Story first appeared in:
FORT COLLINS — Before 2017, the parking lot at Hughes Memorial Stadium was the place you went on a September Saturday to hibachi hot links and guzzle New Belgium brews before heading into the arena about 3 miles from Colorado State University to watch the Rams lock horns with their football rivals.
But school officials decided to abandon the old concrete stadium for a new on-campus, $220 million football complex, leaving an enormous human-made scar in the prairie where Hughes and its parking lots once sat. CSU thought the best use for these 167 acres was transforming them into a mix of housing, commercial uses and a transit center with some land set aside for open space.
A group of Fort Collins conservationists had a different idea, though. They wanted to let all of the land heal and regrow by turning it into a city-owned open space.
The conservationists launched a coordinated effort to gather enough signatures to get the Fort Collins City Council to put a measure on the 2021 ballot asking if the Hughes Stadium land should be preserved as open space. The measure passed — 69% to 31% — and the conservationists believed they had gotten their neighbors what they wanted.
But the city council had some decisions to make — namely what, exactly, should they do with the land once they finalized the purchase from CSU. That proved to be a problem, because, as Mayor Jeni Arndt said, among the many uses the ballot measure offered for open space was recreation.
Arndt said when she saw that word — recreation — in the ballot item, she commented to Mike Foote, the former state lawmaker who wrote the ballot measure on behalf of the conservation group, “Dude, you put recreation in there. And Mike said, ‘I probably shouldn’t have.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but you did.’”
Foote conceded to possibly saying that to Arndt, and added “there could have been more specific verbiage about the kind of recreation the conservationists envisioned on the property, but that wasn’t on their radar at the time.” They thought “light recreation” that already took place there — disc golf and sledding — could stay, “but I don’t think they ever anticipated making it into a big mountain bike park,” he said.
A group of Fort Collins mountain bikers — some of Colorado’s most organized and vocal recreationists — did, however. And now they are locked in a battle with conservationists over the soul of the Hughes Stadium land. That, in turn, is highlighting an issue that in the coming years will affect every Coloradan with a vested interest in conservation, preservation, wildlife or recreation.
The war playing out over a piece of property in one Colorado city is a microcosm of a larger issue: Our open spaces are disappearing before our eyes.
LEFT: PATHS, Planning Action to Transform Hughes Stadium, organizers Melissa Rosas and Elena Lopez on the former Hughes Stadium site. The two led the conservation group’s effort to preserve the Hughes Stadium land. RIGHT: Overland Mountain Bike Association member Aggie Holer rides at Rotary Park in Fort Collins in early April. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)
TOP: PATHS, Planning Action to Transform Hughes Stadium, organizers Melissa Rosas and Elena Lopez on the former Hughes Stadium site. The two led the conservation group’s effort to preserve the Hughes Stadium land. BOTTOM: Overland Mountain Bike Association member Aggie Holer rides at Rotary Park in Fort Collins in early April. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)
The crisis of the West’s disappearing lands
Proof of the Western U.S.’ shrinking lands lies on the Center for American Progress’ website The Disappearing West. At the top of the page there’s a ticker with an ongoing count of the acres of natural area gobbled up by development.
The website only shows data collected from 2001 to 2011. But Brett Dickson, president and chief scientist of Conservation Science Partners, a Truckee, California, collective of scientists and academics applying “human ingenuity to the preservation of species, populations and ecosystems using scientific principles,” offered additional statistics from 2013 to 2020.
The first set of stats is troubling enough. It shows that human development in the 11 Western states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming covered more than 165,000 square miles or roughly 6 million superstore parking lots in 2011. Back then, the forests, wetlands, deserts and grasslands of the West were disappearing at the rate of one football field every 2.5 minutes.
During the same period, Colorado had lost 525 square miles, equal to 254,259 football fields, of open, natural area to development. Conservation Science Partners’ second set of data showed in 2020, Colorado’s urban area footprint was 6,698 square miles, up from 5,155 in 2013. That’s nearly a 30% increase in eight years.
What’s more, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has its own data on natural resource conditions, shows in its most recent survey, done in 2017, that 1.97 million acres of Colorado’s land mass had something built on it back then. That was up from 1.6 million in 1997 and 1.35 million in 1987. Which means 620,000-plus acres of land had seen additional development over a 30-year period.
