Bruce Hamilton remembers walking in Garden of the Gods a couple of years ago and coming upon a crowd gathered at the base of a towering sandstone formation. As he neared, he spotted the attraction: A father and son were carving their initials into the soft pink rock.
"Hey, what the hell are you doing?" he recalled hollering. "Stop."
The father replied, "Why should we? Everyone else has been doing it."
It's true. The rock is covered with hundreds of carvings. That infuriates Hamilton, a longtime rock climber, and Bo Parsons, president of the newly formed Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance.
They're concerned about irreversible damage being caused to the distinctive red, pink and white monoliths that compose Garden of the Gods, not only by people like the father and son, but also by rock climbers who scale the rock faces when the sandstone is wet and most vulnerable to sloughing and crumbling.
While city officials say they understand the problem, and agree it's a bad thing, current funding and lack of regulations make it impossible to stop it.
"There's 2 million people coming through here [per year]," Parks Department official Scott Abbott told Hamilton on a recent hike through the Garden. "That's a lot of people. We will tell you the reality is, we'll never stop this unless this is fenced and illegal to get to." And of course the city, he says, is adamantly against such a move.
It hasn't always been 2 million people visiting the park annually. A 2000 study said at that time, the Garden was drawing closer to 1 million. Hamilton, who's climbed for decades, has seen the damage worsen as the numbers have increased; he says that in the last two years, he's seen more erosion in spots than occurred in a century before. In hopes of curtailing the problem, he set up a tour last week with city parks officials.
He says he wants the city to make preservation a priority by adding staff to enforce laws barring defacing public property and by imposing stiffer regulations on climbing.
Sandstone, unlike granite that composes the Rocky Mountains, is soft. And even when it appears to be dry, it can be saturated, he says, making it even more likely to chip and erode. "You can break apart the sandstone with your bare hands," he says.
Staffing is a major problem. Garden of the Gods has just two rangers — though even that's one more than last year, after City Council amended the budget to include a second one. Another ranger oversees Red Rock Canyon Open Space, where similar problems occur, although climbing there is restricted to specific spots.
"We need to have more of a presence," Parsons says.
Hamilton suggested recruiting more volunteers to watch for carvers and other activities that hurt the historic park. But parks volunteer coordinator Tilah Larson says volunteers don't enforce laws. "I don't ever want to put a volunteer in a position with the public, to make them feel uncomfortable or where they have to enforce the rules," she says.
No ordinance bars climbers from scaling the Garden's rocks if they're wet. During the tour, there was talk of adding signs that warn of the dangers when the rocks are wet: They're not only more likely to erode, but also more dangerous to climbers. Yet Abbott says it's hard to know where they should be placed, how many would constitute overkill, and whether more signs would actually make a difference.
As for Hamilton's belief that climbers should not be permitted on the rocks after a rainstorm, Larson says such a policy might be impractical.
"The way we get afternoon showers," she says, "we can't keep people off the rocks for months and months."
If it's too complicated to impose rules against climbing while wet, Parsons suggests the city look to education. He notes that his organization, which formed in April but already has received grant funding, could help raise money to produce a video and other educational tools that could be made mandatory when climbers register at Garden of the Gods Visitors Center.
City Councilor Jan Martin says that's an excellent idea. "I've been real concerned about the resources the city puts into Garden of the Gods," she says. "With 2 million visitors a year, it is a major economic draw for our community. The city has the responsibility to put resources into that, to maintain and enforce the laws already in place."
Those laws include prohibitions on damaging park property, criminal mischief and defacing property. But Abbott says via email the Parks Department doesn't have authority to write tickets.
Staff work with police, but lack of personnel makes enforcement in the 1,367-acre park spotty at best.
While he talks a lot about the limitations, Abbott does agree that something needs to be done. "I'm closer to you on these protection issues than you realize," he told Hamilton and Parsons during their walk last week. "I think the biggest piece we need to engage in right now is the educational piece. The challenge is enforcement."
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