SHERIDAN — Bighorn National Forest Supervisor Andrew Johnson approved a project that would extend the Red Grade Trails network, giving involved parties a green light to begin construction.

In 2017, Sheridan County, in conjunction with the Sheridan Community Land Trust, submitted a proposal to the U.S. Forest Service that involved building 15 miles of single-track, non-motorized recreational trails along the eastern slope of the Bighorns and connecting them to the six-mile Red Grade Trails network the SCLT currently maintains. The proposal also includes the construction of about 1.3 acres of parking areas. The service two-year review of the proposal included an environmental impacts assessment — which concluded that, because there is already significant human activity around the proposed site of the new trails, the project was unlikely to introduce new disruptions to the environment — and the collection of public feedback.

The forest service reported that it received one objection to the approval of the plan, which was processed in August.

After considering the objection, Deputy Regional Forester Tammy Whittington upheld the decision to approve the project.

SCLT Director Executive Director Brad Bauer said the project will help SCLT meet a growing demand for more trail access in Sheridan County.

Use of the Red Grade Trails network has increased dramatically over the past two decades, according to the project’s environmental assessment.

The SCLT also reports it has seen a rise in trail usage, with more than 10,000 people making use of the trails managed by the group since last October.

A recent survey of citizens in the city of Sheridan that was included in the city’s updated Parks and Recreation Master Plan found that expanding trail opportunities was the public’s No. 1 demand.

The proposed extension would not only result in more trails, Bauer said, it would make accessing the trails network easier.

“The new trails will make it easier for people to experience the Bighorns’ beauty without having to take a vehicle all the way up Red Grade Road,” Bauer said. “In effect, these trails will bring the forest down the mountain to more people.”

SCLT Director of Marketing and Development Chris Vrba said with the project approved, the land trust will set about finalizing designs for the trail extensions and securing staff and funding necessary to execute those plans.

The first step in those preparations, he said, will be to hire a trail builder to oversee the eventual construction of the new trails. That position would be shared with the Antelope Butte Foundation — the trail builder would work as a slope groomer in the Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area in the winter and build trails for the SCLT during the summer.

Vrba said the SCLT has already received dozens of applications for the position but does not want to put a timeline on the hiring process, as the group is looking for someone with specific skills to fill the role.

“We want to make sure we have the right person in that job,” Vrba said. “It’s a particularly important one given what the responsibilities of that job are going to be.”

After that position is filled, Vrba said the SCLT will begin fundraising.

Vrba said that effort has been jumpstarted by a gift from EMIT Technologies, which will fund the salary of the trail builder and has already purchased a mini-excavator, a trailer and other tools that will be used to build the new trails.

“A lot of those costs we would be paying to a contractor for their maintenance and upkeep — those are being covered by EMIT as part of this donation,” Vrba said.

He added that the SCLT does not have an estimate of what the total project will cost — which will depend, in part, on input from the trail builder — but said the construction of the new trails could be a “multi-year” process.

“It feels great to be able to have this trail plan approved — that was the end of the beginning,” Vrba said. “And now the real work begins.”