Jay Cimino remembers the fall day in 2017 when his “Gang of 14” — local politicians and business leaders from Trinidad — piloted Jeeps to the base of Fishers Peak. Amidst the fall colors they made a pledge to buy the land below the craggy castle overlooking their city.
“That day, such a beautiful day, we committed that somehow or another we would purchase the 4,000 acres and and it would not be for any of us,” said Cimino, a Trinidad native and local businessman and philanthropist. “It would be for the city and its residents.”
Barely two years later, the pledge is a reality — and then some. Fishers Peak, aka Crazy French Ranch, is set to become the Colorado’s 42nd state park, with the state acquiring the 4,000 acres Cimino and his crew wanted plus an additional 16,000 acres to create Colorado’s second-largest park.
Gov. Jared Polis used the word “iconic” five times in 5 minutes on Wednesday as he described the new park and its potential impact on Trinidad and Las Animas County.
“We are looking really aggressively for new ways to open public lands for Coloradans to recreate and hike and fish and camp and hunt,” Polis said a day before making the official announcement and heading down to Trinidad to fete the first new state park since 2013. “And of course we have a real iconic opportunity in southern Colorado with Fishers Peak.”
The park is a 30-square-mile trove of untrammeled forest, teeming with deer, elk, bear, cougars and more, capped by the basalt-flumed buttress that towers over the city of 9,000 people. Bordered by Trinidad, Interstate 25 and thousands of acres of designated Colorado wildlife area, Fishers Peak could be open in 2021, offering public access for the first time since statehood and promising a boon to the boom-bust economy of Las Animas County.
“It’s a great opportunity in an area of the state that has immense opportunities for growth in areas of recreation and tourism,” Polis said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, buoyed by the 2018 passage of its Future Generations Act, has spent the past year surveying state residents about their priorities. The agency’s long-term goals include a new park in development by 2025. CPW is well ahead of schedule with Fishers Peak, which at 9,633-feet ranks as the highest point in the country east of Interstate 25.
Conservation, rural economic development and outdoor recreation are melding in a one-of-a-kind partnership at the sprawling Crazy French ranch beneath the peak. (Polis said that while the official name of the park has yet to be determined, it’s not likely Crazy French, the ranch’s long-held name — created by its French previous owners — will stick around.)
The designation of the park comes barely two years after the Gang of 14 made its pledge and enlisted the help of the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy.
The two conservation groups saw an opportunity beyond a park for Trinidad and bought the whole ranch last year for $25.4 million. They got Great Outdoors Colorado to pledge $7.5 million and Colorado Parks and Wildlife came up with $7 million to offset the cost of the $29 million project paid by the two conservation groups.
“It was a partnership and people gathering together on a mission to do something that needed to be done, and we accomplished more than we ever expected,” Cimino said Wednesday.
The mix of residents with local politicians and state agencies joining the two largest conservation groups in the country to forge a state park from a biologically-rich swath of land connecting mountain and plains makes Fishers Peak “a milestone project,” said Carlos Fernandez, the Colorado director of the Nature Conservancy.
“To find a place that exemplifies the importance of outdoor recreation, innovative partnerships and rural economic development; to find all those things together in one place is one of a kind,” said Fernandez, whose group typically focuses on the conservation of wild spaces to protect wildlife and ecologies.
The Trust for Public Land emphasizes recreation opportunities on land it buys for protection. The two groups plan to work together in the development of the park, melding their missions into the ranch’s undisturbed acres of scrub oak, ponderosa pine and aspen. Combined with James M. John and Lake Dorothey state wildlife areas and Sugarite State Park in New Mexico, there will be trails and wilderness spanning nearly 55 square miles.
“Looking at those two nonprofits, one with a focus on conservation and another one with a focus on recreation, combining those two with a city, a county, a state and GOCO as well as CPW, it’s a partnership that’s just a great model to explore everywhere,” said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, whose Colorado Parks and Wildlife will manage the park with a mix of hiking, biking, hunting, angling, rock climbing and more alongside the agency’s mission to protect wildlife and habitat.
Staunton State Park in Jefferson and Park counties was the last new state park, opening in 2013 after more than 27 years of slow accumulation of land. Fishers Peak is designated as a state park less than a year after the conservation groups acquired the land and could be open to the public in five years or less.
“There is a tremendous amount of energy in the Polis administration for increasing access for Coloradans to the outdoors, and you are seeing that in this project,” said Jim Petterson, the Colorado director of the Trust for Public Land. “It has happened quickly. Maybe more quickly than we expected.”
CPW has funding from its habitat-stamp fund to help pay back The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land. The deal must be approved by the legislature’s Capital Development Committee, Gibbs said.
Polis and CPW, following priorities suggested by state residents in surveys — like nature-based recreation, community value and economic benefits — are scouting locations for more parks. Since 2013, visitation to state parks has climbed more than 3 million to more than 15 million.
“This one might be more iconic and dramatic than the others, but there are so many other places that will meet a lot of our criteria,” Polis said. “So I’m absolutely optimistic there are other great opportunities in our state.”