For most of its history, Redstone, Colorado was a company town. The village was built at the end of the 19th Century by the coal baron John Cleveland Osgood, who lived there in a castle surrounded by 88 tidy cottages housing the men who stoked his coke ovens. The mines closed a generation ago, and these days you get to Redstone by taking a wrong turn on the way from Glenwood to Aspen.

Walmart heirs Sam and Ben Walton are now poised to turn the mine site into a beginner friendly mountain bike park. In April they received a county easement, the last domino in their plan to build a 4.7-mile network of bike trails on a parcel of land they own near Redstone.

According to plans filed with Pitkin County, the network will be completed in 2020 and include three trails, named Gateway, Dutch Creek and Ridge. Gateway will include features to help young and beginning riders build skills. Dutch Creek will be singletrack along the stream. Ridge will be a beginner downhill flow trail.

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The trails will be open to the public and free of charge. While designed for mountain biking, they’ll also be open to runners and hikers and may be groomed for Nordic skiing in the winter.

A Walton holding company, Crystal Basin Holdings LLC, submitted a proposal and management plan to the county last October. A 60-page county document summarizing the proposal, county deliberations and public comments (10 in favor, one against) doesn’t once mention Walmart or the Waltons, but the Aspen Times headline is all about the billionaire neighbors and their bike trails. “Walton Family Members Ready to Build Public Bike Trails on Their Private Land Near Redstone,” it reads.

The beginner-freindly trails are designed to attract young riders and help them build their skills. Photo via Pixnio

The story is just-the-facts-ma’am, but the subtext is yearning to breathe free: If the richest family in America is building a mountain bike park, they must have an angle, right?

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Sam and Ben Walton are grandsons of Sam Walton, who built the Walmart empire and left billions to his heirs. The brothers have houses in Aspen and own 221 acres in Coal Basin, about four miles west of Redstone. Their property is the last private land remaining of about 5,800 acres formerly belonging to Mid-Continent Resources, the last coal company to operate in the valley.

The company employed about 350 people and pumped some $15 million a year into the local economy, according to one history of the basin. It was hard, dangerous work. Explosions in the mines killed nine men in 1959 and 15 more in 1981. In 1990 machinery sparked a fire underground that burned for months. The company finally let the mine fill with groundwater and walked away in 1991. Most of the land was reclaimed and transferred to the White River National Forest. The Waltons’ 221 acres is the only privately held parcel left in Coal Basin.

Even after 10 years of mandated cleanup, the land is hardly pristine wilderness. Jeff Bier, a longtime Redstone resident who wrote to the county supporting the trail network, describes the scene when he worked underground in the 1960s and 1970s: “The main wash plant area was like a city. You could see the lights reflected on overhead clouds and when conditions were right, one could hear the whine of the jet turbines supplying air for the five mines in operation,” he wrote. “Even though considerable restoration has been accomplished, there is still evidence of the scale and impact of the former coal operations visible today.”

Life in Coal Basin wasn’t always a downhill ride. Photo redstonecolorado.org

Still, at least one organization is fighting the trail development on the grounds that it would invite a “flood of mechanized recreation” into the surrounding national forest. The Crystal River Caucus is an advisory group of local residents that has taken a hard stand against trail building in the region. In particular, the caucus has played an active role opposing the Pitkin County section of the planned Carbondale-to-Crested Butte trail, an 83-mile route winding through the narrow Crystal River Valley between Redstone and Carbondale.

The caucus has also come out in opposition to the Waltons’ proposed trails in Coal Basin. The group acknowledges that the land belongs to the Waltons and they’re free to do with it as they please, but warns of “the likely negative impacts on surrounding public lands from this proposed development.”

In other words, bandit trails.

This is a real problem, according to Kevin Warner of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. In emails with county officials last year he warned the district “has experienced an uptick in illegal trail building on National Forest system lands across the ranger district and even in our wilderness areas.”

The Waltons have agreed to work with the ranger district to ensure their trails don’t sprout illicit routes into the adjacent national forest. “The landowner has stated a willingness to do so through signage, education, etc,” Warner wrote. Maybe they’ll station greeters on the property to make sure folks don’t get carried away making their own trails.

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A map of the proposed Coal Basin trail system. Courtesy Crystal Basin Holdings.

So what’s in it for the Waltons? It may just be that America’s richest family loves to ride, and subscribe to their own brand of free-market environmentalism. Sam Walton is a trustee of the Environmental Defense Fund and an investor focusing on renewable energy technologies. His brother Ben sits on the board of the Walton Family Foundation, which pumps about $440 million per year into causes as diverse as school choice and market-based environmental initiatives, particularly around clean water and sustainable fisheries.

The family has also built its share of mountain bike trails. Bike-happy scions Tom and Steuart Walton, cousins of Sam and Ben, spearheaded the family’s development of 163 miles of mountain bike trails around Walmart’s Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters. The family foundation has invested more than $74 million into mountain biking infrastructure in northwest Arkansas, and they’re getting their money’s worth. According to a study commissioned by the foundation, cycling generates $51 million annually for area businesses, including $27 million from out-of-state visitors.

Four and a half miles of easy single track and beginner flow trails aren’t likely to turn Redstone into a mountain-biking Mecca or replace the mines as the region’s economic engine. But it’s a start, says local resident Nathan Helfenbein. His father worked in the mines, and now he looks forward to riding there with his 9-year-old son.

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