Effective Public Engagement in Land Management in the Pikes Peak Region

To read the USFS’ latest statements about cameras being used to Monitor Mays peak, and about trail closures in Bear Creek please click here.

A recent online petition that has over 1000 signatures demonstrates widespread passion and growing interest in trail experiences on local public lands. 

At the heart of the petition’s focus on felling trees in Cheyenne Canyon is the community’s frustration with trail closures and public lands access in our region. These frustrations have grown over the last decade, they are real, and they are serious. 

This is why we need practical and achievable strategies for local users to meaningfully participate in discussions about the management of trails.

Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates (MedWheel) has successfully engaged land managers to develop an outstanding trail system in the Pikes Peak region over the past 30 years. The change.org petition is unlikely to impact policy in Cheyenne Canyon for several reasons we explain below. 

Understanding the Situation

The first step in effective political action is developing an informed strategy. Please take a moment to consider the following information before jumping to the action steps below.

  • Rocky Mountain Field Institute (RMFI) is paid by land managers and through grants to perform work at the direction of land managers. The work in Cheyenne Canyon is prescribed by the United States Forest Service (USFS), which is the relevant land manager (not the city or county). RMFI is doing what the USFS contracted them to do, and if they didn’t, another contractor would be doing this work. The work aligns with RMFI’s mission of conserving and protecting public lands in Southern Colorado.
  • The USFS mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The USFS has two important priorities in this area: preservation of the Greenback Cutthroat Trout, and fire mitigation.
  • Conservation
    • The USFS carefully, some might say bureaucratically and slowly, follows formal federal rules including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process and the Endangered Species Act, both of which in this case resulted in the instructions that were given to RMFI. 
    • Closure of illegally constructed trails within the Bear Creek Watershed are always going to get the USFS’s highest attention. Illegally built trails in Bear Creek will certainly be closed, and will also trigger animosity and political reaction by land managers towards trail users. This could even result in additional access restrictions.
  • Fire mitigation
    • The Pikes Peak region has experienced catastrophic wildfires in recent years. Minimizing the risk of future destruction of our natural resources and homes is the top priority for the USFS. Our region is 1 of 21 across the country that has a specific focus for the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
    • The fuels reduction strategy that our ranger district is using is a result of over 100 years of forest fire mismanagement. The implementation, which includes downing of healthy trees (as has occurred recently in the Monument Preserve), may seem counterintuitive and ecologically destructive. However, the USFS employs experienced experts in ecology, biology, hydrology, forestry, and many other fields. The fire mitigation strategy “combines a historic investment of congressional funding with years of scientific research and planning into a national effort”.
  • We are not at a stage where the USFS is accepting input on federal laws or a national fire mitigation strategy

As we think about engaging as citizens in land management decisions, it is important to keep in mind the human element. Like other federal agencies, the USFS is perpetually underfunded, under-staffed, and needs to balance conflicting needs of users.

  • The district office was unable to fill several key staff positions this year. The Recreation Planner position was unfilled for several years, and has had a revolving series of staff.
  • After only one year, Carl Bauer, the district ranger, is relatively new in his position. He is experienced, qualified, passionate, and has a demonstrated history of working with volunteer and community groups. 
  • He is also constantly pressured with the ‘needs of users and citizens’ that often conflict with his responsibility for the long term care and health of the forest. 
  • It is extremely improbable that he will respond positively to threatening or emotional appeals to approve illegal trail construction in the Bear Creek Watershed.

MedWheel believes that working with land managers and within regional master plans is the most effective, sustainable way to develop a trail system that balances conservation and recreation. Building trust and cooperation with land managers, however, does require patience and compromise.

MedWheel Advocacy

  • We have let USFS know that we appreciate their focus on reducing wildfires, which is one of the highest concerns in our community.
  • In concept we support federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, that protect natural experiences for future generations.
  • We have adopted the Buckhorn Trail and for several years have invested in the long term stability of this heavily used non-motorized trail. We will continue this work and respond to other USFS needs, including on 715 in Monument.
  • MedWheel educates trail users and amplifies conservation by building sustainable trails.
  • We have expressed frustration with several aspects of the Bear Creek Watershed NEPA process to land managers, including:
    • The reconstructed 666 trail that replaced the Crankcase Alley trail down was improperly designed, especially considering the uniqueness of the opportunity for a GREAT trail, and the cost of the NEPA process overall.  
    • 666 was constructed through an expensive no-bid process by Trails Unlimited, which is an in-house function of the USFS. Trails Unlimited was provided with a theoretical trail corridor that had been drawn on a computer map, but was not actually designed with on-the-ground walkthroughs or user input. This is despite repeated offers from knowledgeable users to provide a more compelling AND sustainable trail.
    • The replacement trail was not constructed properly for its heavy use and now is the subject of ongoing RMFI contracts for maintenance, paid for through state Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) tag funds.
  • MedWheel Asks for more Communication
    • A lack of communication by the USFS on this and other projects presents an opportunity for improvement. Therefore, we will continue to encourage El Paso County to host the Bear Creek Watershed roundtable and to include the USFS in these discussions. The roundtable, formed in 2012 in response to a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, has met (infrequently) since the close of the NEPA process. It should be continued to facilitate constructive dialog between experts and stakeholders in this beloved, sensitive, and complicated area.
  • MedWheel Calls for a Science-based Approach to Trail Management
    • The greenback cutthroat trout (GBCT) population in Bear Creek has declined by 80% since the reroute of Crankcase Alley. Therefore the trail changes cannot be shown to have benefitted fish habitat and population. 
    • Since the beginning of this issue, including when MedWheel, Colorado Motorcycle Trail Riders’ Association, and Trout Unlimited wrote a letter to USFS asking them to work with us to improve fish health, there has been insufficient data to connect the impact of trails, trail users, and sedimentation on fish habitat.  MedWheel calls on the US Forest Service, El Paso County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, US Fish & Wildlife Service to invest in (and empower other groups to invest in) better science to improve fact-based decision making in this complicated area

Public lands belong to the public. The National Forest and other natural public spaces are a major part of why we choose to live here. The last decade of trail closures coupled with a reluctance to engage trail users has triggered tremendous frustration and anger. We need to build strategies that will allow our voices to be heard in the woods.

Action Steps