One More Step Until Expansion To Red Grade Trail Approved

Aug 9, 2019

Red Grade Road starts a few miles southwest of the town of Big Horn and winds through the Bighorn Mountains.

Right near the road is the Red Grade Trail system, which is a couple of miles of scenic hiking and biking loops through the foothills. Hikers can see tall trees, small streams and bright wildflowers.

Since the trails are so accessible, they've gotten pretty busy and popular over the past few years. A survey released in April by the Sheridan Recreation District shows residents want more opportunities like this to get outside.

"The number one outdoor need that folks in our community felt they needed were hiking and biking trails. In fact, [65] percent of respondents listed that as [one of] their top priorities," said Chris Vrba, director of marketing and development at the Sheridan Community Land Trust.

Vrba said his group, along with Sheridan County, proposed an expansion to the Red Grade Trail system. It includes 15 miles of non-motorized trails and three parking areas. He said it will provide more access to the mountains for residents who want it.

"So that's hiking, biking, bird watching, flower-looking, equestrian, of course. But ultimately, they'll have opportunities to be able to get out and experience what makes the Bighorns so special and so beautiful," Vrba said.

The proposed trail expansion weaves through land owned by Sheridan County, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

The Land Trust would be responsible for funding, building and maintaining the trails. Since the project is so large, it may take years for it to be completed.

Vrba said the expanded Red Grade Trail system will be a way to foster sustainable activity in the area for years to come.

"It's not always easy to get up to the top of Red Grade, and this winds up being able [to give] more recreational opportunities," he said.

The trailhead for the existing Red Grade Trail system. The Sheridan Community Land Trust, along with Sheridan County, have proposed expanding the trail system.
Credit Catherine Wheeler

In May, the Forest Service approved the proposal in a draft decision and released the final environmental assessment.

"The decision has been made, but we do have the objection process we still need to go through to finalize it," said Sara Evans Kirol with the Forest Service in Sheridan.

The Council for the Bighorn Range, a conservation group, filed one of three objections to the decision. Its president, Rob Davidson, said he thinks the Forest Service hasn't fully taken into account the impact the expansion would have on the forest.

"We believe the environmental concerns were not fully recognized against the environmental impacts this is an area that has not been developed before. They are underestimating the impacts, because this isn't just going to have day-use they're also going to have community events based around the area," Davidson said.

He said the forest plan states some of the land is supposed to be managed for wildlife, not recreation. Davidson added the wildlife is already stressed from the increased traffic on Red Grade Road over the years.

"As they point out, elk got moved by the increasing traffic on Red Grade. Now this goes off pushing them further up to the north and to the east, and we don't think that was fully considered," he said.

Amy Ormseth, district ranger for the Tongue Ranger District of the Bighorn National Forest, said the wildlife management designation means wildlife takes precedence, but recreation is also an established part of that area.

"That management area still has a plants and wildlife emphasis, so the other things in the area, not that they can't exist there, it's just when we come to make decisions in those areas that it stays as an emphasis," Ormseth said.

The environmental assessment states the wildlife is already impacted by the increased traffic on Red Grade Road and current recreation in the area. It adds since the proposed trails are close to the main road, it likely won't have any adverse effects on the wildlife.

The regional Forest Service office in Denver is now reviewing the objections and the draft decision and hopes to have a response to the Council for the Bighorn Range by September 3.