The room was a brawl waiting to happen. Horseback riders sat next to mountain bikers. ATV, jeep and motorbike enthusiasts took their seats across from wilderness, hiking and “quiet trail” advocates. Even a survey of peoples’ heads revealed the potential tension: There were cowboy hats and shiny, banker-like pates; spiky mullets and hair flattened by bike helmets; Patagonia “Live Simply” trucker caps and real trucker caps worn without irony.
But the Trails Roundtable hosted last week in Grand Junction, Colorado, by the soon-to-be nonprofit Grand Valley Trails Alliance turned out to be surprisingly peaceful. Even the mere suggestion of a fight was brushed off: When one man off-handedly commented that the group was “fighting over a quarter-mile of trail,” someone else broke in to say, “I don’t think we’re fighting,” and the entire room murmured its agreement: “Not fighting, not fighting, not fighting…” like an echo chamber or the human microphone from Occupy Wall Street.
The scene was a far cry from the battles enacted here just over a year ago, when the Bureau of Land Management released a draft of its new Resource Management Plan. It was the first such rewrite in 27 years, and it brought to the surface grudges that had been percolating for years. Some argued that there wasn’t enough wilderness; others that too many motorized ORV trails would be closed. One particularly vocal minority of off-roaders staged public protests, broke down blockades and nearly came to blows at a BLM meeting.
Across the West, similar debates over the future of public lands are also underway. Many BLM Resource Management Plans – which guide all aspects of public land use, from ranching to hiking to drilling – have reached the end of their 25-year shelf lives, spurring a sweep of land planning not seen since the ‘80s. In Colorado alone, 70 percent of the state’s 8.3 million acres of BLM lands have recently been or are in the process of having their management plans rewritten.
Often, oil and gas leases draw the most controversy, but here in Grand Junction – a traditionally conservative city of about 60,000 on the banks of the Colorado River – energy has taken a backseat to recreation. The region has already gone through two energy boom-and-busts (one in the early ‘80s and a similar cycle from about 2006 to 2012), and while drilling isn’t vilified here the way it’s been in more liberal Colorado communities, many in Grand Junction understand that the town also needs more sustainable ways to squeeze economic juice from the million acres of public land surrounding the city. Namely, recreation.
Every day, mountain bike-, ATV- and raft-laden vehicles speed past Grand Junction on their way west to Utah's red rock country. Yet the Grand Valley has canyons as stunning as those in Moab, and local officials are eager to promote them. Nearby Fruita has transformed itself from a sleepy fruit-growing town to a world class mountain-biking destination, and Colorado National Monument, which borders Grand Junction, is being considered for national park status, which would surely bring a boost in tourism.
What kind of tourism is a multi-million-dollar question. For decades, traditional user groups have pushed for their own interests, with little collaboration. Each group cites facts and figures to back its position: Bill Hamann, co-founder of the Quiet Trails Group, is fond of a Colorado College poll claiming that 65 percent of Colorado residents hike, compared to 16 percent who ride ATVs. The Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, meanwhile, likes to state that ORV users contribute $141 million annually to Grand Junction’s economy – far more than backpackers.
For a while, it looked like the same old turf wars would prevent the Grand Valley from capitalizing on its recreational opportunities. But a progressive new BLM manager, Katie Stevens, is working with moderate off-roading enthusiasts and a new trails group to try to prevent the argument from denigrating into the kind of us-versus-them struggles taking place on public lands in Utah and elsewhere. Among those seeking cooperation is Dave Grossman, a Durango native invigorated by the cultural conflict he encountered in Grand Junction. “We'd accumulated enough scars and frustrations that we started asking questions about whether there were other ways,” he says.
So two years ago, Grossman helped found the Grand Valley Trails Alliance, which just held its fourth roundtable meeting to bring eight diverse trail-related groups together to talk. “We want them to look at each other as potential allies,” Grossman says. The goal is to improve the trail system and the BLM planning process, which involves creating new trails, poring over maps of old ones with the BLM to eliminate illegal or destructive trails, and coordinating a kind of horse-trading, in which green groups like Great Old Broads for Wilderness can agree to support a new motorized trail in exchange for environmental protections elsewhere.
For old-school, dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists like Grossman, the latter effort represents a necessary philosophical compromise. “Non-mechanized wilderness has created such a niche in the environmental movement that a lot of Westerners who are actually environmentalists (have grown to) hate the word,” he says. By encouraging mountain bikers, motorized users and others to get involved in the land planning process, Grossman hopes eventually get more people to connect with the land, and later, to protect it.
The BLM’s final management plan is set to be released later this year, and Grossman doesn’t kid himself: “There’s probably going to be litigation, and all kinds of arguments,” he says with a half-laugh, half-grimace. Still, he and other members of the alliance hope the group's collaborative work will help resolve disputes more quickly and serve as a model for other western communities grappling with controversial land decisions. “We don't always agree and we definitely don't always think alike,” Grossman says. “But at least we know each other.”
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLangois2.