FORT COLLINS (AP) – It’s hard to shock Kristin Powell and Dave Irwin.
The two lead rangers for Fort Collins Natural Areas have seen it all: Eager hikers hopping fences to access mud-logged trails. A llama on the lam in Bobcat Ridge Natural Area.
“A lot of naked people,” Irwin said, laughing during a December walk around the reservoir at Fort Collins’ Pineridge Natural Area.
The Natural Areas ranger program celebrated its 20th anniversary last fall. Powell, the senior lead ranger, has led the program since its birth. Irwin joined it back in 2000, when just three rangers patrolled thousands of acres of open space.
Today, seven rangers reign over 41 sites totaling 36,000 acres. Even as Fort Collins’ population and gallery of open space have grown, the ranger program’s main goals haven’t changed: Maintain a safe and peaceful environment for people to enjoy the outdoors, and preserve the resources.
No two days in the life of a ranger are alike. The crew meets in the morning and strategizes where to patrol based on the weather and where people are likely to be recreating that day.
With such a small staff, every ranger covers a lot of mileage. Powell sometimes bikes up to 30 miles in a single day – she knows that because she meticulously tracks and logs her mileage when she’s on duty.
“It’s really important for us to be visible,” Powell said, so she hops on her mountain bike most days and interacts with as many people as she can. Some of them get tickets or warnings for breaking natural areas rules; most get a friendly hello.
Last year, rangers made about 7,400 “visitor contacts” and issued more than 700 tickets. The visitor contacts include helping police or firefighters, answering visitors’ questions, doing welfare checks and just talking to people. Tickets most often come for unleashed dogs, illegal camping or trespassing on closed areas.
Rangers also manage Fort Collins’ volunteer ranger assistant program, which helps bridge the gap for the understaffed program. The city has about half the rangers of similar programs in Jefferson and Boulder counties, Powell said.
The Natural Areas program faces an 80/20 funding split, meaning 80 percent of its funding goes toward purchasing and restoring land and 20 percent goes toward operations, Powell said.
That funding split has become an even bigger challenge as natural areas have become more crowded, which calls for more enforcement.
The city tracks elusive usage data by tallying days when parking lots are filled to capacity. Popular areas like Bobcat Ridge and Maxwell natural areas saw full parking lots dozens of days this year.
“Natural areas and open spaces all along the Front Range are being loved to death,” Powell said. “You really see it with some of our trail conditions. We’re constantly having to repair trails.”
Some updates have helped Natural Areas staff deal with the pressures of popularity. Natural Areas recently installed a parking lot camera at Bobcat Ridge, converted some equestrian spaces to car spaces at the Coyote Ridge parking lot and often use social media to keep visitors updated on parking lots and trail conditions.
But you can’t just build your way out of crowding issues.
“One of the reasons we enforce these regulations is to help people understand that these lands are constrained,” Powell said. “We’re constrained – by how many trails we can build, how many parking lots we can build.”
Still, Powell and Irwin are proud of the ways the ranger program has grown in the past two decades. Over the years, they’ve seen it grow from two rangers with a tiny downtown office and a stack of “good behavior” coupons to a program that features free education programs, signage, social media and wildland firefighting.
“I feel like the community really respects what we do,” Powell said. “People say thank you. That’s huge.”
“Before, it was almost like we were invisible,” Irwin added. “Now, we’re doing a lot to make sure people know our department exists, and the work we do is quality work.”
Among that quality work: llama wrangling.
Irwin was one of the rangers involved in this year’s months-long pursuit of a wily llama nicknamed “Louise.”
In the ranger program’s first-known “llama incident,” Irwin worked with ranger Karl Manderbach to lure a loose llama that had been exploring Bobcat Ridge and the surrounding area since May.
The two rangers lugged hay to the top of Mahoney Park, a meadow at Bobcat Ridge, in hopes of corralling the peckish llama there.
But eventually, the llama wandered right into the Bobcat Ridge parking lot. The rangers were able to coax the creature into a corral with a bucket of treats in early December.
The llama has now found a home at a farm in Walden.
“We put a lot of work into that,” Irwin said. “We were worried about her. A lot of people were saying she was aggressive, but she really wasn’t. She was just hungry.”