Cottonwood Creek trailhead plan moves forward

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Now it just needs money & multi-agency cooperation to make it happen

by Matie Belle Lakish

The Crestone-Baca Planning Commission met in special session to gather community input on possible access to Cottonwood Creek Trail. The gathering, on November 7 at the POA Hall, was well attended by citizens and agency representatives, all with an interest in finding a viable solution to accessing this popular National Forest Trail and the Tashi Gomang Stupa. A similar meeting in October laid the groundwork for the discussion, but did not include all of the affected parties.

There are several issues at play, as well as numerous interested parties, which has left the community in a quandary for several years. Access to the Cottonwood Creek Trail is across Manitou Foundation land. Manitou has a conservation easement that mandates the area be maintained in its natural state. Informal travel across the land has been problematic, both to the landscape–which has suffered from human abuse–and to the adjacent spiritual centers, which have experienced disturbance from trail users. There has been no provision for parking in the past.

As there is no dedicated official access, the National Forest is not authorized to improve or maintain the old Cottonwood Creek Trail. Among the interested parties, besides many local hikers, is Colorado Mountain Club, which is

seeking hiking access to the trail from the western side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

In a separate, but related issue, the Tashi Gomang Stupa recently completed a traffic count of visitors, and found that thousands of people visit the stupa, especially during the summer months. In addition, there are retreatants that need deliveries of food, water and fuel. The currently used Mine Road is inadequate, as it is not maintained, and in many places is only one lane wide. In the wintertime, it is particularly treacherous. Therefore, KTTG, which owns and manages the stupa, is seeking better access.

To add complexity, Eric Karlstrom, a local resident with a home in the area, has petitioned the Saguache County Commissioners to keep a vehicle access at the end of Tranquil Way open, even though it crosses a lot owned by the Greenway family. He, and several others, say the road has been there for over 20 years. He sites Saguache County Resolution 96-G-7 as the authority for his request. This resolution, passed in 1996, includes in its definition of public ways, “all roads over private lands that have been used adversely without interruption for 20 years.” Commissioner Sam Pace, however, at the board meeting of November 6, “moved that, after reviewing Attorney Gibbons’ memo to the Board, there has not been enough evidence presented to show that the road in question was a public road in 1996.  Spearman seconded the motion. The vote was two Ayes.  Joseph recused herself due to her affiliation with Manitou and the Cottonwood study group.”

Although several long-time residents confirmed that the road was not there 20 years ago, it has been the main emergency access for fire and ambulance. So far, it has not been required, but the boulders placed across it by the Greenways are seen as creating a safety hazard, should a fire break out in that neighborhood or National Forest.

Another proposal for access, presented by the Cottonwood Creek Study Group, would call for hiking access through POA greenbelt along Cottonwood Creek with a parking area to be established on Camino Baca Grande. This proposal has raised flags from local residents who object to parking and extra traffic along that road for safety and esthetic reasons, plus it adds extra hiking distance to the trailhead.

Add to the mix that any solution to access Cottonwood Creek Trail in the area would require constructing a trail, road, or other access across POA greenbelt. Some members contend this would require a 67% majority of POA members to vote to make such a change.

Possible solution?

In this context, Zoe DeBray of Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang (KTTG), which owns the stupa, presented a possible solution to all the related but separate issues. She proposed that KTTG buy two lots a short distance to the west of the Greenway property, and construct a road across them. The road would then cross a short stretch of abused greenbelt (not along any creek), which was once the old mining town of Cottonwood, and then join up with the Mine Road and continue on to the stupa. KTTG would raise money to purchase the lots and build the road. This could probably be accomplished, DeBray guesses, during the summer of 2013, if the plan is approved by all interested parties, including the POA and the County Planning Commission. This plan would allow for parking a few cars on Water and Sanitation property to access Cottonwood Creek Trail. It would also provide guaranteed access, which is required by the Forest Service in order for the agency to maintain the trail.

There are, however, unanswered questions. Both the Planning Commission and the POA require public comment. A change of use would be required by both entities. Russell Schreiber, who has been on the POA Board for three years, said there is precedent for road access across greenbelt, especially in an area that has already been disturbed. There is also a POA-owned area just below the Water and San property that was previously used for parking. It is well suited, once boulders are removed again, to accommodate several cars. Both the county and the POA will need to go through a public hearing process before approval could be granted.

The offer by Zoe DeBray to raise money for the project, and to allow public access across the proposed roadway, is very generous and would solve all of the problems, if it can be approved. In the meantime, the Greenways have offered to remove the boulders across the utility easement road and put up a gate with a lock that can be removed easily in an emergency. In addition, they will continue to allow foot traffic along the easement for hikers seeking to access Cottonwood Creek Trail.  It was hoped that all parties could come to a good agreement to make the trailhead and stupa access work.

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