From Darkness To Light

27 Mar 2020

City of Durango staff misleading public on Overend Mtn Park Conservation Easements

Posted by Adam Howell

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

City of Durango staff are misinforming the public about the conservation easements for Overend Mountain Park by inaccurately saying that they prohibit motorized vehicles.

Amy Schwarzbach

Contradicting the city’s misinformation are the conservation easements for Overend Mountain Park itself, which lacks any language about motorized vehicles.

Alarmingly, staff presents the misinformation at board meetings about how to manage electrical assisted bicycles on Durango’s natural surface trails.

Overend Mountain Park conservation easements required by GOCO

Over decades, most of Durango’s open space was acquired after the city applied for grants from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO).

However, before awarding those matching grants, GOCO requires the city to place conservation easements upon those lands. Particularly, those conservation easements constrain the rights of how Durango manages those lands in order to achieve conservation objectives.

Nowadays, conservation easements apply to parcels in most of Durango’s open space lands. As a result, it’s easier for the city to manage each broader open space area, rather than the individual parcels within.

It’s a patchwork of lands where conservation easements permit and prohibit certain activities.

For Durango’s open space lands, the land trust who enforces the easement language is La Plata Open Space Conservancy (LPOSC).

During the time frame of 2013 through 2018, Amy Schwarzbach worked as the Executive Director of LPOSC.

More recently, Schwarzbach has changed jobs and is now working as the city of Durango’s Natural Resources Manager.

In her current position, Schwarzbach helps educate Durango’s boards about the city’s land management practices and policies, among other things.

Overend Mountain Park conservation easements

19951212 Overend Mountain Park CE RN 698481

20010327 Overend Mountain Park Amended CE Deed RN 802684

Facts about Overend Mountain Park conservation easements omitted from staff presentation

In November of 2019, the city had a joint board meeting about managing ebikes on its natural surface trails. Schwarzbach began the meeting with a presentation to the members of the Natural Lands Board, the Parks and Recreation Board and the Multimodal Advisory Board.

Unfortunately, the information that she provided to our community about conservation easements in that presentation was inaccurate.

The city’s conservation easements state that the use of motorized vehicles, except for emergency or maintenance purposes is not allowed,” said Schwarzbach.

This is a screenshot of the misleading information about conservation easements that Schwarzbach provided to the public at the Nov. 20, 2019 joint board meeting on ebikes.

Similarly, Schwarzbach’s misinformation about Durango’s conservation easements echoed what Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz had recently said about them.

Beginning in 2017, city staff said publicly that all conservation easements held for its lands prohibit motorized vehicles there. Staff provides this misinformation while the boards are discussing how to manage ebikes on natural surface trails.

During a Natural Lands Board meeting in May of 2017, Metz failed to accurately portray the Overend conservation easements. At the time, I asked the board why the LPOSC gets to define what a motorized vehicle is. 18:50

“It does say in all of our easements that motorized vehicles are not permitted,” replied Metz.

It is unclear why Metz began this narrative in 2017, or if she had actually forgotten about the language in the conservation easements for Overend Mountain Park.

Metz acknowledged wording of Overend conservation easements in 2016

It’s a change in narrative from what Metz had told the Natural Lands Board and the Parks and Recreation Board in October and November of 2016. At those 2016 meetings, she said that the conservation easements for Overend Mountain Park were silent about prohibiting motorized uses.

“If you look at the large open space parcels–Dalla Mountain Park, Overend Mountain Park, Horse Gulch–where a lot of our natural surface trails currently exist, there is specific language in the conservation easements that specifically prohibits motorized use. The only easement that does not state that directly is the Overend Mountain Park,” Metz told the Natural Lands Board. “That was our very first conservation easement. It does reference, however, the management plan, and the management plan currently states in several locations, no motorized vehicles.”

“We have conservation easements on most of our open space that has trails. Those conservation easements specifically prohibit motorized use. That would apply to the trail system in Horse Gulch in total. It would apply to Dalla Mountain Park. However, Overend Mountain Park was the very first conservation easement we did. It did not specifically prohibit motorized vehicles at Overend,” Metz told the Parks and Recreation Board. “However, in the management plan that we have adopted, it is very specific for non-motorized use only. But it is not in the conservation easement.”