Those several hundred thousand acres — equaling 970 square miles — may seem negligible when compared to Colorado’s overall area of 104,185 square miles. But 37,656 square miles of the overall area is protected federal land. When new data emerges reflecting Colorado’s influx of nearly 800,000 new residents since 2010, it will surely show a significant trend of development devouring land.
The chomping away of natural spaces coupled with an explosion of Coloradans with powerful recreational desires is where this story detours back to Fort Collins and the Hughes Stadium property battle.
How the bike lobby galvanized for its Hughes property dreams
The thread picks up after Arndt told Foote he might have done well to leave “recreation” out of the options residents could choose for the newly designated Hughes open space.
Among other options were dark sky space, cross-country running trails and a wildlife rehabilitation center. Formally, the conservation group PATHS, which stands for Planning Action to Transform Hughes Stadium, said it wanted “a quiet place of solitude for the entire community (of all abilities and walks of life) to connect with nature, and to serve as an extension of a protected wildlife corridor, and a place to preserve our dark night skies in a rapidly growing town with increasing noise and light pollution.”
Elena Lopez, a data scientist, environmental ecophysiologist and PATHS member, said many of the 69% who voted “yes” on the ballot item were “really excited that we had created this beautiful open space at the base of the hills in a sensitive ecological area where wildlife migrates through.
“So we just sat on it kind of waiting for the land to be officially acquired,” she said. (The city has since allocated $12.5 million for it, with a closing date yet to be set.) “But what we didn’t realize is there were some very heavy recreation lobbying groups that were apparently meeting with some city staff and some council members behind the scenes,” Lopez said. “The city always came back to us and said they hadn’t. But sure enough, we discovered that they had been meeting with these groups for a while, in particular a very small, kind of vocal and organized bike lobby in Fort Collins.”
The group Lopez referred to is the Overland Mountain Bike Association. On March 7, Overland and several of its mountain bike partners, totaling around 85 constituents of which roughly half were kids, gathered at the twice-monthly city council meeting. And though the Hughes land wasn’t on the agenda, they flocked to the lectern during public comments to tell the city council how badly they wanted a 60- to 80-acre, natural-surface bike skills park similar to but better than the $3.2 million Valmont Bike Park in Boulder, complete with jumps, berms, a singletrack skills cross-country course, a short track mountain bike and cyclocross course and features suitable for small kids on strider and mini pedal bikes.
Over roughly an hour, one by one, they spoke. Adults told the council a park would create community, be a safe gathering space for children, provide mental and physical health in a time of soaring depression, obesity and diabetes and give whole families a space where they could ride their mountain bikes together. And kids said a park would give them a respite from social media and electronics, teach them new skills on their bikes, bring more girls into mountain biking and eliminate the danger of riding a dangerous road to trails at Horsetooth Reservoir, which many said are too difficult for beginner riders.
When the public comment period ended, a few council members thanked the bikers for coming and congratulated the kids for getting involved in the public process. Then the meeting continued with its scheduled agenda.
The conservationists’ platform
By then, the PATHS group was alleging a mountain bike park for Hughes was a “foregone conclusion.”
The Colorado Sun learned this from Mark De Gregorio, a Fort Collins area resident with 30 years experience in land conservation who served on the board of Legacy Land Trust and later on advisory boards for open lands and parks in the region. He said PATHS consulted him to help them investigate, as the subject line in an email to The Sun described it, “something fishy with the Hughes Stadium property issue.”
The city, De Gregorio said, was favoring a “large, highly impactful mountain bike skills park on the open space land.” This was evidenced by, among other things, the city hiring Kearns & West, a strategic communications firm founded in 1984 with offices across the country, he said. The person leading the Kearns & West engagement team was Morgan Lommele, a paid lobbyist for the biking industry. And he said Lommele’s “side hustle,” was working in “industry trade groups associated with the city’s favored interest group,” Overland Mountain Bike Association.
De Gregorio also alleged the city had prioritized Overland over PATHS and other conservation groups by showing the mountain bike group land use surveys the city would use to gauge residents’ priorities for the property. And he said the “terribly flawed” design and implementation of the surveys had clouded the council’s understanding of how the property should be used.
On April 2, The Sun interviewed two of the conservationists De Gregorio had advised, Lopez, the PATHS member and ecophysiologist, and John McDonagh, a member of the Poudre Canyon Sierra Club’s executive committee.
