Shallow, sand-filled gullies stretch south from the Corral Bluffs like fingers, blocking the wind and framing an expanse of crumbling cliffs and sandstone spires overhead.
Larry Bishop, 50, remembers exploring those gullies and bluffs as a child. His father told him to walk on set paths to avoid damaging the fragile landscape, but the land still yielded clues of its history. At 9, he says, he found his first-ever arrowhead near one of the area's high points.
"It was like gold," Bishop says.
The family always thought this hidden playground, long separated from Colorado Springs' eastern edge by miles of prairie, should be preserved, Bishop says.
"I think it should be a park that everybody should be able to enjoy," he says.
At least part of that dream will come true if El Paso County moves forward with plans to buy a 522-acre plot next to the Bishop family's property. Much of the rough landscape will become a county park.
It will just be one exclusively open to dirt-bike riders who roar across the land.
Bishop, along with many property owners and open-space advocates, doesn't like the idea.
"I just don't think it's the best use of our tax dollars," he says.
Perfect for dirt bikes
Bishop's father owns a strip of 240 acres stretching north from Colorado Highway 94, about five miles from Colorado Springs' developed eastern edge.
The activity on surrounding land makes it clear how far away that edge once was. Adjacent to the Bishop property, the Aztec Family Raceway buzzes with dirt bikes bouncing, Evel Knievel-style, over earthen mounds.
Nearby, a landfill and automobile scrapyard represent necessities most people would rather ignore.
The city, however, is fast approaching, with the closest among thousands of homes in the planned Banning Lewis Ranch development to be built only a stone's throw away.
Greeting this development, according to the county's plan, will be the off-highway vehicle park and its 20 miles of single-track trail on property now owned by R.W. and Lindsay Case. The proposal calls for dirt-bike enthusiasts to access the property through the Aztec Raceway for a fee of around $10, says County Commissioner Jim Bensberg, who has championed the park.
The property's steep hillsides, which set it apart from much of the surrounding land, "piqued our interest" in lining it with single-track trails, Bensberg says.
"[Dirt bikers] like to have some relief to the terrain," adds Bensberg, who's been a rider since he was 14.
That interest gathered widespread attention only after commissioners agreed in late November to apply for $320,000 in state grant money to help build trails and buy the property.
In all, the property is expected to sell for $750,000; the rest of the money would come from the county's conservation trust fund.
Bensberg says it's a good chance to use some of the "green-sticker money" from off-highway vehicle registrations back in El Paso County.
"There's a real pent-up demand" for places to ride in the area, he says, pointing to the signatures of 1,500 supporters that accompany the application. The multi-use trails in the national forest, where dirt-bikers mingle with hikers and horse riders, are not enough.
A county-owned park for dirt bikes could be a unique amenity for the Pikes Peak region, but some people say the Corral Bluffs are sufficiently unique on their own.
Jaelyn Eberle, a geology professor and curator of the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, says the ancient soils of the bluffs actually hold rare clues about the mammalian life that exploded following the extinction of the dinosaurs. Working as part of the Denver Basin Project in 2001, she says, she found numerous fossils in the area, including an ancient alligator skull, which was sent to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
Steep areas like much of the land in the proposed park tend to yield the most fossils, Eberle says. She glances at a topographic map showing the property's boundaries: "I'd be surprised if there weren't fossils in those areas," she says.
Findings in the area so far have been well-preserved, she notes, but also are fragile.
"It's been my experience, motorized vehicles going in an area where you have fossils is going to damage or destroy the fossils," she says.
Even without fossils, local open-space advocates have been eyeing the bluffs for preservation. The bluffs were included on a map of proposed open spaces when voters extended the Trails, Open Space and Parks, or TOPS, tax in 2003.
The Colorado Springs' TOPS advisory committee took a stand in December against the land becoming a motorcycle park, calling on county officials to gather public comment before going forward.
In their advisory role, the committee drafted a resolution calling for more time to review the proposal, and then sent it to the next rung on the governmental food chain. It was set to be considered by the city's parks board at a meeting early Thursday morning, Jan. 10.
That effort did not seem destined to have its desired effect Monday, when members of City Council chastised the advisory committee for improperly speaking out on a county land-use matter.
Lee Milner, a member of the TOPS committee and a local real estate agent, emphasizes as he speaks to the Independent that he is doing so as a private citizen, not as a committee member.
It's been a busy couple weeks for Milner. He's organized opposition to the county's plan, walking groups of reporters and community leaders across the Bishop property to take in views of the bluffs on property owned by the Case family.
Milner says it's easy to focus on the west side of the city and forget the east, where rocky bluffs set the region apart from other parts of the plains. He walks along a sandy wash broken by a short rock step. Ahead, trees' roots dangle from an eroded bank, and the bluff becomes increasingly vertical.
"Isn't this surprising?" Milner asks.
He imagines the Corral Bluffs and surrounding areas could become an amenity something like Palmer Park.
"To me, this is the hope for a regional open space," he says.
One window of hope for stalling the plan closes Saturday, Milner suggests, as the period ends for commenting on the proposed grant from the state.
Announcements of the state grants are expected in the spring.
Howard Kunstle owns 260 acres to the north of the proposed park, and at 77, he says, he's looking to give it to his children.
He marvels that he did not learn about the proposal until he read about it in a newspaper, and he speaks in grand terms about the damage it could cause.
"It is a piece of property that should not be desecrated," he says.
Public comments to Colorado State Parks on El Paso County's application for $320,000 to help fund an off-highway vehicle park are due Saturday, Jan. 12, before 5 p.m. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit parks.state.co.us/OHVsandSnowmobiles/OHVProgram/Grants for more information.
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