New phase of recreation in Colorado Springs’ Bear Creek watershed taking shape

By: Seth Boster, The Gazette

The framed sign is unhinged, appearing ripped from the post where the U.S. Forest Service placed it previously this summer.

“Well, that didn’t work,” says the Pikes Peak Ranger District’s Evan Burks as he removes the bolts that previously held the sign, which included a map showing the rerouted trails through the Bear Creek watershed and the area known as Jones Park. Beside the map in the frame is the Forest Service order detailing new restrictions here.

Hiking in these southwest mountains of Colorado Springs, Burks is in the company of people who for the past five years have been involved in the much-debated planning to reroute the long-beloved trails, away from the drainage that is home to an endangered population of greenback cutthroat trout. The group stops at the post, where there are cracked remains of a plastic strip that had read “CLOSED.”

“That’s what I’m worried about,” says Joe Lavorini with the local Rocky Mountain Field Institute.

“People just coming through here?” Burks asks. Lavorini nods.

Crews with the nonprofit institute will hope this week for no passersby, no distractions, as they begin to forever alter the recreation hub.

Greenback Cutthroat Trout in Bear Creek in the fall of 2014. Photo by Josh Nehring, Senior Aquatic Biologist, Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Throughout this month and the next, they’ll build retaining walls and level out slopes to prevent dirt from piling up in the fish’s habitat – something the Forest Service has found to be the troubling effect of trail users here. They’ll scatter sticks and rocks and cut down trees to cover the paths following the watershed, including the one to the popular area called Tenney Crags.

But most notable will be the decommissioning of Trail 667, also referred to as Upper Cap’n Jacks by mountain bikers who have known it as a supreme ride. The Forest Service’s new 667 has been open for more than a month now, and the reviews are in.

“The negative feedback gets more attention, but I would say 75 percent has been positive,” said Janelle Valladares, the agency’s aquatic biologist who has served as a point person on the project. “I think people are excited simply that there is a trail in there. There were questions if there would be at all, and because there is, that’s a positive.”

Pleased are motorcyclists and dirt bikers who have been barred from Jones Park since 2012, when the trout’s rarity and presence came to light.

“What’s open to us now is wonderful,” said Jim Bensberg of the 123-member Colorado Motorcycle Trail Riders Association.

He said the new trail contouring the north side of Kineo Mountain – between 24 and 36 inches wide by the Forest Service’s measurement – presents a unique challenge for riders limited to local sites such as Rampart Range Road. And he sounded proud to “adopt” the trail with fellow riders, the group designated to care for its future condition.

That task could be tricky, said Paul Mead with the nonprofit Friends of the Peak. His trained eye for trail design has observed steep sections along Kineo that will make them vulnerable to erosion.

“It’s OK. It’s usable,” Mead said of the new 667. “But it could’ve been a lot better. That’s the bottom line.”

Throughout the public process for the realignment, he sounded off on his feeling ignored by the Forest Service. He and Cory Sutela, with Medicine Wheel’s local nonprofit trail-designing team, claimed they questioned the feasibility of the agency’s initial plan for the route.

The Forest Service’s in-house crews last year began to build south around Kineo, only to learn on the ground that they could not work as planned there due to large rocks. This caused a monthslong delay and the Forest Service reaching for an extra $50,000, which was provided by the state grant program that is funded by off-highway vehicle registration and permit fees.

“It’s a big shame that we really could’ve put a great trail in there for a lot less money. That’s a disappointment,” said Sutela, the mountain biking advocate. “Probably the best trail in the region is being closed, and now we’ve got an unremarkable trail.”

While the Rocky Mountain Field Institute decommissions the familiar 667, Forest Service crews will start a two-week job to “refine” parts of the new Kineo segment. Valladares said workers will install grade reversals, or dips in the ground intended to drain water. Some parts will be hardened with rocks, she said.

“I do hope people can hold off on making any judgements until we finish the work,” she said. “We’re just not done yet.”

Though some are critical, the process that led to the trail has been identified as enviable. The Forest Service’s national Rise to the Future award goes to collaborative efforts such as the Bear Creek roundtable – the hikers, motorcyclists, mountain bikers equestrians and conservationists who for years have met with land managers over the project.

“It’s super interesting to think about this from a human/environment interaction,” said Lavorini, reflecting on the roundtable as he stands at the sign appearing vandalized.

Beginning the collaboration five years ago was “kind of scary,” Valladares said. She wondered how passions for play would meet calls for conservation.

“I would say the majority of people here want to protect the landscape, but it’s hard when protecting the landscape is in conflict with closing a trail you love,” she said. “It’s hard to change. It’s really, really hard to change.”

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