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Outdoors

Colorado is due for a new state park, but officials hope it won’t take 27 years to develop like the last one

Emboldened by legislation that OK’d increases to fees and licenses, Colorado Parks and Wildlife begins new park planning with access, funding and partnerships on its mind

a long view from a high point
It took Colorado Parks and Wildlife 27 years from the time Frances Hornbrook Staunton donated 1,720-acres of land to open the now 3,828-acre Staunton State Park southwest of Denver. The rugged, mountainous park is one of 42 owned or managed by the state. (Larry Ryckman, The Colorado Sun)
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Colorado is growing at a rapid clip, yet only two new state parks have opened in the past dozen years.

The newest, Staunton State Park, opened southwest of Denver in 2013 — 27 years after about half of the park’s rugged, mountainous acreage was donated to the state.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a plan to end the park drought, this time at a much quicker pace.

Bolstered by recent legislation that allowed it to increase hunting and fishing fees, the agency plans to have a new park identified and development underway by 2025. The years-long journey got started last week when CPW’s commissioners invited 10 diverse park users to help craft criteria for the first new state park in a decade.

“We need to keep up with this changing state,” said Margaret Taylor, the agency’s assistant director for capital, parks and trails.

It was a ranging discussion, with commissioners pressing the panelists to “think outside the box.” There was plenty of focus on access for all types of visitors as well as potential partners and funding models for the perpetually cash-strapped agency that is supported only by permit fees, federal grants and lottery money.

The towering question: Where?

“We know what we would like to have. But what’s available?” said Dan Gates, who, as head of Coloradans for Responsible Wildlife Management, represented hunters and anglers among the panelists. “I would prefer to see a location, and then we can mold the activities and opportunities and infrastructure around that location.”

The commissioners floated a raft of possibilities: Maybe the agency can add to an existing park. Perhaps a wildlife area could be converted into a park. Might a series of smaller parks — each attracting a narrower cross-section of users — be better than a major park catering to all comers? Should CPW sell some of its holdings to fund the acquisition of a new park?

One thing that CPW can’t do is ask neighbors if they want to donate or sell land; donors must come to them. The agency owns only three state parks.

The other 39 parks the agency manages for a variety of mostly federal landlords, especially those closest to the Front Range, “are being loved to death,” Taylor said.  “So adding more properties to spread people out is something we should think about as well.”

Golden Gate Canyon State Park, west of Golden, is one of those heavily used CPW state parks along the Front Range. (Lauren Bieber, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The earliest glimpse of what a new state park might look like began to take form last week.

Jake O’Connor, whose ReActive Adaptations in Crested Butte designs and builds burly, hand-pedaled mountain bikes for wheelchair athletes, urged the agency to develop wider trails and campgrounds that can fit both chairs and alternative rides such as his.

“If I knew there was a place I could go to gain access to the trails, the water, the wildlife and to hunting, and I knew I wouldn’t get stranded out there, I would have changed my life a lot sooner,” said O’Connor, who has spent the past 17 years in a wheelchair.

Allison Kincaid, the head of the 1,600-member Colorado Parks & Recreation Association, also implored the board to consider access, with connector trails from any new park reaching into underserved communities.

Andrea Kurth and Jackie Radilla, two panelists from Leadville, encouraged the development of programs that could better engage Latino youths in both rural and urban communities who have too few opportunities to explore Colorado’s natural bounty.

Mike Pritchard, who is with the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, floated the pedal-friendly mantra of “better living through trails” and pressed the agency to pursue volunteer partners, such as his group, to help design and develop singletrack for cyclists, hikers, horseback riders and other users.

Janie VanWinkle, whose VanWinkle Ranch leases and owns ranchland on the Grand Mesa and recently hammered out a difficult agreement to allow mountain bikers to build the wildly anticipated Palisade Plunge trail through her cattle-rich meadows, also supported partnerships.

VanWinkle isn’t keen on seeing more land in government hands, but she said more landowners are willing to cooperate with recreational interests.

“There are private landowners who are looking for diversification and could provide recreational opportunities,” she said, noting that the agency would have to pay to play, but “the cost would be substantially less than the purchase and upkeep of large properties.”

Jed Selby, the innovative developer whose riverpark-anchored South Main community is transforming Buena Vista, spurred intense discussion with his proposal that the agency take partnerships to the next level by forging a deal to offset park costs with a tenant who could develop “world-class” lodging, campgrounds and attractions. He pointed to privately operated historic lodges in national parks that bolster the Park Service budget.

Selby started South Main — which now has a hotel, chateau, parks, restaurants and dozens of homes — with a whitewater park on a section of Arkansas River. He spent two years searching North America for a stretch of whitewater with just the right width, gradient and accessibility.

“The location probably is the single most-important thing to overcome first,” Selby said. “Everything else is a design challenge, a programming challenge, a community-input challenge.”

“That would be a big change,” commission chairman John Howard said of Selby’s concessionaire model suggestion. “I think it’s intriguing, this concept of development that could bring all Coloradans together. That, to me, is a really interesting challenge for us. We are restricted in a lot of ways. We can’t even raise our fees without going through the legislature.”

CPW spent two years touring the state to drum up community support for legislation that allowed it to raise its hunting and fishing fees to help deflect a looming financial crisis.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the Future Generations Act during the 2018 legislative session and the agency launched an audacious plan for 10 goals by 2025. Those goals include: increasing the number of hunters and anglers in Colorado; expanding access by renewing leases; reducing the backlog of maintenance on agency-owned dams; renovating fish hatcheries; investing in habitat and conservation; and, perhaps most audacious, lining up the next state park.

The agency learned a lot with Staunton, said Taylor, noting that the park’s planning process stalled in the 1990s amid waning community support.

“Once we got the community involved, that’s when things really got started,” she said. “That’s why we are here.”