County, railroad looking for way to resolve conflict over access to wild canyons

LE ROY STANDISH/The Daily Sentinel
WOULD-BE VISITORS to the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area are confronted by a confusing mix of signs at the Bridgeport trail head. Signs posted by the Bureau of Land Management invite visitors to explore the natural wonders of the canyon country. Signs posted by Union Pacific Railroad advise recreationists not to trespass on railroad property, which is the only way to get to a BLM footbridge into the canyons from the Gunnison River.



By LE ROY STANDISH

A bridge, in its typical connotation, is a structure meant to fill a gap and join what had been apart.

The Bureau of Land Management has a 225-foot long bridge that does the opposite.

Pushing against each other are the BLM and Union Pacific Railroad. The divide between the two organizations is in Bridgeport on U.S. Highway 50, a mile north of the line between Mesa and Delta counties.

A dirt road from the highway twists down to a parking lot with access to the banks of the Gunnison River. From the parking lot motorists must hike a half-mile through a narrow section that follows alongside a double set of railroad tracks to the footbridge over the river, which provides access to the recently designated Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.

“For years we have been concerned about people going across our right of way,” said Mark Davis, spokesman for Union Pacific.

The double tracks that parallel the path are a stopping point for trains that share the single rails to the north and south. Often the coal trains stretch a mile long and hikers become impatient, crawling under or over trains to get to the other side, Davis said.

The bridge was built in 2005 by JCF Bridge and Concrete for the BLM at a cost of $750,000. It replaced a condemned suspension bridge that was demolished in 1986.

“I know that we reached out to the railroad when we built that bridge,” said Erin Curtis, spokeswoman for the BLM.

Davis said he did not know why the railroad did not fight the bridge construction at the time.
The mashing of private property rights and the need for public access to a vast natural wonder has created a curious display of signs.

The railroad says keep out, with big white signs with black lettering: “Private property/no trespassing.” The BLM’s signs compete with the railroad’s, inviting people to be adventurous, hike the trail and explore the wilderness that lies beyond the bridge.

“They are trying to find a solution to that issue,” Curtis said.

On Monday, the Mesa County Commission made some inroads toward a solution. The county and Union Pacific are each contributing $7,330 to a study of the problem. The BLM is contributing past studies of the area and would conduct any required federal studies.

The study will focus on whether another bridge over the tracks is feasible, said Pete Baier, director of public works for Mesa County. The study will also attempt to pose other, less costly solutions, such as fencing or changing the trail. The study should be complete this year, he said.

“This is a way to look for a solution while we keep this open,” Baier said.
Commissioner Craig Meis said the county, the railroad and the BLM were working well together, but cautioned a solution will take time.

“Obviously there is no quick fix,” Meis said. “The second portion of this is who is going to pay for it?”


Meis had no answer for his latter question.

The Bridegport access point to the wilderness is gaining in popularity, especially now that Congress has designated the conservation area. BLM officials are considering having an official dedication for the conservation area.

“We are looking at the possibility of having Secretary (of the Interior Ken) Salazar there,” Curtis said.


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