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Open up the mountain


For almost a century, Colorado has experimented with two opposing ways of protecting delicate environments. In 1913, just as Teddy Roosevelt's Rocky Mountain National Park was about to open to millions of visitors in the central Rockies, public access to most of Pikes Peak was being cut off.

That year, the federal government designated five large areas of Pikes Peak as watersheds, and gave the cities of Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Cripple Creek and Victor the right to run them any way they pleased. In the name of "protecting watersheds," to keep people away from human water supply, those cities chose to post "no trespassing" signs, meaning Americans became outlaws if they tried to enjoy Pikes Peak the same way they enjoyed RMNP. Hiking, camping, fishing and horseback riding became crimes on most of America's Mountain.

At the time, city leaders claimed they wanted to protect Pikes Peak's environment against marauding recreationalists, claiming the environment had already been destroyed by miners and loggers and commercial hunters during the Gold Rush. So, while people were allowed to drive their automobiles to the top of Pikes Peak, they were barred from accessing much of the rest of the mountain.

This may seem like an odd way to run a place founded as a tourist attraction. And, the idea that the public might despoil its own drinking water is anathema to all evidence and all experience elsewhere just consider the success of the North Slope Recreation Area and others at Rampart, Elevenmile, Cheeseman, Antero, Aurora and Pueblo. Yet Pikes Peak gates off to the public 10 of its 13 fish-bearing sapphire lakes and reservoirs.

Now, virtually every local city councilperson claims to want tourism, but tourism on watersheds gives them the willies. The suggestion of opening anything else is treated as a dangerous experiment. The idea that someone might actually wade or swim in a reservoir turns stomachs. That a mountain would remain pristine if hardly anyone ever went there became local dogma. To this day, the cities fear the public as a menace.

So how has the environment actually fared in these two famous places? Nearly a century later, Pikes Peak is a mess and Rocky Mountain National Park is a glory.

Pikes Peak is a poacher's paradise, a firetrap of neglected forest, littered, its reservoirs polluted with high levels of fecal bacteria from the animals that crap in the lakes, its wildlife at risk.

At RMNP, millions of visitors adore and guard the wildlife. Elk rest beside the roadway, chewing their cuds like cattle, as traffic jams and people circle around to take pictures close up. Those animals know that they are truly secure, convinced by generations of experience.

On Pikes Peak, elk run for their lives, having been shot at for generations in the privacy of areas closed to public eyes. The boots of illegal fishermen have pounded the earth into trails encircling the lakes. Beer cans, cigarette butts and fishing paraphernalia litter the shores.

At RMNP, such trash is unheard of. Modern eco-tourists pick up any litter they might see. Visitors to the park are recognized as true owners and zealous guardians. The federal government considers them to be the most special animal in the woods: The only animal that will pay to help guard and clean the place, who will report anyone harming other animals, who will help mitigate fire by getting rid of dead wood.

Teddy Roosevelt believed that delicate public lands should be protected by the people, for the people and against special interests. Perhaps it is time to declare him the winner, time for cities to admit that the federal government does know more about protecting the environment, about fire mitigation, about guarding a resource, about reducing fecal bacteria, about managing crowds and attracting business. Time to open the watersheds on Pikes Peak to the public that owns them.

Today, Roosevelt is one of the four greatest presidents honored in stone on Mount Rushmore (another National Park). There is no monument to the people who closed Pikes Peak. No one even remembers their names.

Zoltan Malocsay is a longtime trails-guide author and realtor who is generally credited with spearheading the effort to open five area watersheds.

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