Ring the Peak lingers in concept, not reality

100256007Until the early 20th century, Colorado Springs residents enjoyed virtually unfettered access to the forests, fields and lakes of the city’s mountain backdrop.

In the early 1870s a trail led up Cheyenne Canyon, through Jones Park, to Seven Lakes and on to the summit of Pikes Peak. Cabins and homesteads dotted the slopes, and one entrepreneur even built a hotel of sorts above timberline on the South Slope. Other rough wagon roads and trails ringed the Pikes Peak massif.

The discovery of gold on the Peak’s western foothills induced the construction of three railways from Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek and Victor. The pristine wilderness of the 1860s had vanished, replaced by bustling cities linked by a web of steel rails. Residents of the new cities picnicked, hiked, rode horses and camped overnight on the mountain, which served as a de facto regional park.

Yet by the early 1900s, private entrepreneurs and local governments took control, closing off or restricting access to Pikes Peak wherever possible.

Seeking to protect its water supply from contamination, Colorado Springs closed off access to Seven Lakes and much of the South Slope in 1909. The trail and road through Jones Park were abandoned, and after 1917 the summit could only be accessed for a fee, via the Cog Railway or Pikes Peak Highway. 

But things loosened up over time. The railroads closed and became roads. Fred Barr built his eponymous trail. The rip-roaring mining cities became sleepy, picturesque reminders of a vanished time. Old roads became trails, and new trails were created to serve increasing demand.

A new era begins

It wasn’t until the last quarter of the 1900s that Pikes Peak’s major stakeholders were forced to consider the impact of their activities upon the environment. 

For many decades, the city of Colorado Springs maintained the gravel surface of the Pikes Peak Highway by simply adding more gravel. Every year, runoff would erode the highway, and the city would replace it with material mined from a city-owned quarry on the mountain’s slopes. Over the years, fugitive gravel covered hundreds of acres of forest and tundra. 

The Sierra Club sued the city, alleging continuing and egregious violations of the Clean Water Act. The city settled, agreeing to pave the road, add drainage structures and remedy existing damage, at an eventual cost of more than $10 million.

Two years in the making, the 1999 Pikes Peak Multiuse Plan tried to reconcile user conflicts and create a broad framework for public access to the mountain’s splendors. Funded by the mountain’s major landowners, Colorado Springs Utilities and the U.S. Forest Service, the plan’s vision was “to accommodate recreational activity while simultaneously protecting natural and cultural resources of the mountain for future generations.”

In 2003,  City Council endorsed the plan, citing the “realistically attainable goal of the Ring the Peak Trail and its associated ‘spokes’ or alternate routes to the summit of Pikes Peak.” Much of the trail was already in place, but several crucial segments would have to be constructed.

The new Ring the Peak Trail would have multiple regional entry points. One new route to the summit would run from the top of Jones Park near Lake Moraine across Utilities property to the Mountview stop on the Cog. The other would follow the West Beaver Creek drainage up the southwest slope to the summit.

Eleven years later, Ring the Peak still lacks eight crucial miles and no work has been done on either summit route.

Why? Ask the wildlife.

Bighorn sheep 

In the early 1900s, there were as many as 1.5 million bighorn in the American West, fair game for every hunter from Teddy Roosevelt to the poorest ranch hand. 

A century later, only 70,000 remained and attitudes changed. The Pikes Peak bighorn herd, once of interest only to hunters and wildlife biologists, came to be seen as a unique regional asset. By the mid 1990s, the herd included more than 400 animals. 

If any one agency was responsible for the herd’s survival, it was Colorado Springs Utilities. Closing the South Slope watershed to public access limited sheep/human interaction and protected lambing grounds and migration corridors.

But by 2011, only 110 sheep remained. Bacterial pneumonia had ravaged the herd, and wildlife biologists recommended that recreational development near or in the South Slope lambing habitat be minimized. That habitat includes high-altitude areas, effectively foreclosing the easiest and most scenic route for the uncompleted portion of Ring the Peak. The segment will have to pass through forested lands at lower elevations, and that won’t be easy.

“There are over 30 private landowners along or near the projected routes,” said Friends of the Peak vice president Paul Mead. “There are old mining claims, cabins, year-round homes, and there are no accurate surveys of the properties.” 

Sorting out land ownership, making deals with landowners and establishing a route will take at least two years.

“We’ll need to get a planning grant,” said longtime trails advocate Lee Milner. “We’ll have to hire a really capable person for a couple of years and give her the support she’ll need — so that’ll be $150,000 or so.”

What’s the cost?

“Anywhere from several hundred thousand to millions,” said FOTP president Carol Beckman. “There are so many unknowns about the route and the costs, but we’re fine with building the lower route. The last thing we want would be to build near the lambing habitat and lose the sheep — we’d rather not build the trail at all if we were putting the herd at risk.”

