DENVER – Coloradans can look forward to an interactive map of more than 20,000 miles of Colorado trails that will roll out this summer as part of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Colorado the Beautiful initiative.
The mapping system is in early testing stages, and will include trails from agencies all over the state, including those that fall in wilderness areas such as the Weminuche, said Chris Kehmeier, project manager for the initiative.
The ability for hikers to upload pictures of trail segments and post trip reports also are being tested for the mapping system, Kehmeier said. “Right now we’re just getting the feedback of how useful that could be.”
The goal of the system will be to measure the success of the Department of Natural Resources in achieving the mission of the Colorado the Beautiful initiative: To have every Coloradan living within 10 minutes of a trail or open public space and to increase the number of children who experience these spaces, he said.
This system should go live on National Trails Day, June 3, making it correspond with a day the nation is celebrating access to public lands, Kehmeier said.
Additional benefits will be the effect on the state’s economy via its boost of the outdoor recreational industry, he said.
The importance of this industry was brought up last week by Gov. John Hickenlooper during his State of the State speech.
“Outdoor recreation generates 313,000 jobs in our state and more than $34 billion in economic output, much of it in rural Colorado,” Hickenlooper said.
This industry and easy access to trails, mountain resorts and protected public lands are also major attractions for businesses and prospective employees, he said.
The acknowledgement of the role that outdoor recreation, and the public lands that make it possible, plays in our economy is an important step forward said Shelley Silbert, executive director for Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a Durango-based conservation organization.
“Often times we’re overvaluing other things like oil and gas development, or logging, or range lands and the value of ranches, and undervaluing something that is a little more difficult to see and that is the important value of outdoor recreation in our economy,” Silbert said.
The initiative’s goal of increasing access to trails and outdoor spaces is also very important to furthering the protection of these lands by promoting an appreciation of them by future generations, she said.
“We’re pleased to see value put on public lands, and we’re pleased to see an effort to get more kids outside, because we believe only by experiencing our public lands and our wildlife and our beautiful rivers and our forests do children really become stewards of the land over time.”
While not all regions of the state enjoy the same level of access to public lands the economic benefits of the industry is felt by all, said Lucía Guzmán, Colorado Senate minority leader, D-Denver.
“It’s connected to what we call overall tourism dollars and that’s what Colorado environment just spearheads,” Guzmán said
This is particularly true for District 59, which includes the counties of Archuleta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, La Plata, Ouray and San Juan, said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango.
The access to public lands in this region allows for successful industries that revolve around skiing, rafting and hiking, McLachlan said.
But along with the economic impact comes a responsibility to care for these lands, she said. “We need to keep our public lands, we need to have access to people and make sure people take care of those public spots.”
With the current climate regarding who should have ownership of public lands this sentiment is particularly important, Silbert said. “We are living in a time when some are questioning the value of our public lands, particularly national public lands, and we know Colorado does see the value of our national public lands and the importance of those lands being kept in public hands.”
Part of the protection of these lands comes from preventing overuse of popular parks and trail systems.
Kehmeier said the new mapping system could aid in the caretaking of popular areas by raising awareness of lesser-known parks and trails and spreading visits to them.
“Here along the Front Range the forests, the state parks, a lot of the county lands receive an incredible amount of pressure,” he said. “By showing where other experiences are I think that’s going to actually act as a pressure relief valve for those trails.”
Silbert said she agrees that this mapping system will probably not greatly affect the quality of the lands it will cover, but she is concerned that the map might not identify the approved uses of the different public land designations.
An example would be wilderness-designated areas where mechanized transportation, including cycling, is prohibited.
“We don’t want to see uses that are not consistent with the wildlife habitat of the areas to be put in place,” she said.
The lack of dedicated funding for land managers to deal with the increased usage of Colorado’s public lands is unfortunate, but shouldn’t hinder the map’s development, Silbert said
“We certainly prefer to see a budget that goes along with this kind of effort. We recognize that’s not always possible, and I think there are bigger fish to fry than the concern about developing a map that will help the public better understand where public lands exist and trails might be available,” she said.