The view from the top of Mount Tom in Jefferson County. About 2,000 acres around the 9,714-foot peak has been protected through a partnership effort including Great Outdoors Colorado, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Jefferson County Open Space, The Conservation Fund and three private landowners. (Scott Tison / The Conservation Fund, Special to The Sun)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

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A $25 million effort to protect 2,000 acres of private land around Mount Tom in Jefferson County solidifies a new, complex model for conserving public lands in an increasingly crowded Colorado. 

Just like the creation of the new Fishers Peak State Park outside Trinidad, the broad partnership that coalesced around Mount Tom — one of the 10 highest peaks in Jefferson County — reveals a path to preserving large swaths of land that can elude single agencies. Great Outdoors Colorado, Jefferson County Open Space and Colorado Parks and Wildlife joined with three private landowners — including the Mountain Area Land Trust — and The Conservation Fund to pull off what everyone is calling a “once in a generation” effort.

“I’ve been calling it the triple-bank shot of conservation,” said Justin Spring with The Conservation Fund, which spent the past two years purchasing private properties inside the Mount Tom Conservation Corridor. “Really difficult to execute and pretty impressive when it works.”

A grant from Great Outdoors Colorado and funding from Jefferson County Open Space and Colorado Parks and Wildlife helped corral about 2,000 acres that will connect Jefferson County’s Douglas Mountain Study Area with the Ralston Creek State Wildlife Area and a new 400-acre conservation easement. (The conservation easement will not be open to the public but will prevent any future development and protect the agricultural history of the land.) The newly conserved land around Mount Tom is known as a bountiful breeding area for lady bugs and is surrounded by more than 20,000 acres of protected parks and wildlife habitat.

It’s one of the largest swaths of open-space preservation on the Front Range since the creation of Jefferson County’s Centennial Cone Park in 2005. But hold off on packing the Subaru for an exploratory pedal or hike. In yet another new strategy for protecting open space, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Jefferson County Open Space are going to take a long look at how to develop their new acres with a careful balance of conservation and recreation. 

Protecting wildlife and habitat while expanding recreational access is a daunting challenge facing Colorado’s conservation community and growing outdoor recreation economy right now. There’s a push for new parks and increased recreational access to accommodate the state’s surging population. And there’s a growing concern that wildlife and truly natural places could get lost in that build-more-playgrounds mission. 

“How can we recognize that inherent tension and prepare for it? That is a process that began very early on for the Mount Tom project,” Spring said. 

Two families, the Baughmans and Cappellos, have owned the land around Mount Tom for generations. There are no roads or even trails on most of the acreage. 

“Everyone who sees it is kind of stunned by the beauty and the wildlife that is there and the condition that the land is in,” said Kara Van Hoose, a spokeswoman with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

A trail cam set up in now protected land around Mount Tom has captured bear, moose, elk and mountain lions. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

The agency has game camera snaps of a little watering hole on the property revealing ambling moose, elk and mountain lions.  

“We are going to need at least a couple seasons to really understand the wildlife and their movements and patterns on the property before we do much there,” Van Hoose said. “We are going to take awhile to really study what goes on on this property.”

(Provided by The Conservation Fund)

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is adding about 1,180 acres to the Ralston Creek Wildlife Study Area, growing that primitive acreage by more than 50%. Eventually the area will be open for hunting and fishing, but not much else. 

Jefferson County Open Space is getting about 740 acres, including the summit of the 9,741-foot Mount Tom. Eventually the county will build a trail to the summit. 

It will be “a pretty rugged, strenuous hike,” said Tom Hoby, the 13-year director of parks and open space for Jefferson County. “It won’t be for the faint of heart. But at the top, there’s a full-in view of the Continental Divide and all the peaks, from Pikes to Longs and the Indian Peaks. Then turn around and you’ll see all of metro Denver.”

Hoby and his team are going to take their time to closely study Mount Tom and its wildlife corridors, water, scenic views and where best to develop trails. Jefferson County has three classifications of its parks, with the least developed “preserves” having fewer trails and seasonal closures for wildlife. The Mount Tom property likely will be similar to the county’s Centennial Cone Park, which allows hiking and horseback riding on odd-numbered weekend days and biking on even-numbered weekend days. Centennial Cone also has closures for both hunting and elk calving. 

“It’s really a spectacular place,” Hoby said of Mount Tom. “And it’s a terrific example of how these kinds of partnerships with all these different organizations can really extend our reach to do incredible things. I mean, to protect 2,000 acres of contiguous land adjacent to about 20,000 acres of other public land in Jefferson County and so close to the metro Denver population is just incredible. I do hope this is the future of how we get conservation done.”

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Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins