Value” and aims to look at the ways in which the quality of design informs and shapes our communities. The four co-presenters are Rio de la Vista, Director of the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center at Adams State University; Kairina Danforth, Mayor of the Town of Crestone, and board member of the Eastern San Luis Valley Trails Coalition; Mick Daniel, Executive Director of San Luis Valley Great Outdoors (SLVGO); and Sally Wier, San Luis Valley Volunteer and Partnership Manager for Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado. They will offer a session focusing on the SLV and the community of Crestone entitled “Building Rural Community Coalitions for Trails and More!”
The session will explore how the San Luis Valley community seeks to balance the many opportunities arising from its abundance of federally protected public lands with responsible stewardship and protection of its rich cultural and agricultural heritage and the environment. The four presenters will examine these issues from a community perspective, with an overview of the valley’s coalitions and a case study from the Town of Crestone. Topics include approaches to regional and local coalition building and community engagement in rural areas, methods for long-term stewardship, and how the thriving trails coalition in the Crestone area serves as an economic driver and community connectivity strategy.
Crestone’s Eastern San Luis Valley Coalition (ESLVTC) will serve as a case study for the larger themes discussed in the session. Until recently, the Town of Crestone did not offer many opportunities for walking, hiking, biking, or other non-motorized transport within the community. The Baca National Wildlife Refuge, at present, does not allow public access beyond specialized tours or hunting, nor does it have public trails of any kind. The trails in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, though extensive, are enormously rugged, steep, and physically demanding. Even though the mountains are in residents’ backyards, it is not an easy landscape to access.
Recognizing the need for community paths, some key players joined together to improve access to the town’s natural areas and the connectivity of the community. Enter the San Luis Valley Trails Coalition. Its members include elected officials from the Town of Crestone and Saguache County; land managers from the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Rio Grande National Forest, BLM, and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve; representatives from the Baca Grande Property Owners Association Board of Directors; staff from two outdoor recreation and stewardship non-profits, San Luis Valley Great Outdoors (SLVGO) and Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC); and representatives from the Crestone Charter School and the Colorado College Baca Campus. Over the past several years the Coalition has created a vision for trails development in and around the Crestone community. They aim to increase access to public lands, provide trails that are suitable for all ability levels, and even work towards the creation of a safe corridor for school children and other residents to safely walk or bike from outlying neighborhoods to school or to the center of town without sharing a narrow road with vehicles.
The vision of the Coalition emerged in the form of a community trails plan with phases for implementation of trail networks that would cover federal, county, town, school and private lands.
The Coalition began the active and tangible realization of its plans in 2017 when 49 volunteers with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado broke ground on a new trail system just outside of Crestone on BLM property. Over a weekend, they built over a half-mile of trail. In 2018, VOC returned on Colorado Public Lands Day wih 71 volunteers to construct an additional 1,742 feet of trail. In true community-wide style, the Alpine Achievers initiative from nearby Saguache provided outdoor education for children ages 6-12. Local businesses Kristi Mountain Sports and Crestone Brewing Company chipped in with giveaways for volunteers, and employees from the Baca National Wildlife Refuge and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve gave a presentation and provided a telescope for stargazing.
Crews from the Southwest Conservation Corps also engaged in trail construction. By the summer of 2018, the community had a complete figure 8-shaped trail system that is only minutes from town and offers the opportunity to be out in nature without the strenuous physical output required by the nearby peaks. Phase Two will begin in May 2019 when VOC will return to build the first public, non-motorized trail on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. The trail will eventually connect with the Colorado College Baca Campus, and possibly over toward the Crestone community stables for equestrian access.
The community-wide planning and vision of the Eastern San Luis Valley Trails Coalition is a great working example of how multiple stakeholders, land managers, and community members can come together and not only plan for good community access, connectivity, and outdoor recreation, but actually implement it, too. The presenters look forward to sharing this working example from our community with a broader audience in Denver in March.
For more information on this presentation, the Crestone project, and the many local trails, outdoor recreation and stewardship projects across the San Luis Valley, contact SLV Great Outdoors at email@example.com or visit the website at slvgo.com.