By Maisie Ramsay
The entire summit of Mount Shavano, in the Sawatch Range, is located on private property, but not of the “trespassers will be shot” variety.
There are no fences. There are no signs. Save for a cairn and a couple of weather-beaten survey posts, there’s nothing to indicate that the entire summit block is composed of private mining claims – except, perhaps, the poor condition of the trail.
Private, high-elevation mining claims have precluded the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) from restoring the path to Shavano’s summit, leaving the route to degrade steadily with each passing year.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) has come up with a novel solution to this problem: buy the mining claims and give them to the Forest Service.
“Shavano was a high priority for the agency, but was stuck behind the private land inholdings,” said Lloyd Athearn, executive director for the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. “I put together a proposal on Shavano to investigate who owns the lands and acquire them, whatever was necessary to build the trail.”
The Golden-based nonprofit raised the necessary $40,500 to close the deal, and has formal option agreements in place binding the properties through mid-February. Athearn expects the transaction to close by the end of 2016 – CFI’s first-ever property acquisition.
“The most expensive thing we’ve purchased before was a pickup truck,” Athearn said. “This is a totally new thing.”
CFI will eventually cede the land to the USFS, returning Mount Shavano to the public domain.
This was not your typical real estate transaction. Not only did CFI have to play real estate detective just to track down the owners – one of whom lived in Florida – it had to convince them to sell their claims.
Two owners were immediately amenable to selling their claims, but the third was less interested. He had inherited the parcel from his father and was hesitant to let it go, Athearn said.
Just when it seemed as though they were starting to make progress after months of dialogue, CFI discovered the parcels were mapped incorrectly. The entire summit was on private land.
Murphy’s Law being what it is, that crucial summit parcel was held by the least enthusiastic of the property owners.
“There was no other way,” Athearn said. “We couldn’t move the route north; we couldn’t do anything but cross those two pieces of land.”
The whole project hinged on the summit parcel. If the landowner refused to sell, there was no way forward. It was a tense moment.
“There was some nail biting to see if we could get the last guy to come in,” Athearn said.
The property owner eventually assented, laying the groundwork for a long-overdue restoration project.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has undertaken major trail projects on nearly all of the highest peaks in the Sawatch Range. Each takes thousands of hours and millions of dollars. Shavano will be no different.
The trail is heavily eroded, especially as it approaches a 13,400-foot saddle en route to the summit.
CFI’s 2011-2013 trail inventory gave the trail an “F” grade. Two years later, that moved down to “F minus.” The trail ranks as one of the worst in Colorado.
Loretta McEllhiney, Colorado Fourteeners Program Manager with the USFS, estimates it will take at least four years and around $1 million just for bare-essentials maintenance.
Work could start as early as 2019, depending on funding and permitting.
“You ask the public, and 90-95 percent of them think trails just happen,” McEllhiney said. “They have no idea how much time and money goes into these mountains.”
Mount Shavano isn’t the only Sawatch Range fourteener in need of some TLC.
The Forest Service and CFI are in the process of overhauling Mount Columbia’s notoriously foul route along its western flank. That project alone will take at least five years and close to $2 million, according to McEllhiney’s estimates.
Statewide, CFI estimates Colorado’s fourteeners need $24 million worth of trail reconstruction and restoration to reach long-term sustainability. Advancing Mount Shavano’s restoration is one more step toward that goal.
Maisie Ramsay writes from her home in Poncha Springs, where she will celebrate the holidays with lengthy hikes in cold weather.