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Losing the woods? 

Stalled Section 16 negotiations today could mean no public access to that open space in 15 months

The "No trespassing" sign at the Manitou Springs Incline is an anachronism, blithely ignored by hundreds of hikers on most sunny days.

So the natural response to reports that a similar sign — or even a fence — could go up at the Section 16 west-side open space is good-natured optimism. "No trespassing" is just a punch-line here, right?

"I don't think it's correct for anyone to take anything for granted," warns Brownell Bailey, only a few months into his tenure as executive director of the Colorado State Land Board, which owns Section 16. "It is not a public park."

Though Bailey admits fencing the 640-acre property would be a "last resort," he emphasizes the land board may very well decide to keep people off the land used for public hiking, biking and horse-riding since the 1970s. And it could happen at the end of 2010.

Section 16 negotiations stayed on the back burner for years as Colorado Springs bought other open space, including neighboring Red Rock Canyon in 2003. Its lease, though, expires at the end of next year, so this year it became more of a priority to get something done. That seemed fairly straightforward — until the land board rejected an appraisal that valued the property at $2.8 million, a third the value from a 2007 appraisal.

The new appraisal, jointly commissioned by the city and land board, was supposed to end any price-squabbling.

Bailey's explanation for bailing out: The land board, charged under the state Constitution with raising money for public schools by managing a portfolio of land granted by the federal government, is supposed to "keep its decision-making independent of outside influences." Bailey says he believes the joint appraisal, agreed to by the land board's previous administration, violates that independence.

So he's planning to go it alone, with the land board getting a new appraisal this winter.

One wrinkle is a $1 million grant from Great Outdoors Colorado that was on the table to help Colorado Springs with the purchase. With hours to go before GOCO's Oct. 1 deadline to continue reserving the money in anticipation of a new deal, Chris Lieber, manager of the city's Trails, Open Space and Parks program, offers only vague hope that negotiations will pick up again.

The underlying problem is that it's tricky putting a price on open land like Section 16. Bailey clearly likes the comparison to Red Rock Canyon, which an appraisal put at close to $13,000 an acre, a figure that would peg Section 16's value at about $8 million.

Lieber and local advocates say that ignores the fact that Section 16 is steeper, more remote and burdened by access problems.

Bailey says the goal still is to keep Section 16 as open space, but only while maximizing money for Colorado schools. And while neither the land board nor its assets are tied directly to the state's general fund, he admits feeling "additional pressures" tied to the state's budget woes.

That could mean steeper lease prices if a purchase deal falls through. From the present rate of $40,000 a year, the city could be expected to come up with $150,000 a year starting in 2011, an amount Lieber considers unsustainable.

Closing Section 16 would disappoint many locals, including state Rep. Michael Merrifield, who goes mountain biking there about once a week. He describes the land board's change of course as a "real slap in the face to the community."

"I'm hoping they will be coming to their senses," he says.

lane@csindy.com

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