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A mountain biker descends Crested Butte's newly minted Baxter Gulch Trail, which required nearly a quarter-century effort to develop, using Great Outdoors Colorado support with the Town of Crested Butte, the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, private property owners and the Forest Service to approve and build. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has infused its latest five-year recreation roadmap with a heaping serving of conservation, making Colorado one of the only states to fuse outdoor play with environmental protection as it struggles to manage an exploding population of adventure-ready residents.

Colorado needs the 2019 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, or SCORP, to qualify for federal money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Since 1965, the venerable fund has funneled $61 million in offshore gas royalties toward more than 1,000 projects in Colorado.

SCORP, the newest edition of which was released Tuesday, is a five-year guide for Colorado agencies, communities and nonprofits that uses demographic studies and economic analyses to balance wildlife protection and recreation. It takes a year to compile, using an advisory group and workshops across the state. Colorado residents now get to fine-tune the document, with a public-input window open until Oct. 22.

This time around, the SCORP has incorporated Colorado’s Outdoor Principles, a sort of outdoor constitution that was adopted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s governing  board in 2016. Those guiding principles celebrate both recreation and conservation as pillars of Colorado’s quality of life, with accessible public lands and ecologically beneficial private lands contributing to a healthy environment and population. The guidelines urge the use of scientific data to manage lands, educate the public on care for wild spaces and support funding for the environment and recreation.

Colorado is the first state in the nation to incorporate blended recreation and conservation values into a statewide recreation-management plan.

Balancing a growing population’s eagerness to get outside and play with the need to protect landscapes for future generations is a delicate operation.

Between 2000 and 2016, Colorado increased by about 1.2 million residents. Another 3 million are expected by 2050.

Skier Conor Crowley makes his way down a trail at Aspen Highlands. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

And to spice up Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s task of harmonizing fruitful play with protection, the acres available for recreation is hardly keeping pace with population growth.

“The implications of rapid population growth on our natural areas, our native fish and wildlife, and our outdoor recreation experiences manifests through a variety of different land and recreation management challenges,” the SCORP draft report reads.  

To sculpt a roadmap for the next five years, the state surveyed 1,000 Coloradans to weigh recreation priorities. Those haven’t changed much since the last SCORP survey, in 2014. Walking still ranks as the most popular activity in the state, followed by hiking and backpacking/ camping.

The latest survey shows a desire for more local trails, more opportunities to view wildlife and more playgrounds.

As in 2014, residents said a lack of time, the delay of traffic and crowded destinations were barriers to getting outdoors.

Hikers with a mountain in the background
Two Continental Divide Trail hikers resting on Georgia Pass, which traverses Park and Summit counties in Colorado. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“When we think about outdoor recreation and the fact that we are growing by 100,000 new people a year, the crowding that folks were experiencing in 2014 is just a lot more extensive now in 2018,” said Jody Kennedy, who headed the agency’s public involvement in the 2019  SCORP.

The agency also surveyed 480 public-lands managers across the state and found they were challenged with maintaining existing recreation resources, adapting to changing recreational demand and coordinating with other agencies in the patchwork of management across the state.

Mixing the demographic numbers with the survey results, Colorado Parks and Wildlife wants to focus on four priority areas in the 2019-23 SCORP.

  • Sustainable access and making sure more Coloradans benefit from outdoor recreation and conservation: This means supporting Gov. John Hickenlooper’s push to develop a network of trails across the state, connecting diverse communities with the outdoors through digital mapping and better use of technology to share those connections.
  • Stewardship: Encouraging more residents and visitors to care for the state’s natural and cultural resources and shoulder the responsibility of protecting them for the next generation. That plan involves fostering volunteerism and promoting the Colorado Tourism Office’s first state partnership with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which encourages Colorado visitors to follow low-impact principles such as “Know before you go,” “Stick to trails” and “Leave it as you found it.”
  • Land, water and wildlife conservation: Foster more protection of public and private lands for outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat. That includes more research into how recreation might bother wildlife and encouraging communities and agencies to span borders when planning conservation and recreational access.
  • Funding the future: Address financial challenges facing agencies and communities committed to conserving open spaces for recreation and wildlife. This is supported by the Future Generations Act, which is legislation passed this year that allows Colorado Parks and Wildlife to raise hunting and fishing fees to support access and conservation in addition to forging a new state park and seeking out new funding sources to corral all outdoor users, not just sportsmen and sportswomen.

“This is a shared plan. This not CPW’s plan. CPW is helping the with the facilitation and implementation, … but this is really Colorado’s plan,” Kennedy said, noting that the agency’s annual Partners in the Outdoors Conference — a conference that draws more than 500 participants from about 100 organizations — will sow the seeds of the 2019 SCORP across the state.

After the agency digests public comment on the plan — comment here — an economic analysis will follow.

A final plan should be unveiled by December.

Rising Sun

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...