- Associated Press - Saturday, September 13, 2014

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - After two weeks spent breaking earth and moving rocks in the shadow of Kit Carson Peak near Crestone, Joe Lavorini looked proud but weary.

A field work supervisor at the Colorado Springs-based Rocky Mountain Field Institute, Lavorini and his colleagues had just finished leading a team of conservation-minded college students toward an impressive feat: building roughly a mile of trail to a point overlooking scenic Willow Lake and the San Luis Valley beyond.

But the heavy lifting had only just begun.

“This year was just scratching the surface for us,” Lavorini said, describing how the students - who will receive college credit for their work - had to dislodge, move and reinstall 300-pound boulders to shore up portions of the trail.

Ultimately, the Rocky Mountain Field Institute plans to extend the route another mile to the summit of Challenger Point, a towering, scree-studded waypoint on the peak bagger’s path to 14,165-foot Kit Carson.

Because of its steep grade and unstable, rocky slopes, getting there will take up to four years of return trips - requiring more rock hauling, more money and more generations of college kids armed with picks, shovels and sledgehammers.

The multiyear effort in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness is emblematic of how trails on Colorado’s beloved fourteeners are maintained and built at a time when government funding is on the wane: little by little, and with free or discounted labor.

Although the majority of peaks rising 14,000 feet and above are on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the agency largely depends on a coalition of volunteers, conservation groups and youth corps to keep trails sustainable and open to the public.

“It’s absolutely critical for us,” said Jim Pitts, Sagauche District Ranger in Rio Grande National Forest, which includes the Willow Creek approach to Kit Carson.

In Colorado, the army of stewards is focused on nearly every fourteener in the state. The Forest Service provides environmental analysis and trail design for the projects. While the Rocky Mountain Field Institute pursues improvements to peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Range, the Denver-based Colorado Fourteeners Initiative focuses on most others.

It’s all part of a decades-long trend in which the responsibility for maintaining trails on public lands is being increasingly shifted to public-private?partnerships, said Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

For private groups doing the work, securing funding is a constant dance, with the Forest Service steadily decreasing its financial commitment.

In the past seven years, the amount of funding the Forest Service provides to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has fallen by 50 percent as the agency has turned its gaze to fire prevention and pressing environmental threats such as pine beetle infestations, said Jerry Mack, the group’s controller.

Meanwhile, problems on the state’s fourteeners are multiplying.

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative recently completed a three-year survey of trails on 42 peaks that identified roughly $24 million worth of needed improvements.

That figure is a “snapshot in time,” Athearn said, and the tab is expected to rise with continued use.

From an economic standpoint, fourteeners are a statewide boon worthy of investment, said Catherine Kreske, a professor of environmental economics at the University of Colorado.

In the late 2000s, she and a research partner determined that Colorado’s fourteeners were essentially “recession proof,” meaning the demand to travel withstands economic downturns.

Kreske has plans to assess the overall economic impact of fourteener-related tourism in Colorado based on data from infrared trip counters that the Fourteeners Initiative buried in several trails, a more accurate tally than visitor logs.

The work could help spur reinvestment, she said.

“If you have at least a dollar estimate of the value, at least you can make a case for your funding requests,” Kreske said.

But while fourteeners help drive economic activity, their popularity is part of the problem.

Traffic on the Willow Lake trail has picked up steadily in recent years, driven by people looking to cross Kit Carson from their bucket lists, said Rio Grande National Forest spokesman Mike Blakeman.

Although Challenger Point rises to 14,081 feet, some leave it off fourteener lists because it fails the “300-foot prominence” test - defined as the separation between individual mountains and mountains with sub-peaks. Prominence measures how high a mountain rises above its highest connecting saddle to a higher mountain.

Some of those who camp in the area come because of crowding issues at the South Colony Lakes area, on the east side of the mountain range.

Around Willow Lake, serene and blue at 11,564 feet, effects of all those campers are palpable.

On the final day of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute’s project, every campsite was occupied and campers overflowed into common areas, evoking a KOA Kampground perched high in a wilderness.

Campers swapped jokes about the lack of privacy when heeding nature’s call. Tissue paper peeked out from shallow holes dug behind trees, bushes and tussocks just off trail.

The area had been picked clean of downed fire wood, and deer ambled through campsites, unfazed by shouts and tossed rocks.

Discussing his group’s work, Lavorini sounded uneasy in conceding that an improved trail could encourage yet heavier use of the area.

“I’m not sure what to think about it. I don’t get a big ‘wilderness experience’ out here,” he said, as an arriving group of campers began setting up its tent in a grove trail builders had been using for their bathroom. (The work crew of 15 packed out two weeks’ of solid waste in 5-gallon buckets.)

But building a sustainable trail also will help mitigate impacts on the land by slowing erosion and, hopefully, keeping social trails from cropping up, Lavorini said.

The project is just the latest by Rocky Mountain Field Institute, which previously worked on trails on six more fourteeners in the Sangre range, leaving two to address after Kit Carson.

Pitts, of the Forest Service, said the increasing use at Willow Lakes is a point of concern for the agency.

But for now, the Forest Service continues to pursue educational efforts - such as encouraging people to pack out waste, or even just toilet paper, rather than proposing to limit access to public lands, as is done in California.

Athearn echoed concerns about fourteeners being over loved, but said he favors keeping them open and free of restrictions.

At a time when the country is battling obesity and sedentary lifestyles in urban centers, fourteeners are spectacular refuges that challenge and inspire, Athearn said.

Best of all, they’re free to anyone who can reach the summit.

“These are our Everests,” he said.

___

Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com

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