McDonagh offered what he called “a 10,000-foot view” for why his club had reservations about the Hughes planning process.
“Let me preface this by saying, ‘Hey, I’m a mountain biker.’ But from our perspective, there are three significant problems with the city choosing a bike park,” he said.
First, it would render a significant portion of the Hughes tract unavailable to the vast majority of Fort Collins citizens and low-impact outdoor recreation users, he said. “I’m talking here about stuff like walking, hiking, biking, wildlife viewing, bird watching and potentially dark skies.”
Second, it would “severely damage” the habitat species protection and ecological connectivity and continuity, “that make the tract so unique and irreplaceable from a biological perspective.”
And third, a bike park would “contravene the clear intent of the ballot measure that led to the setting aside of the Hughes property,” he said.
Then he turned his focus to the city’s approach to the issue.
“The critical question for us is whether all of our city council and staff members are approaching it with a truly open mind. Or are they simply going through the motions to appear fair and unbiased,” he said. “Now, we certainly can’t read anyone’s mind, and we’re certainly not — make this clear — ascribing ill intent.”
But PATHS and The Sierra Club were worried.
Reviewing Morgan Lommele’s résumé
In their interview with The Sun, McDonagh and Lopez said the city’s decision to hire Lommele as the primary facilitator for the Hughes project did “very little to instill public confidence in the objectivity and credibility of the process.”
The land’s future had been a hot-button issue for nearly a decade. CSU’s original plan was to extend the residential development across Overland Trail Road, adding 641 units of for-sale housing, neighborhood retail and offices, a health care center and child care facility, plus a link for the city bus system. More than 70 acres of open green space would be preserved — nearly half the parcel’s total acreage. When PATHS learned this, it launched a campaign called Yes 4 Hughes Open Space, saying, “The most EQUITABLE and PROTECTIVE use for Hughes is that it be designated a city natural area, contiguous with the existing natural areas: Maxwell and Pine Ridge, for the benefit of ALL members of our community, of all socioeconomic backgrounds and physical abilities.”
Lopez says PATHS canvassed for this widely, with members “hanging out at farmers’ markets and holding community meetings.” Volunteers went door-to-door, dropped literature at events and set up petition tables at local retailers. Their mission was explaining the value of designating the land open space and gaining enough signatures from the public to get the question added to the April 2021 ballot. The ballot was presented, the citizens voted yes and Laura Pritchett, a Fort Collins native and fiction writer, echoed what PATHS says is the sentiment of a large number of Fort Collins residents, in her monthly column for The Sun.
☀️ READ MORE FROM COLORADO SUNDAY
“The meadow should be restored, the viewshed should be protected. We should stop the sprawl when and where we can, particularly in such a unique ecotone,” Pritchett wrote. “Moreover, it should be saved for light recreational use, such as the sledding hill, the disc golf course and the hiking nearby — and not the large-scale bike park advocated by some.”
PATHS shared Pritchett’s views and took issue with the city hiring Lommele as part of a three-person team, in part because of her history of working in cycling advocacy. Among the jobs listed on her LinkedIn profile are state and local policy director for PeopleForBikes and community engagement and organizing specialist for the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
Her lobby activist report form with the West Virginia Ethics Commission also lists her lobbying activity as “advancing the interests of the U.S. bicycle industry.” And in testimony before the Pennsylvania legislature, she described PeopleForBikes as a “national advocacy group and trade association that works for better policies and infrastructure for bike riding.”
But Ginny Sawyer, the city’s project and policy manager, insists Lommele’s past work in bicycle advocacy had nothing to do with the city’s decision to hire Kearns & West.
A review of the RFP released to The Sun via an open records request shows only two mentions of the word “bike” and two of the word “bicycle” in the 30-page document. There is no mention of bike interests or bike advocacy. Instead, Kearns & West’s bid highlights things like “equity priority,” “culturally mindful outreach,” “impartial, third-party approach” and “facilitation, mediation and listening techniques” as services it could offer the city.
Lommele’s résumé, included in the proposal with others, does mention her past job with IMBA. But Sawyer said, “I think it’s important to keep bias out of any hiring process whether that’s for a consultant or an employee. You really shouldn’t be looking people up on Facebook, including their picture, when you’re considering them for a job. I’m going to look at the staff Kearns & West provided and the scope of the work they’ve done and the price they submit based on the proposal we put out.”
