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Open wide

Everything you need to know about some of El Paso County's wildest natural treasures


Opened to the public two years ago, Paint Mines - Interpretive Park in Calhan is worth the drive. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Opened to the public two years ago, Paint Mines Interpretive Park in Calhan is worth the drive.

To define open space, let's start with what it's not: developed, with sidewalks and roads; designed, with golf courses, ball fields and swing sets; trimmed and mowed and watered and fertilized.

Those things are all good if you want a city park for a pickup softball game, a playground where the kids can burn off energy on the jungle gym, a picnic table for a summertime lunch or a spot of lawn where you can soak up the sun.

But let's say you want, or need, something more primitive. A place where the beauty is found in what hasn't been orchestrated. In the words of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, "a beautiful, untouched lonely-feeling place." That's what you want, and you want it now. Not three-hours-drive-from-here now, but just-beyond-your-backyard now.

That's where open space comes in. It offers what Bryan Kochis calls "a place to retreat from life."

Kochis, from Woodland Park, spends a lot of time in the undeveloped spaces of the outdoors, walking and exploring.

"It's simply about a change of pace," he says. "It's not that time slows when you are out there, but it offers you time to slow down, to step outside of yourself to breathe, to retreat from your life into a different place."

The .1 percent solution

In general terms, open space is public land that has been left in an undeveloped state. El Paso County has 150,000 acres of this type of land, part of it managed by the U.S. Forest Service and part by other federal or state agencies. It also includes sections of Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy and ranch and farmland. The rest about 11,000 acres is part of either El Paso County or Colorado Springs parks departments. That's the in-your-backyard open space we're talking about.

Red Rock Canyon, on the city's far west side, is perhaps the most high-profile open space in the region. Owned privately for decades, it was slated to be developed with a convention center, golf course and high-rise buildings. But outdoor advocates wanted the land preserved in its natural state, and in the late 1990s they mounted an effort to persuade the city to purchase it. Their campaign succeeded, and in 2003, the city bought the 789 acres for $12.5 million. It opened the following fall, with 80 percent designated as open space and 20 percent developed with a free-ride bike area and picnic ground.

Today, its tranquil man-made lakes and wide main trail attract crowds on weekends. On weekdays, its relatively remote single-track trails offer a more solitary experience, with visitors treated to Canada geese floating on the water, glimpses of mule deer, sandstone formations rivaling those of Garden of the Gods and a surprising quiet.

Open-space purchases such as Red Rock are made possible by a .1 percent sales tax. Called the TOPS (Trails, Open Space and Parks) tax, city voters approved it in 1997, and in 2003 voted to extend it through 2025.

Open-space advocates have plans for some of that additional tax money, says Dan Cleveland, director of the Trails & Open Space Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving open space and rural land and creating trails and greenways.

"There are two things that jump to mind: Section 16 and the top of Cheyenne Mountain," he says.

The popular Section 16 connects Bear Creek Regional Park and Red Rock Canyon. The city leases it from the state right now, but that lease expires in another year.

Cheyenne Mountain the craggy peak that holds the cluster of radio antennae and forms the backdrop for Cheyenne Mountain State Park is for sale, and the state park's Friends group and others are hoping it can be purchased. If that happens, hikers would have the consummate open space that would reach from the state park through national forest to another park, Mueller, on the other side of Pikes Peak.

We all contribute to the TOPS fund when we make taxable purchases in Colorado Springs. Buy a $100 pair of hiking boots? The fund gets a 10-cent bump. Purchase a $500 mountain bike, and you're giving 50 cents to a fund for places to ride it.

Since 1996, the TOPS program has funded more than $37 million for 12 open-space projects, preserving more than 4,000 acres. With a new bill that was signed into law March 30, counties throughout the state now can ask voters for a similar tax. The County Open Space and Parks Sales-Tax Exemption allows counties to ask voters to approve up to a half-percent sales and use tax funds for open space.

With the state's undeveloped land disappearing at an alarming rate about 10 acres swallowed up by development every hour, according to the Colorado Environmental Coalition this kind of program is important, says Kevin Tanski, director of the Palmer Land Trust, a public nonprofit that works to assist in acquiring municipal open space.

Now and forever

Even with the public support of the open-space tax, the Pikes Peak region is criticized often by area residents who say we need to give even more money. El Paso County lags behind other Front Range efforts in Boulder, Douglas and Jefferson counties.

"But to be fair, you have to remember that they all got started earlier than we did," Cleveland says. "Boulder County, for example, started buying open space in the 1960s."

When purchases started in El Paso County nearly 30 years later, land prices were much higher. And counties such as Douglas have beefed up their open space with gigantic purchases such as its 20,000-acre portion of Greenland Ranch.

But soon, the El Paso County Parks inventory could increase by 1,040 acres with the addition of an area called The Pineries, a portion of a former ranch in Black Forest that two land companies purchased last summer.

The open space is a portion of a conservation easement that's part of a large land-development project. Parks staff will present the proposal for The Pineries to the El Paso County Commissioners at the end of this month. It already has passed approval by the parks board and the planning commission, says Tim Wolken, El Paso County Parks director.

"It is a marvelous project that does what open space should do," Wolken says. "It has access to trails and trailheads. It connects to the Woodlake Trail on the northwest side, and to the Black Forest Section 16 open space on the other side."

If approved, The Pineries will be managed much like other properties in the region that are overseen by the Palmer Land Trust. With purchases such as The Pineries, the trust helps establish conservation easements, legally binding agreements on land that prohibit development, usually forever. Once the land is purchased and set aside as open space, the trust helps with its management.

"That perpetual protection means that what people see at Red Rock, for example, is what they will see forever," Tanski says.

The trust works throughout the region with Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs and El Paso and Teller counties on 10 properties that include Red Rock, Stratton Open Space near Cheyenne Caon, Sinton Pond in the central part of the city, Paint Mines Interpretive Park near Calhan, and Catamount Open Space in Teller County.

At each location, the trust is there to ensure "that the property remains in its original state, whether it was established for scenic values, for wildlife values or for recreational values," Tanski says.

Bluestem Prairie, one of the city's open-space properties with a conservation easement managed by the Palmer trust, scores high on both the scenic- and wildlife-values scales. The swath of prairie south of the Colorado Springs Airport surrounds the privately owned Big Johnson Reservoir and is home to more than 200 bird species, pronghorn and black-tailed prairie dogs. The wind blows relentlessly there, tossing small birds as they attempt to perch on the tall grasses and whipping up waves on the water.

On a recent spring morning, a bald eagle soared overhead, hunting for a snack in the prairie dog town that pockmarks the flat land. The rodents fat and trembling sounded the alarm, barking to warn their neighbors about the cruising raptor. The up-close drama competed with the sweeping view of Pikes Peak glimmering beneath a blue sky to the west.

It's a perfect example of open space, says Chris Lieber, program administrator of the city's open space and parks.

"Open space is the context in which our community fits," he says. "The open space and our backdrop help define what we are as a community and add to our sense of place."

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