The Unsung Heroes of Colorado Trails
Without a doubt, Colorado has its fair share of outdoor activities. Many of the nature lovers who enjoy its numerous parks, forests, and trails are oblivious, however, to what it takes to make this form of outdoor recreation possible for all. The average person does not witness the myriad people and organizations endeavoring behind the scenes to support trail development and maintenance.
While all of the public lands fall under the purview of some government entity, much of the work that enables trails to be built or maintained is done – and often, even funded – by some kind of volunteer or nonprofit organization. The public land managers, whether they be federal (such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or National Park Service) state, county, or local governments, admit that they do not have the resources, especially manpower, to match the effects of an increasing permanent population and the rising numbers of visitors. Furthermore, when you include the work that needs to be done to fix trail damage resulting from natural causes such as fire or water, the land managers are often unable to keep up. Financially speaking, the land managers are often not adequately funded to create new recreation opportunities.
Rob Seel, a Trails Coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, affirms that volunteer groups “bring the energy” to trail development in Colorado. According to Seel, many grants for trail building projects are sought out by volunteer groups who either do the work themselves or who use the money to hire trail construction companies. Sometimes, a project is tackled by a combination of volunteers and commercial companies. Regardless of who completes the job, Seel says that it’s often volunteers who are the driving force behind the planning, coordination, funding, and construction.
So, who are the individuals and groups who make outdoor recreation possible in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado?
The Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) is a statewide organization founded in 1912, making it one of the oldest outdoor recreation groups in the country. In addition to working with government agencies and other groups to build and maintain trails, the club also has a long history of training its members in safe mountaineering and hiking. According to Julie Mach, the CMC’s Conservation Director, the group was instrumental in the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park and contributed to the legislation that created the Wilderness Act, a law which sets aside national forest lands to remain unspoiled by humans.
According to Mach, CMC members often join one of the group’s chapters to learn about mountaineering or to go hiking, and then become involved in the group’s advocacy or trail work. In 2018, CMC members and volunteers contributed several hundred volunteer hours on trail projects in the Pikes Peak region. For example, they built 1.3 miles of new trail, designed 8.5 miles of trail that is scheduled to be built in 2019, erected 1,500 feet of fencing, and installed signs to prevent damaging off-trail use. In support of these projects, the CMC received more than $30,000 in grants and nearly $4,000 of in-kind contributions from its volunteers.
With a full-time paid staff of only six people and about a dozen seasonal employees, the Colorado Springs-based Rocky Mountain Field Institute (RMFI) includes volunteers in its mission statement, which upholds that it is dedicated to the “conservation and stewardship of public lands […] through volunteer-based trail and restoration projects, environmental education, and restoration research.” The 37-year-old organization has earned a reputation in the Pikes Peak region for supporting local, state, and federal land managers by building trails, training volunteers, rehabilitating fire or flood damaged land, and more. According to data supplied by RMFI’s Volunteer and Partnership Coordinator Molly Mazel, the organization has worked on 30 distinct project worksites in Colorado and Utah since 1982. In fact, 30,000 people have volunteered to work on RMFI projects, for a combined total of more than 322,000 volunteer man-hours. The organization has constructed more than 100 miles of trails, planted thousands of trees and saplings, and transplanted trees in hundreds of thousands of square feet of damaged land since its inception. The people who volunteer with RMFI “recognize their role in getting things done,” as stated by Executive Director Jennifer Peterson. She credits volunteers for recognizing that trails don’t get built by themselves, and she acknowledges that without volunteers, RMFI wouldn’t exist as an organization. According to Peterson, the typical RMFI volunteer shares their passion for the outdoors with the organization and with other volunteers. In collaboration with other volunteer groups and the City of Colorado Springs, RMFI hosts annual Crew Leader training, in which volunteers learn the basics of trail building, repair, and maintenance. Once certified, crew leaders work together with land managers to plan trail projects, and subsequently lead other volunteers to carry out the plans. The training of volunteers in professional, modern trail building techniques serves as a force multiplier in that it allows manpower strapped agencies to accomplish projects that may not otherwise get done.
