February 21, 2024
The Outsider | Colorado Parks and Wildlife weighs management of recreation around Pikes Peak

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Pikes Peak above downtown Colorado Springs. The region drew more than 24 million visitors in 2022. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“One of the things we are seeing and finding out is that the term ‘state park’ is a charged term and it potentially carries some baggage.” — Frank McGee, manager of CPW’s Southeast Region

Annual visitors to the Pikes Peak Region, with 68% saying they came to play outdoors

For three years, a well-organized coalition of outdoor recreation champions have rallied around Pikes Peak, trying to hammer out a plan to manage the region’s 24 million annual visitors while protecting the wild places on the iconic massif.

The Pikes Peak Outdoor Initiative looked at 140 master plans developed by the urban and rural communities around America’s Mountain. They held dozens of meetings and studied 16 management models that would protect natural resources while supporting the region’s vibrant outdoor recreation industry.

After three years of study, the best-case scenario sketches a plan where Colorado Parks and Wildlife taps its swelling coffer of revenue from Keep Colorado Wild Pass sales and takes over management of recreation around Pikes Peak.

“What does that look like? How can we partner? How can we collaborate? How can we leverage what CPW is really good at — managing recreation and managing people — so we can free up other land managers to do what they are really good at?” asks Becky Leinweber, executive director of the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance, which formed in 2016 to support the area’s recreation industry. “CPW is in a unique position as a land manager in the region to take a larger role.”

The role of Colorado Parks and Wildlife could look something like the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, a 152-mile stretch of the Arkansas River that passes through four counties, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and national monument land and draws about 1.4 million annual visitors to the most commercially rafted whitewater in the country.

While it may be tempting to say, do not call it Pikes Peak State Park. It’s too early for that.

“One of the things we are seeing and finding out is that the term ‘state park’ is a charged term and it potentially carries some baggage,” says Frank McGee, the manager of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Southeast Region that includes the Arkansas River drainage from Leadville to Kansas and the Rio Grande drainage south to New Mexico. “I don’t know if this will ever be a Pikes Peak State Park. Maybe this is just a recreation area. I know that’s a nuance.”

“But it’s an important nuance,” Leinweber says.

>> Click over to The Sun on Friday to read this story

Sunday was a busy day at Vail ski area with 11 inches of fresh snow. With two high-speed chairs now at the bottom of Sun Up and Sun Down bowls, the wait for this lift line was only 16.5 minutes. Skiers rarely wait in lift lines at Vail, even when they look like this. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Decline in visits to Vail Resorts’ 37 North American ski areas through the first week of January

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Vail Resorts on Thursday reported visitation to its 37 North American ski areas was down 16.2% through the first week in January, compared with its busiest-ever 2022-23 ski season.

Last year Vail Resorts’ North American ski hills reported 17.2 million visits, accounting for 20% of the continent’s skier traffic. Breckenridge, Park City and Vail ski areas are its top three trafficked hills in the U.S.

The slow-to-arrive winter across the country slowed traffic to the company’s ski areas in the East, Midwest, Colorado, Utah and California. Through the holiday, snowfall was below average in all the company’s regions. That changed in the last 10 days with major storms bumping the snowpack to above average at the company’s Western resorts. (And the company’s visitation trend certainly reversed with all the new snow.)

But a slowdown in traffic does not immediately translate into lost dollars for the largest ski area operator in North America. Its lift ticket revenue — collected from 2.4 million skiers who paid in advance for tickets and season passes for the season — is up 2.6% for the season. That reveals the essence of the Vail Resorts’ business strategy: get skiers to buy tickets and passes before the snow falls and the traditionally stormy whims of the resort industry will not be as impactful to the bottom line.

“Although the conditions negatively impacted visitation across our North American resorts, particularly among our local guests, our season pass sales results significantly mitigated the impact of the slower start to the season on overall lift revenue and highlight the stability created by our advance commitment strategy,” Vail Resorts’ CEO Kirsten Lynch said in a statement in her seasonal update for investors.

Expect to see more signs like this, only with additional warnings of dangers and risks of death or injury ahead as part of new legislation amending the Colorado Recreational Use Statute.

“This is augmentation but not a solution. We still have that looming problem.” — state Sen. Mark Baisley

Signs. That’s the answer for lawmakers hoping to amend the Colorado Recreational Use Statute to ease landowner liability concerns that have hindered recreational access to private lands in recent years.

Since the 1970s, the Colorado Recreational Use Statute has protected landowners who allow free recreational access on their land. But landowners are not protected if an injured visitor can prove a landowner’s “willful or malicious failure to guard against a known dangerous condition likely to cause harm.”

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 ruled that the Air Force Academy outside Colorado Springs knew about a damaged trail and failed to adequately warn people on the trail. The court affirmed a $7.3 million judgment for a cyclist who was seriously injured on the washed-out trail. The years following that decision saw landowners closing trails on private property, requiring visitors to sign waivers and even donating their land, saying their attorneys were advising them to limit access and insurance companies were spiking premiums for policies.

