She would rise early on those weekend mornings, hop on her bicycle and pedal across the Wisconsin farmlands. Schoolgirl Susan Davies found freedom there, a connection to nature full of promise and possibility.
That's where the executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition (TOSC) fell in love with the outdoors.
"Exploring the forests and climbing trees and building treehouses and riding my bicycle, that was my childhood. It was always there," Davies says.
Many years later, as a successful broadcast journalist, she landed in Colorado Springs. Davies loved environmental stories and found her material at the Trails and Open Space Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for the preservation of public lands and our access to them.
"Dan Cleveland (former TOSC executive director) was one of my favorite go-to sources," Davies says. "When he retired I was mad. I went home and told my husband [Bill Beagle] and he says, why don't you apply for his job? So I thought about it, and I applied. And I got it."
Soon after, she was assigned by KOAA to cover the Trails and Open Space Coalition's gala. During her live broadcast, she announced that she would soon take over in TOSC's top leadership position. "It was gratifying," she says. "It was exciting to get to recreate myself."
And then reality hit with the force of a tumbling boulder. The job is massive, and important to a community that values its outdoor lifestyle.
"For someone who was a reporter, to suddenly be running what is essentially a business, it was really jarring," she says. "The first nine months, I didn't even know what I didn't know. But I had a lot of help. I had a great staff, and that is what got me through those early years."
TOSC advocates, or as Davies says, it serves as the eyes, ears and voice for those who use the trails system. TOSC does not build things, it builds relationships. It supports and cultivates connections between area outdoor nonprofits, such as Incline Friends, Friends of Garden of the Gods, Friends of Cheyenne Cañon and the Guardians of Palmer Park. It successfully created support for ballot measures 1A and 2D which recently passed and created $4 million for trails and open space projects. It teaches trail-building and helps organize volunteer efforts throughout the region. (Check out openspacevolunteers.org.) The work goes on... and on.
TOSC strives to assure that money set aside for our outdoor projects is put to good use. Davies insists that TOSC is the defender of the TOPS sales tax, though TOSC does not receive TOPS money, which has preserved over 6,200 acres in the Pikes Peak Region in the past 17 years.
Davies estimates she often works 10 hours a day or more. Just a few steps away from the TOSC office on South Eighth Street, Bear Creek Park spreads out like a soft green carpet. She admits she hasn't walked there in months. "Now that's ridiculous, but it's hard to carve out time to actually enjoy the trails we're working to preserve."
The organization generally runs with 3.5 full-time employees, including Bill Koerner, who specializes in advocacy; Vince Cloward, program director; and Eileen Healy, who helps with membership, media outreach and administration.
It can be an unforgiving job. The much-ballyhooed Strawberry Fields land swap between The Broadmoor and the city of Colorado Springs created a challenge for Davies, whose board of directors and advisory board supported the trade.
"We were raked over by reporters and we lost people who had been our friends for a very long time," Davies says. "I think that was the hardest part. I never felt like they were wrong and we were right. I felt like there was a philosophical difference. Our mission dictated that we take the stand we did and it was a unanimous board decision."
There will be no slowing down. "We have a lot of balls in the air," Davies says.
TOSC is pushing the Ring the Peak project, creating a trail around Pikes Peak. A grant from Great Outdoors Colorado is expected in December. A professional consultant will then be hired to guide a lengthy public process. Davies and staff will be hip-deep in the details, helping to assuage the concerns of the Forest Service, the BLM, private land owners and many others.
With the addition of cycling advocate Allen Beauchamp, TOSC is activating (finding and educating new trail users) along the new Legacy Loop, a trails system that encircles downtown Colorado Springs. It's a project that could fundamentally change the nature of our city's core. "We want to get people to use the trail, to see what they have," Davies says.
TOSC will again play a big role in the Bike Summit. And its project Bike Colorado Springs (bikecoloradosprings.org) is filling an advocacy void. "If you look up and down the Front Range, any city that has been able to move the needle in terms of being more bike friendly, like Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins, they have robust advocacy programs."
The TOSC staff thrives in the busy environment. It's not the rolling hills of Wisconsin, but the very nature of preserving our precious landscapes motivates Susan Davies.
Full disclosure: Indy publisher Carrie Simison sits on the TOSC board of directors.