Greenback trout

The greenback trout is Colorado’s state fish. Brookies, rainbows, browns — all invasive species, transplanted to Colorado waters by transplanted Easterners. In 2008, a remnant population of greenbacks was found to exist in the upper reaches of Bear Creek, where it passes through Jones Park, a 1,191-acre property owned by Colorado Springs Utilities. As CSU officials were dismayed to learn in 2012, that population is the only genetically pure population of greenback trout in Colorado.

That discovery triggered a lawsuit by the Phoenix-based Center for Biological Diversity. In a settlement agreement, the Forest Service agreed to prohibit motorcycles and off-road vehicles from using trails along Bear Creek.

The settlement also put an indefinite hold on mountain bike advocacy group Medicine Wheel’s plans to extend a trail from Jones Park to Barr Camp, another significant component of the 1999 plan. 

In March of this year, the Forest Service proposed permanently closing all trails near the creek, noting that decomposing granite from the gravel trails bleeds into the creek, steadily degrading trout habitat.

The proposal wasn’t popular with trail users, even less so with CSU. As the property owner, Utilities would be stuck with a $400,000-$800,000 bill to relocate and rebuild the trails. Reasoning that ratepayers shouldn’t be burdened with such costs, CSU struck a deal with the National Forest Foundation to take over the property, pay other associated costs and eventually hand over the property to the Forest Service.

Battle for control

When the proposal recently came to the Utilities Board (City Council), representatives of El Paso County objected. Citing the inflexibility, sluggishness and perceived arrogance of the Forest Service, County Administrator Jeff Greene asked the board to transfer the property to the county. The county, Greene claimed, had carefully managed its parkland even during the dark days of the recession. Funds for trail relocation would be available from grants and donations, as well as from a projected $2 million Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refund — assuming that voters consented.

Speaking earlier to City Council, Commissioner Sallie Clark was especially critical of the Forest Service.

“We know that forests should have 100 trees per acre,” she said. “Forest Service land on Pikes Peak has 1,000 trees per acre. That’s a danger. I’m particularly concerned because Jones Park is in my commissioner district.”

Clark may not have been aware that nearly half of the Jones Park property is in Teller County.

Susan Davies of the TOPS Coalition took issue with Greene’s remarks.

“In 2004, the county spent $1.8 million on parks,” Davies said. “By 2008, that number dropped to $300,000. Now it’s back up to about $1 million. That’s about $1.67 per capita — I don’t understand why the county wants this responsibility.”

Also, she noted later, there was a serious proposal to sell some of the county’s parkland in 2008.

“It’s all driven by the motorcycle people,” said one longtime parks advocate who declined to be quoted by name. “(Former County Commissioner) Jim Bensberg spoke in favor of the deal, and he’s a motorcycle guy. They somehow think they can make an end run around the NEPA [environmental] process and the lawsuit — and they know they have a lot more influence with the county than they do with the Forest Service.”

In the end, it may not much matter who owns the land. Jones Park is an enclave, completely surrounded by Forest Service property. The CBD lawsuit and the NEPA process give the landowner no wiggle room — that means rerouting trails and restoring eroded slopes for years to come. 

Fifteen years after the Pikes Peak Multiuse Plan was unveiled, its major goals remain elusive. Ring the Peak is unfinished, the new trails to the summit unbuilt. But trail advocates aren’t giving up.

“Sixty-three miles — that’s 100 kilometers,” said Paul Mead. “That’s an ultramarathon. Imagine it … the Ring the Peak Ultra. It would be amazing!” 

  • http://www.sbtdesigns.net Steven Shepard

    This article is the only indication I have ever seen that CS has any consciousness of the potential value Pikes Peak and the Rocky Mountains has for our community. Colorado Springs stands at the entrance to the Rocky Mountains and literally owns the Rockies most famous peak. And yet the entrance to the Rocky Mountain chain (Highway 24) looks like an urban decay slum through Colorado Springs and our primary mountain pass (Ute Pass) remains undeveloped and off limits to hikers, bikers and tourists. The eco-economic value to Pikes Peak and the surrounding area has yet to developed, exploited and tapped as it could be and as it should be. Most of the government entities in the region seem more concerned with keeping citizens and tourist off the mountains and the trails and in the city. It is foolish to think anyone would travel here and want to spend their time in town when one the Seven Wonders of the World dominates our western horizon. It is time for Colorado Springs to make best use of the resources we have and stop trying to build something that can never equal what God made in one day.

  • Jim Bensberg

    There was NEVER a serious proposal to sell ANY county park property in 2008, contrary to popular myth. Anyone who was “in the know” at that time would tell you that. But, it doesn’t stop the anti-county crowd from spreading the myth. Yes, former County Commissioner Wayne Williams issued an ill-advised threat at the time, but no one took him seriously, least of all his fellow commissioners.