Within the Pikes Peak area mountain biking community, no single group is more active in promoting cycling and in helping to build new trails than the Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates. According to Medicine Wheel president Cory Sutela, the all-volunteer group contributes hundreds of man-hours each year for trail construction and maintenance. They have built approximately 30 miles of trails in the Pikes Peak region, notably in places like Red Rock Canyon Open Space and North Cheyenne Cañon Park. Their most recent project was the ambitious completion of Lake Moraine Trail on Pikes Peak. The 4-mile trail, which took 20 years of political and bureaucratic maneuvering before construction commenced, connects two parts of Pikes Peak that were separated by the Pikes Peak Cog Railway and Colorado Springs Utilities land. The trail connects the Barr Trail to Jones Park on the southwest side of Colorado Springs by crossing the railway and then by winding its way through a portion of the utilities department’s property. Hikers, cyclists, runners, and equestrians can now start, for example, at the Elk Park Trail at tree line on the Pikes Peak Highway, and, through a series of trails connected by the Lake Moraine Trail, end at up near Bear Creek Park. From experience, I can attest that it’s a 22-mile hike.
Medicine Wheel accomplished the Lake Moraine Trail project by applying for grants, setting up endless meetings, fundraising, hiring contractors, and hosting work days during which volunteers did the hand labor grunt work. Given that no land manager was interested in connecting the gap in the trails system on Pikes Peak, the project would not have come to fruition without the leadership of this volunteer organization.
The collaborative effort put forth by volunteers does not go unnoticed or unappreciated by the public land managers. “Volunteer effort in the Pikes Peak region is a great human resource to tap, in regard to creating opportunities and finding a common bond between land managers and recreational enthusiasts. Giving time and effort in order to help resource managers foster a stewardship ethic is not only important to protect the land, but also because of what it does for the individual or group. Residents and visitors to the Pikes Peak region have numerous choices in which to place their energy and that can pay dividends to the spirit, far and above a simple walk in the woods,” said Scott Abbott, the Parks and Open Space Supervisor for Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.
The various public land managers also benefit from “Friends” groups, volunteer organizations formed to help their favorite parks. Many of the parks in Colorado Springs and El Paso County have a friends group that provides support to the parks department. Some groups exist as fundraising teams that collaborate with park managers to identify and raise money for projects requiring financial support, while other groups exist to provide volunteer labor, such as trail building and maintenance, or visitor center staffing. These groups work on a small, hyperlocal scale, putting forth their efforts to support just one park, and they do so by enlisting the support of people who frequent or who are neighbors of the park. Over the course of several years, The Friends of Cheyenne Cañon raised over $100,000 to fund the construction of a brand-new visitor center at Helen Hunt Falls in Colorado Springs’ North Cheyenne Cañon Park. A few years later, the same group funded a $20,000 project to reroute a dangerous, eroded trail to the summit of Mount Muscoco. The peak, the highest within the boundaries of any city park in Colorado Springs, is very popular with visitors and locals alike.
Some volunteers are more involved in decision-making roles. Both Colorado Springs and El Paso County have Park Advisory Boards, composed of volunteers that represent the community and serve to advise city council or county commissioners on matters relating to parks, trails, cultural services, etc. The boards meet monthly; they take questions and comments from the public and listen to proposals from the parks department staff on projects or recommendations regarding how a developer will incorporate parks and open spaces into a proposed development. In turn, these boards then make recommendations to their elected officials, who have the final say in the matters presented to them. The boards serve as the voice of the community and are important in ensuring that citizens have a say in the recreational opportunities made available to them.
So, who are the unsung heroes who make outdoor recreation possible in the Pikes Peak region? Well, to quote an old poem, they are the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. They are also the cyclist, the hiker, the runner, and the equestrian. They are the parents who want a place to take their kids. They are people like me, like you, like your next-door neighbor, and like the small-business owner. They are Colorado natives as well as transplants to the state. The people who make outdoor recreation possible in Colorado and the Pikes Peak region come from all walks of life, and what they have in common is a love of the outdoors.
Words & Photos by “Hiking Bob” Falcone