For years, being an environmentalist in Colorado Springs was a dirty word.
But following a string of impressive success stories, namely a settlement to pave the road leading to the top of Pikes Peak and to stop a road from being built through the Black Forest park, environmentalists are beginning to see illumination at the end of the tunnel.
That tunnel, however, is still long, and the glow at the end, still too dim.
The Pikes Peak region, environmental activists say, still faces a double-whammy of runaway growth and local governing agencies that give little regard to long-term consequences of development.
"There seems to be a lot of unplanned growth and the growth has happened without taking care of the infrastructure. I don't know how you can ever catch up," said Joe Fabeck, an activist with the Friends of Red Rock Canyon, a group fighting to save the key open-space parcel that is the geologic extension of the Garden of the Gods south of Manitou Springs.
"Every time you look up at the mountains, you realize how fast it can disappear. Once it disappears, it doesn't come back."
Sort of better than the old days
Longtime local activists say that while there are still plenty of challenges in the Pikes Peak region, things are better than they used to be, especially when it comes to environmental law.
"We're not the same community we were 10 years ago. There's a lot less [decided in] the smoke-filled rooms," said Tyler Stevens, executive director of the Clean Air Campaign of the Pikes Peak Region. "The county is more open and we've come a long way."
Yet some insist local government officials, particularly the El Paso County commissioners, remain roadblocks to positive change.
"I don't think there's more sensitivity to the issues we bring to the table, with the exception of the Colorado Springs City Council, which has changed a lot in the last few years," said John Stansfield, a 30-year member of the local Pikes Peak chapter of the Sierra Club.
"The other elected bodies in the region, I don't necessarily think they are more sensitive to environmental issues than they were 20 to 30 years ago."
Jenny Crystal, another local Sierra Club member, criticizes the five-member board of El Paso County commissioners as "dismal" when it comes to environmentally sensitive policy decisions.
"This is an extremely conservative county," she said. "They are not responsive to the Sierra Club. The only way that will change is if we elect more pro-environmental commissioners."
Indeed, many environmental activists say that time is on their side, at least as the demographics change in El Paso County and more environmentally aware residents move to the region. Elections will be a key battleground in the coming years, they say.
"In the long run, it may be a matter of educating the voters," said Jim Lockhart, chairman of the Pikes Peak chapter of the Sierra Club. Lockhart, recently named Sierra Club's grass-roots leader of the year in Colorado, says most county residents support pro-environment policies.
"Polls are in favor of protecting open space, and they are worried about the impact environmental issues will have on their quality of life," he said. "It's a matter of the voters making their concerns known."
TOPS fight looming
A major victory for the environmental community was the 1997 passage of a Colorado Springs Trails Open Space and Parks (TOPS) sales tax of one-tenth of a cent devoted to open space and trails, which generates about $6 million annually.
More than $3 million has been spent on trails and more than 3,500 acres of open space have been purchased.
"The TOPS funding is a major victory, and it's something in coming years that will improve the quality of life in the Colorado Springs area," Lockhart said.
Open-space proponents are hoping to bring TOPS back to the voters, perhaps as soon as April 2003, to ask for an extension on the dedicated sales tax. The current tax is scheduled to expire in 2009.
"It's tough getting sales tax issues passed in Colorado Springs," noted Dan Cleveland, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition of the Pikes Peak Region, a local nonprofit. "People have to feel there is a strong need for it."
Environmentalists admit they have an uphill fight on the TOPS tax extension and have to look no further than the November election in Colorado Springs, where voters shot down five out of six funding requests as part of the city's much-publicized SCIP effort.
Still, TOPS supporters say there's strong support among residents for open space.
"It's hard to read any election in terms of what it means for the next election," Cleveland said. "There's still a lot of planning to do to determine what is the right date to put the issue on the ballot."
Environmentalists are bolstered after their success with their successful lawsuit over the Pikes Peak Highway, a four-year legal battle against the City (which leases the road from the U.S. Forest Service) that led to a 10-year paving project on the 19-mile dirt road to minimize highway-related erosion.
Activists also recently blocked efforts to widen and pave Milam Road through the Black Forest Regional Park to lead to an upscale housing development, but the war rages on as both the developer and El Paso County have filed an appeal challenging a lower court's decision.
Still, many issues remain on the front burner, including another fight to protect the Beaver Creek roadless area on the southern flanks of Pikes Peak.
Efforts continue to protect Red Rock Canyon, where developers want to build a private golf course and possibly high-end residential homes. The development project is slated to go before the El Paso County planning commission in the coming months.
And, the continuing sprawl countywide is keeping local activists on their toes.
"What we have to work on is incredible," said the Sierra Club's Stansfield. "I feel very fortunate to live and work here. To work for the protection and preservation of these incredible natural resources, sometimes you get a lot of flack doing it, but if you have thick skin, it's so rewarding."