Overend conservation easements reviewed by city, then withheld from board members

Public officials frequently justify prohibiting ebikes from Durango’s natural surface trails because of the conservation easements that regulate the management of those lands. Throughout this debate, however, the city has failed to share some of these conservation easements with board members. This, despite Metz having said that they reviewed them.

“We, of course, have reviewed our conservation easements, which are on all of our large land holdings,” Metz said at an October, 2016 Natural Lands Board meeting. 37:05

Despite Metz having reviewed those conservation easements, the documents were unavailable when Seth Furtney and I recently asked her and Joanne Gantt for copies of these documents. Furtney is on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board; I am on the Natural Lands Board.

I am equally culpable about Overend Mountain Park conservation easement misinformation

To be fair, I am equally responsible for spreading misinformation about the language of conservation easements held for parcels in Overend Mountain Park.

I was at a 2016 Natural Lands Board meeting where Metz said that the conservation easements for Overend Mountain Park are silent on motorized vehicles.

In the following years, I heard Metz, Schwarzbach and Natural Lands Board Chairman Mark Smith say that the conservation easements all prohibited motorized vehicles.

“They’re motorized vehicles. That’s the issue. We’re going to be true to what we’ve been trying to do from the beginning. And the conservation easements speak to it,” Smith said at the Natural Lands Board meeting this month. “Then we can’t just blow it off and say, ‘well people like ebikes, so let’s let them on the trails now.”

Consequently, as a result of what these public officials said, I believed them and even relayed this information as fact. Subsequently, I am trying to correct this factual inaccuracy.

Trying ebike access at Overend Mountain Park

After reading the Overend Mountain Park conservation easements for myself, I want to revise my position on how Durango should manage ebikes on its open space lands.

This lady is not riding at Twin Buttes or Overend Mountain Park.

In the past I’ve said that Durango should allow a trial period for ebikes at Twin Buttes. To clarify, that’s because city lands in Twin Buttes are unencumbered by conservation easements. With this more accurate information about Overend Mountain Park, a trial period for ebikes should be included there, as well.

A one-year trial period for ebikes at Twin Buttes and Overend Mountain Park could focus on visitor engagement with ebikes. It can measure people’s attitudes towards, acceptance of and ability to detect ebikes. Research can determine if people’s perceptions about ebikes are consistent with their actual encounters with ebikes.

More specifically, a trial period should emulate the research that was done for the Jefferson County Open Space areas during their ebike trial period. A case study should measure attitudes, perceptions and acceptance with pre and post-demonstration surveys.

Throughout the trial period, people who are test riding class 1 ebikes at Twin Buttes and Overend Mountain Park should be surveyed.

If the trial goes well, we can amend the management plans for those two areas. In addition, we can ask city council to amend it’s ordinance that prohibits ebikes on those trails. If the trial reveals unresolvable safety or environmental concerns, we can continue to prohibit them.

Cultural cleavage as a reason for opposing ebike access

It should be clear that existing conservation easements are not the only reason why some people are against allowing ebikes on our natural surface trails.

This man is not riding in Twin Buttes or Overend Mountain Park.

Undoubtedly, people worry about the soil displacement, vegetation and wildlife disturbance probability, even if isolating those variables in research is difficult.

Some trail users fear ebikes, regular mountain bikes or even horse back riders. It does not mean that we should ban any of these trail users from existing natural surface trails.

One point of reasoning for prohibiting ebikes on Durango’s natural surface trails that goes unspoken is how some elitist mountain bikers may be offended with the idea of less-fit riders passing them on the trails.

In other words, I expect that many elite mountain bikers who regularly pass other riders on the trails will suffer from bruising to their egos when ebikes pass them.

Bruised egos, however, are not a threat to the greater good of our community.

In short, the greatest good would be served by allowing as many tax-paying trail users onto our natural surface trails in such a way that ensures public safety and the protection of conservation values.

To view the conservation easements for Horse Gulch, Overend Mountain Park, Dalla Mountain Park, Bread Express, and Oxbow Park and Preserve, click here.

Adam Howell is a writer who is on the city of Durango’s Natural Lands Preservation Advisory Board. His reporting and commentary does not reflect or represent the views of the Board or the municipal government. He can be reached by clicking on this link to the contact page.

Leave a Reply