Sawyer added: “Would it have mattered if Lommele had worked for the Sierra Club before? No. If we go down that road, then who decides and what are the criteria? We said, ‘We’re looking for someone to do this,’ and they said, ‘We can.’ That’s how it’s done.”
De Gregorio also criticized the language used in the surveys asking residents what they envisioned for the open space, calling it “vague” and saying it led people to make uninformed decisions. And, he said, PATHS takes enormous issue with the order in which they believe the city reached out to the various interest groups.
In a Feb. 23 email to The Sun, De Gregorio said it was obvious that members of Overland were treated to the study link early, because “many results favoring a mountain bike park were recorded” in the two days after it came out.
But Sawyer said the survey was published “soon after meeting with the recreation and wildlife folks. We then promoted it through the focus groups and postcards. It asked for preference ranking of the uses listed in the ballot language and it was open for a number of weeks after all focus groups had met.”
Sawyer said the first survey received 2,700 unique responses.
“Then in a second survey we tried to bucket the responses by lower impact and higher impact … to give the city council an idea of the diversity of options we were hearing and look for potential uses,” she said. “One thing we don’t want to do is set this up as it’s all about the loudest voices and the most voices dueling. We want to work really hard to co-create, collectively, a plan that will satisfy everyone.”
Still no consensus
In some ways it did look like the mountain bike lobby had an inside advantage. Why else would so many of them have flooded the city council’s March 7 meeting? Hughes Stadium wasn’t even on the agenda. How did all of those bikers get organized? Arndt says Foote called her with these questions.
“Does PATHS not think other groups can get organized?” Arndt said. “They had Dude Dad. He wants a bike park and he put out the call. It’s as simple as that. It’s not like Fort Collins is going behind the scenes ginning things up. No, it’s just Dude Dad.” (Dude Dad, the handle for Taylor Calmus, a YouTube comic whose DIY TV show “Super Dad” was on Magnolia Network for two seasons, has about 800,000 followers on the social media platform.)
But Lopez says a bike skills park “doesn’t align with the legislative intent and what people were presented with when they voted for the ballot. They thought they were voting to protect the land.”
“We’re talking about an 80-acre bike skills park in the middle of this prime habitat,” McDonagh added. “If you want to get a sense of what a bike park looks like, go to the one they’re always pointing to: Valmont. Look, we think a top-notch bike skills park is a really good idea. But let’s use our creativity and work together to put it in a suitable location, not in this very important and unique habitat.”
A 2019 land management plan by the City of Fort Collins lists the ecological zone that includes the Hughes Stadium property as supporting 267 native wildlife species and 396 native plants. Hughes sits between protected natural areas, Pineridge to the south and Maxwell to the north, in a corridor called an “ecotone,” or region of transition between biological communities between the mountains and plains.
Jason Surface, a biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, questioned the importance of the Hughes land for deer, one of the area’s largest mammal groups.
“Hughes sits in a pocket of a mile or so of no development on the west side of South Overland Trail Road,” he said. “But there is development on the other side, so it’s one of these interesting parcels. Because if you look at it from that perspective, it doesn’t appear to offer much in terms of wildlife value.”
An estimated 35 to 55 deer do use it as “more of a winter area” during some of that season and regularly during large snow events in the spring, Surface added. So if the bike park is “mainly a summer thing, from a deer perspective, it may not be that big of a deal.”
As for the more charismatic megafauna — the bears, mountain lions and coyotes — that live in the region, Surface said they may not be impacted at all, because “a lot of the city’s trails run along creeks and rivers. That’s a terrible place to build them, but they create these wonderful corridors for those predators to move through the city.”
But the city’s Natural Areas Department says what likely would be harmed by development are species like the Ottoe skipper, a butterfly with a flight range of up to a mile that is dependent on prairie wildflowers for nectar. Species like this — and many others — are what the Natural Areas Department says it and its partners are working to protect “when purchasing parcels identified as valuable for conservation in the foothills.” The department recognizes that the Hughes land will never be returned to the way it was before the stadium was built in 1968. But the debate continuing to rage over what to do with it raises another question about the millions of acres of land rapidly disappearing from the West.
The “unsolvable problem” of the “cumulative effect”
One obvious culprit in Colorado? Exploding population. Another? Coloradans’ hunger for outdoor recreation.
