Trails offer a path to community well-being

Jeff Kuhr

How we define health and the role of public health reflects our community priorities. At Mesa County Public Health, we’ve taken an upstream approach to community health.

It’s not uncommon for community members to ask me why Mesa County Public Health is involved in so many issues outside of the delivery of traditional public health services. The “why” is that we view public health as the overall quality of life in our community. Health extends far beyond a visit to your health care provider’s office. Public health ensures residents have access to quality child care, stable housing and the security of a meal on the table for dinner. It’s a feeling of connection to the community. It’s a place where residents can work to improve their education and job status as well as pursue their desires to not just get by, but also get ahead.

The recent addition of a trails coordinator to our staff offers yet another example of this larger role in the community and of our commitment to working across sectors.

So, why is the trails system a public health issue? Consider the amount $34,596,544.50. A study of public trail systems conducted by Colorado Mesa University in 2018 calculated that amount as the estimated value of three Grand Valley trail systems — the Lunch Loops, Kokopelli and 18 Road. If those three trails are valued at more than $34 million, what’s the entire trail system in Western Colorado worth? Likely more than we can quantify. 

In addition to tourism money spent and the things to which we can assign dollar amounts, there’s an immense amount of value the trails contribute to the overall health and well-being of our community. As study the stated: “Trails provide several benefits to a community by improving the physical and mental health of the community as well as adding indirect value through property values and positive economic impact through recreation tourism spending.”

Recognizing the multi-faceted benefits of our trail systems, the Grand Junction Economic Partnership and Powderhorn Mountain Resort commissioned the development of a Grand Valley strategic trails plan. The International Mountain Bicycling Association Trails Solutions Program was selected to develop a plan that established a road map for planning, creating and managing sustainable trail recreation in Mesa County.

The 2018 plan included an assessment of local trails systems, presented plans from similarly sized communities and made recommendations for maximizing trail use by residents and visitors. Stakeholders involved in the planning process included GJEP, local municipalities, the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and outdoor recreation organizations. A key finding of this effort attributed 68 percent of trail use to visitors from outside of the Grand Valley.

With only 32 percent of trails users residing in Mesa County, there’s tremendous opportunity to increase trail and public land use by local residents. To align efforts among public health, parks and recreation, city municipalities, public lands, trail users and economic development organizations, the Mesa County Trails Advisory Committee was formed to pursue the work proposed in the strategic trails plan. The committee recognized this work couldn’t occur without an organizing backbone and staff time dedicated to coordinating stakeholder efforts. Recognizing an opportunity to address a previously untapped resource to address health and quality-of-life issues for our residents, Mesa County Public Health agreed to fulfill the role of facilitator by staffing a trails coordinator position.

Ross Mittelman assumed his role as Mesa County Public Health trails coordinator in late July. Ross works alongside and between various organizations involved with the creation, funding, maintenance, management and promotion of trails throughout Mesa County.  The entities range from federal land management agencies to local municipalities and non-profits to local businesses.

Through community partnerships and innovative collaborations, Mesa County Public Health provides resources to residents to improve their quality of life.  In business, it’s about the bottom line. But the effects of  Western Colorado trails reach beyond dollars to improve the health and well-being of the entire community.