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News / Nation & World

Pikes Peak gets ‘trashed’ by overuse

Blatant disregard for the environment, behavior ‘alarming’

By John Meyer, The Denver Post
Published: May 18, 2024, 6:05am

DENVER — As most Coloradans know, the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” were inspired by a trek to the summit of Pikes Peak via prairie wagon in 1893. But when Katharine Lee Bates penned a poem called “Pikes Peak,” which became an American anthem after it was set to music in 1910, she could scarcely have imagined the great mountain becoming a trash heap.

Outdoor recreation advocates fear that’s what is happening to the majestic 14,107-foot peak that soars above Colorado Springs, along with the surrounding Pike National Forest.

“We’re trashing America’s Mountain,” said Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition of the Pikes Peak region.

Increasing population, untrained newcomers to outdoor recreation and blatant disregard for the natural environment are causing resource damage, advocates say, spoiling the experience for those who recreate responsibly. As a result, some are proposing that Colorado Parks and Wildlife take over management on the mountain, which currently involves multiple agencies. Discussions are only in preliminary stages, but Colorado Parks and Wildlife isn’t opposed to the idea.

“There are, potentially, multiple benefits,” said Frank McGee, southeast region manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “In addition to increased or better developed recreational amenities, if we can do a better job of concentrating recreational uses, there’s also an opportunity to reduce impacts on natural resources.”

Among advocates for recreation on Pikes Peak and in the surrounding forest, there is widespread alarm that something must be done.

“Many of us have been convinced for some time that the forest is just broken,” Davies said. “It’s so large, it’s so loved, the population is growing so fast. We are also seeing a level of brazenness that we didn’t see before. People drive up and dump a refrigerator. People drive up and dump a stolen car. People are shooting up trees. I hear and see these things. It’s not that they think they can do it; they know they can get away with it. They’re spoiling my forest.”

Ryan Nehl, supervisor of the Pike and San Isabel National Forest, said the level of irresponsible behavior on the mountain is alarming.

“We do a lot of clean-up on the mountain,” Nehl said. “I was just at our facility and we had over a dozen abandoned RVs that we had collected and were disposing of. It’s a very costly, sometimes dangerous, activity when you come across things like that in the forest. Our law enforcement agents are highly professional and very good at what they do, but the scale of the problem — we could use some assistance. If the state could provide some assistance in that manner, I would be overjoyed.”

‘Overwhelmed’

Similar behavior has occurred in popular recreation areas across Colorado in recent years, especially since the pandemic which brought out an influx of nature neophytes. But Pikes Peak has unique pressures. It is the only Colorado fourteener located on the outskirts of a metropolitan area — Colorado Springs being Colorado’s second-largest city — and one of the few that is a drive-to tourist destination. Nearly 24 million visited the area in 2022.

The summit is only 12 miles from downtown Colorado Springs, as the crow flies. Hiking to the summit — a 7,400-foot ascent via Barr Trail — or driving up via the Pikes Peak Highway are major attractions. So are the Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway and the Manitou Incline. The nearby Garden of the Gods also attracts millions of people annually.

“Trash and dumping is probably one of the biggest challenges we started seeing, dumping on our public lands like never before,” said Becky Leinweber, executive director of the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance. “It’s so many tons and tons of dumping of materials. In addition to that, we’re seeing a lot of conflicts between users. With more people comes more interactions, and people not enjoying the experience as much. We’ve got people hiking while other people are running, you’ve got motorized (users) on some of the multi-use trails as well.

“The experience isn’t as great as it used to be,” Leinweber added. “A lot of people end up going off-trail, or off-system trails, creating their own (trails), so we’re seeing more resource damage that way. Bathrooms, if they’re open and maintained, are getting overwhelmed. We truly don’t have enough infrastructure to support all of this use we’ve seen seeing.”

Pikes Peak and surrounding slopes are under multiple jurisdictions, which complicates the problem. Among them are the Pike National Forest, the City of Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs Utilities and others. The city manages the toll gate, the Pikes Peak Highway, the summit and pullouts along the road.

“The area that is managed by the city of Colorado Springs is not the area that is experiencing those problems, because it is managed by a toll gate,” said Britt Haley, director of the city’s department of parks, recreation and cultural services. “Obviously nobody is paying that toll and then dumping a refrigerator off the side of the highway. In the Pike and San Isabel forest, there are a lot of issues that we think additional coordination and support would be able to help manage.”

Leinweber’s group is looking hard for solutions. The Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance is a partnership comprised of government agencies, outdoor businesses and nonprofits including CPW, the forest service, Colorado Springs, El Paso County, the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office of state government, the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Outdoor Partnership. The alliance began working on the issues facing the region in 2017.

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“Even at that time, we were seeing quite a bit of growth, and what we were hearing from our land managers was that they were seeing changes, not just the numbers of people using our public lands, but the impacts and their level of education, just people knowing how to be out there,” Leinweber said. “They were seeing a lot of irresponsible use, some user conflicts, way back then. We started leaning in on, how do we work together to tackle these issues?”

The alliance is pursuing solutions through a process it calls the Outdoor Pikes Peak Initiative, consulting stakeholders, conducting public listening sessions, surveys and outreach.

“We now have some draft strategies and action items that will be coming to the public in the next couple of months, when we have our next round of public listening sessions,” Leinweber said.

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