Creating open space (where recreation is allowed) is one way cities like Boulder and Fort Collins have worked to protect the open lands and wildlife that make living in Colorado so enticing. But the influx of people and increasing demand for housing, community development, infrastructure and places to play are threatening those very qualities.
There are nearly 50 natural areas throughout Fort Collins totaling 36,000 acres. But Surface says “total acreage isn’t net indicative of value.”
That’s because chunked-up pieces of open land “don’t provide great habitat,” he adds. “What you need are the large, unused tracks. Both Boulder and Fort Collins are doing a decent job of preserving larger parcels of open space, but they’re not going to be great for everything.”
The chopping away of open space also has a “cumulative effect,” Surface adds. “We know what we didn’t know a few decades ago, so we have the ability to develop land a little bit more wisely. But looking at the Front Range, every time I have to do comments on some of these larger-scale projects, I ask how much more can the wildlife take? How much will this major highway, that commercial development or this residential development impact it? But then again, it depends on which species you’re talking about,” Surface says. “With bald eagles, years ago we were worried they couldn’t endure any human activity, and now we see them sitting on trees in construction sites.” But he adds ongoing new development could have a breaking point for them and other wildlife.
This brings us, once again, to the battle for the Hughes Stadium land and which group — humans or animals — “deserves” it.
Kenny Bearden, the Overland Mountain Bike Association’s executive director, says, CSU used to park cars for as many as 32,000 fans on the gravel lot that once covered the land, “so it’s hard to say there’s some tremendously high wildlife value there. It’s invasive weeds. There’s still concrete and rebar and remnants of the stadium’s foundation. And bike parks are going up all over the country. They’re known to be really great for kids of all ages and even for adults who like to get out on bikes. They’re turning into really good high-value community spaces.”
The Daily Sun-Up podcast | More episodes
But Lopez said, “Ahhhh, yes. The tired [parking lot] narrative again. CSU promoted it when we started organizing … primarily to deter our efforts. The bike park lobbyists have co-opted that narrative for their own purposes. Those people who say that Hughes is just invasive weeds, gravel, and remnants of rebar likely do not understand the fundamental processes of ecological succession and resiliency in nature.”
Following the stadium’s demolition, the site was graded and drill seeded with native grasses, and most of the debris was removed, which is what is generally done after a demolition occurs, Lopez added. The first species that grew into the disturbed site were the young grasses and some vegetation. “Note that this is without any external irrigation to the site for the newly drill-seeded grasses. So the land is returning itself to its natural state with virtually no effort,” Lopez said.
Finally, Lopez said using “disparaging, devaluing and denigrating words to describe the land makes it easier for lobbyists to justify appropriating and exploiting it for their own destructive vision that serves only a small subset of residents.”
Both Arndt and PATHS mentioned Overland choosing a different location for its park, but Bearden said “nothing has been discussed or even mentioned to us as an alternative to the current discussion.”
He added Overland and the city’s parks planning department have together looked at a few properties closer to the downtown area, with one in particular receiving the most focus — Legacy Park. “That has faced the same level of opposition from these same individuals. It was even said at one point in a separate council meeting that a bike park in this particular downtown Fort Collins location would be ‘more destructive than industrial-scale development,'” he said.
This story first appeared in
Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members.
Experience the best in Colorado news at a slower pace, with thoughtful articles, unique adventures and a reading list that’s a perfect fit for a Sunday morning.
That’s a ludicrous comparison, Bearden said. But Overland is “100% open to looking at other properties. The concern is that we simply get pushed out into some remote, far-less-desirable property. This has happened in many communities across the country. They allocate some undesirable portion of land simply to appease the group. Then, they see the tremendously positive impacts it has for youth and others in the community, and another more prominently featured property gets allocated later with far more success and positive impacts.”
As for Arndt?
She says Hughes’ future is currently at a standstill, because the city has “larger issues it’s dealing with at the moment, like water rights and the current legislation around the land-use code.”
But that’s OK, because as long as no decision is made, the land sits where it sits, unblemished, she says.
The city’s next step is to bring all of the interest groups into one room and, through “robust civil discourse,” work toward consensus for what to do with the property.
If that can’t happen, the top uses for the land could appear on a ranked-choice ballot and Fort Collins residents could vote on the future of Hughes Stadium, Arndt said. “There’s nothing like a vote to solve a dispute.”