Ranchers, Cyclists Reach Compromise Over Western Colorado Trail

Jun 7, 2019  | 7 min  | Ep4442

It is a recurring conflict in the West where relaxing in the great outdoors comes up against those who use the land as part of their livelihood.

Our Josh Buettner discovered a place where conflict has been overpowered by coexistence and has more in our Cover Story.

Since its birth in the Old West era, farming and ranching have been tied to Grand Junction’s economy.  Now the largest metro area on Colorado’s western slope, recent decades have seen the region’s picturesque landscapes attract a new wave of stakeholders.

Janie VanWinkle/VanWinkle Ranch – Grand Junction, Colorado: “One of the challenges in the West right now is finding common ground between livestock producers and agriculturalists and outdoor recreation people.”

Typically running over 500 head of cattle on 12,000 acres of city-owned land, Janie VanWinkle, and her husband Howard, are accustomed to sharing resources and dealing with adversity.  Drought last year forced them to sell off around 20 percent of their herd.  While they rebuild, a downhill bike trail is looking to break ground and eventually cut through their ranch.

George Gatseos/General Manager – Over the Edge Sports – Fruita, Colorado: “This particular part of Colorado has been a pretty underappreciated part of the state for a long time.”

George Gatseos is General Manager of Over the Edge Sports in nearby Fruita, which has become a mountain biking mecca. 

The area boasts hundreds of miles of single track trails initially constructed on public land by volunteers led by the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, or COPMOBA. The 30-year-old non-profit has five chapters and roughly 500 members. 

In 2016, the group’s $1.6 million “Palisade Plunge” trail proposal was given the go ahead by state government though no funds were allocated.

COPMOBA President Scott Winans says it’s not uncommon for a new trail to take a decade from concept to completion – and cites ‘responsible partnerships’ with federal, county, city and other community partners.

George Gatseos/General Manager – Over the Edge Sports – Fruita, Colorado: “To build a mountain bike trail, an example… We have to do a bunch of environmental studies, archaeological studies and it takes a lot time.  Takes a lot of money – thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars.”

Initial trail plans would have sliced through the heart of the VanWinkle’s lease with the city of Grand Junction. The ranchers were concerned that excess trash, trespassing and habitat disruption would be a problem. Despite some missed opportunities early on, all sides were eventually able to come to the table, mend fences, and reach a consensus.

Janie VanWinkle/VanWinkle Ranch – Grand Junction, Colorado: “They’re going to cut across the corner of that property and that’ll work for us.  And they’re comfortable with it to.”

The trailhead will drop-in atop scenic Grand Mesa, considered the largest flattop mountain in the world at over 11,000 feet, and end 32 miles below in the town of Palisade.  Some local business owners estimate trail users will generate a $2.5 million annual windfall for the region’s economy.  

Janie VanWinkle/VanWinkle Ranch – Grand Junction, Colorado: “It’s an epic ride…once in a lifetime opportunity is what I’m told.  I’m not a bicyclist.”

COPMOBA and others stress their eye-opening multi-year discourse has helped with community building between ranchers and cyclists.

George Gatseos/General Manager – Over the Edge Sports – Fruita, Colorado: “We both love the land.  Um, we use it slightly differently.  So that’s probably bound to bring some differences of opinion too, so…”

And the VanWinkles agree, even if sometimes it might be a tough pill for them to swallow.

Janie VanWinkle/VanWinkle Ranch – Grand Junction, Colorado: “In my opinion, it’s the mountain that loses.  All of us who live in Grand Juncton - in the valley - this is a place you can look up to and know that it’s pristine.  It’s…it’s special.  And I think it changes the flavor.”

All manner of activity on western public lands, whether biking, grazing, hunting or mining, to name a few, fall under the purview of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.  Of the more than 245 million acres overseen by the federal agency – about 13 percent of the nation’s land – over 8 million of those acres are in Colorado. Grazing permits on public land are administered by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service.  Federal numbers reveal livestock foraging activities generate almost $150 million annually in Colorado.

Collin Ewing/National Conservation Area Manager/McInnis Canyon/Bureau of Land Management: “You expect that you’re going to see livestock grazing in those same areas and so I think a lot of the bicyclists realize that a lot of their trails actually came from cattle walking through this area.  And somebody decided to ride a bike on it.  You know, eventually it became a big sport and the BLM adopted those trails.”

Collin Ewing is the National Conservation Area Manager for nearby McInnis Canyons.

Collin Ewing/National Conservation Area Manager – Bureau of Land Management/U.S. Department of the Interior: “Some of these lands are just too dry or too rugged to make it make sense for farming.  So they were never homesteaded and they ended up being managed by the Bureau of Land Management for multiple uses.”

Twenty-one grazing allotments sit among the nearly 300 miles of trail and river access that bring 250,000 visitors per year to McInnis Canyons.

Collin Ewing/National Conservation Area Manager – Bureau of Land Management/U.S. Department of the Interior: “You’re seeing that a lot in the west now.  Ranching and mining towns that are still ranching and mining towns but also are inviting tourism into their economy.”

One of the BLM’s biggest challenges is accommodating multiple uses of terrain owned by all Americans.  In some cases, that necessity has become the mother of invention.

Collin Ewing/National Conservation Area Manager/McInnis Canyon/Bureau of Land Management: “So this is a bicycle cattle guard – so that the bicyclists don’t have to get off their bike to open the gate.  And so the gates don’t get left open.  So the cow stays in the pasture and everybody has a good time.”

Bicyclist: “Woooo!”

Many ranchers employ rotational grazing practices to regenerate pasture, but the VanWinkles say high visitor turnover can quickly degrade shared ground and leave regulars to blame.

Janie VanWinkle/VanWinkle Ranch – Grand Junction, Colorado: “We’re an easy target.  But in reality, it’s all of the uses and we have to figure out how we’re going to make that all work together.”

And toward that end, beginning next year, VanWinkle will serve as president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and likely be asked to weigh in on similar issues across the state.  And if fundraising goals are met by the end of July, COPMOBA will begin phase 1 of the Palisade Plunge. 

Janie VanWinkle/VanWinkle Ranch – Grand Junction, Colorado: “We were able to come up with a compromise and I think that’s really important no matter what we’re talking about…just understanding each other.  That’s a really important piece.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.

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