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Guest column: Federal proposal to save fish in Bear Creek watershed would cut off valued mountain trails

Maps show the current trails into the Bear Creek watershed ("Alternative A" would allow them to remain) and the trail closures proposed by the U.S. Forest Service, including eliminating public use of High Drive ("Alternative B"). Citizen comments are being taken through March 27.
Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service
       By Don Ellis

       My first rock climb, the first time I climbed Pikes Peak, the first time I saw a wood lily, the discovery of wild places so special that they seemed almost magical - these are jewels in my treasure chest of memories.
       Yes, I love mountains. During my junior high school years, whenever I had a chance I'd sit in the west alcove of the Carnegie Library across from Bancroft Park and read stories of 19th- century alpinists whose exploits I imagined repeating. After much map study and planning, outfitted with equipment which was short of even 19th-century standards and with knowledge of only 19th-century techniques, a classmate and I set out on a little expedition to Sentinel Rock -- my first rock climb.
       A little less than a year after that first rock climb, I turned 14 and was able to join a three-day Explorer Scout hike to Pikes Peak. One of the leaders, Walt Kuenning, was the city engineer. So, we were allowed to hike through the South Slope watershed. The first night we camped in an aspen grove at the upper end of Jones Park where we ate surplus Army rations. Then, on past Lake Moraine to our second night at the timberline shelter cabin (predecessor of the A-frame); finally a hike to the summit and a day watching the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. This was an unforgettable trip, unlike anything I'd experienced before.
       On another Scout hike a few of us went up a small stream to see if we could get to Tenney Crags. Part of the way we followed a long-abandoned wagon road. Like Sentinel Rock, Tenney Crags proved to be a special place for me, I could almost say a place of enchantment.
A view from Tenney Crags. The National Forest Service's "Alternative B" would decommission the current trail to it from the south (from Bear Creek). Although it is possible to access the Crags from the north (outside the Forest Service's Bear Creek watershed project area), there is no actual trail, according to Don Ellis.
Courtesy of Don Ellis

       Over the years since these early trips, I've gone back to these places many times, crawled through the crack from the west side of Sentinel to the east, climbed Specimen Rock, hiked up Mt. Arthur and Mt. Garfield from Jones Park, admired wood lilies along Bear Creek in July, photographed waterfalls and fish. I've climbed many mountains since that first climb of Sentinel; but Sentinel remains the quintessential pristine summit. The places somehow linked together by the silvery thread called Bear Creek are still places where I am rooted most deeply in the mountains.
       I would hope that others in the future could also experience the magic of these places and through their experiences sink their spiritual roots deeply into these mountains where they could foster a conservation ethic. However, if the Forest Service implements its preferred "Alternative B" for the Bear Creek watershed, the opportunity to do so legally may be lost forever. With "Alternative B," all trails that connect into Jones Park would be closed; all "non-system" trails in the Bear Creek watershed except the Palmer Trail would be closed; all hiking off trail in the area would be prohibited; and the High Drive would be closed to the public but maintained for "administrative use only."
       The objective of this "Alternative B" is to protect the population of threatened greenback cutthroat trout in Bear Creek. The plan would involve more than simply closing and re-routing trails. It would also include various projects intended to "reduce sedimentation from tributaries," to "reduce contributing hillslope/rill/gully erosion," and "reduce road/trail hydrologic connectivity." There would also be many modifications to the streambed, some involving heavy equipment.
       Well, now, it seems to me that all the restrictions together border on the draconian. The work involved in reducing hillslope/rill/gully erosion and reducing trail hydrologic connectivity could just as well extend to restoring trails to a condition where they could serve yet another century for non-mechanized use, with only a moderate amount of maintenance, just as the Palmer Trail has served since its construction in 1904. When I think about the faint path toward Sentinel, or about the trail to Tenney Crags (except for the first 100 feet away from the main trail), or about the off-trail route to Mt. Arthur and Mt. Garfield, it is hard to imagine that people's use of any of these over the past decade has contributed one granule of gravel more to Bear Creek than whatever was caught between the cleats of these people's boot soles.
       It does make sense to fix some things; and it does make sense to re-route mechanized recreation away from the basin. But, keeping hikers off the trails and out of the basin does not make sense -- except for one thing: If those of us who know and love Bear Creek were to see how much all of the projects in "Alternative B" could change a natural landscape into an unnatural one, we just might be sickened by the sight.

       Editor's note: The website for the Bear Creek watershed Restoration Project is fs.usda.gov/detail/psicc/home/?cid=STELPRDB5397304. Citizen comments on the US Forest Service's proposed changes to the Bear Creek watershed are being accepted through March 27 at bcc@fs.fed.us.
        The Westside Pioneer news article on this issue was posted March 20.
       Also, an initial comment in this column (since deleted at the author's request) included an incorrect assumption about the Trails and Open Space Coalition's position on the matter. The Coalition had already been requested to write a rebuttal and then did so. It was posted as a letter the evening of March 19.

(Posted 3/18/14; updated 3/19/14; Opinion: Guest Columns)

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