The chilling effect on landowners who want to open their land for recreational access has prodded calls to amend the Colorado Recreational Use Statute. The Fix CRUS Coalition has grown to 46 outdoor industry businesses, trail groups and local governments calling on lawmakers to ease landowner liability concerns and protect free outdoor recreational access.

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Senate Bill 58 proposed by three Democrats — Sen. Dylan Roberts of Frisco, Rep. Brianna Titone of Arvada and Rep. Shannon Bird from Westminster — and Republican Sen. Mark Baisley from Woodland Park asks landowners to post detailed signs warning visitors of hazards on their properties. It also asks landowners to take photographs of signs warning of dangerous conditions, structures and activities that could lead to injury or death, not just harm. If a landowner erects those signs, then they cannot be found liable for a “willful or malicious failure to guard against a known dangerous condition.”

A 2019 bill proposed removing the willful and malicious exception to landowner liability protections. It died in a committee days after it was introduced.

A bill in the 2023 session also proposed adjustments to that “willful and malicious” exception and it also died in a committee vote after testimony from several attorneys with the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association. Those lawyers argued that the recreational use statute was working well if only one landowner in more than four decades was found liable for “willful and malicious” disregard for visitor safety.

The Colorado Trial Lawyers Association worked with the lawmakers and Fix CRUS Coalition on this year’s legislation.

“In our mind it clearly states the protections that existed in the law already,” said Kari Jones Dulin, the president of the trial lawyers association.

Jones Dulin said the new language does not reduce protections for people recreating on private land. She said the proposed legislation “gives landowners the words that make them feel better about opening up their land for recreational purposes.”

Baisley, who sponsored the bill in 2023, hopes this legislation “keeps the trial attorneys at bay,” he said.

If the trial attorneys who help injured parties sue property owners say they will not file lawsuits against landowners who post signs warning of dangers and possible death, maybe that will be the assurance property owners need to keep access open for recreation, Baisley said.

But this legislation does not address the “looming problem that there is a chink in the armor of the Colorado Recreational Use Statute that was leveraged by the trial attorneys with the successful lawsuit against the Air Force Academy,” Baisley said.

“This legislation is augmentation, but not a solution,” he said. “For 30 years the Colorado Recreational Use Statute was the agreement that worked but once that veil got pierced, now every property owner wonders ‘Have I been vulnerable this whole time? Is there a likelihood that my kindness of providing access for no benefit is going to be leveraged in a way that will destroy me financially?’ That remains our looming problem. We will have this agreement for now, but if the trial attorneys find some new opportunity and seize on it, Colorado will never be the same.”

>> Click over to The Sun to read this story

Oil tankers roll past kayakers in the Colorado River in Gore Canyon in August. A plan to build the Uinta Basin Railway would route 4.6 billions of gallons of Utah crude a year through Colorado along the Colorado River. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

After the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., last month rejected a last-ditch appeal to keep the Uinta Basin Railway on track, the Forest Service this week hammered the final nail in the coffin of the 88-mile railroad that would have funneled 4.6 billion gallons of crude oil a year through Colorado.

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Utah’s Ashley National Forest Supervisor Susan Eickoff on Wednesday overturned her July 2022 approval of a right-of-way permit for the railroad, saying the agency’s decision was based on the Surface Transportation Board’s review of the proposed railroad. When the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the transportation board’s review was deficient because it did not study the climate, environmental and wildfire impacts of increased drilling and rail traffic beyond the railroad corridor, the Forest Service decided its review would need to start anew.

Colorado politicians who had attacked the railroad plan from many angles, pointing to recent fiery and polluting train derailments as an example of the downstream impacts the Surface Transportation Board failed to consider, cheered the Forest Service’s decision.

“A derailment along the headwaters of the Colorado River could have catastrophic effects for Colorado’s communities, water, and environment,” said Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, in a statement with similar quotes from other elected leaders in Colorado. “I’m glad the Forest Service has taken this important step to protect the Colorado River and the tens of millions of people who depend on it.”

A skier was partially buried in an avalanche near Lost Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness on Jan. 13. His companion was able to dig him free and he was uninjured. (Colorado Avalanche Information Center photo)

Avalanches recorded by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center between Jan. 11 and Jan. 17

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center collected reports on 860 avalanches during the extraordinarily snowy and windy storm cycle between Jan. 11 and Jan. 17. Three avalanche fatalities have been recorded in the U.S. so far this winter — one in Wyoming, one in Idaho and a skier at a California resort. In the past 10 seasons, there have never been so few avalanche fatalities by the third week in January. Just once in the past decade — the 2016-17 season — did the avalanche information center not count any avalanche deaths in Colorado by the latter half of January.

It’s too early for the high-fives, but it looks like the aggressive outreach and education campaigns by CAIC — and the Friends of CAIC too — are working. Imagine a year of big snow with zero avalanche fatalities. Wow.

Danger remains high in most ranges as heavy loads of new, wind-loaded snow stress layers deeper in the snowpack. Keep checking the forecast and maybe keep skipping through the low-angle meadows until the snowpack settles and consolidates.

— j

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