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Jonesing for open space 

Utilities just wants to get rid of some land — but will it go to the county or the National Forest?

Located in the Bear Creek watershed just west of town, Jones Park is home to pristine forest, sparkling streams, and a trail system that includes the ever-popular Captain Jack's. But it's also the last home in the wild of the threatened greenback cutthroat trout. And with the fish comes a tricky set of federal requirements intended to protect it.

Colorado Springs Utilities officials say those requirements could cost it upward of $800,000 in 2015 if it doesn't offload its nearly 2,000 acres of Jones Park. But because of those requirements, access issues, and Utilities' desire to keep the property open to the public, watershed manager Mark Shay says, "We've had a very hard time identifying any willing buyer."

Purchased between the 1920s and 1950s to expand the city water system, the land was never usable. Instead, it became a popular spot for recreationalists. Today, work done on the property would be to protect the fish and trail systems. And, says Utilities spokesperson Patrice Lehermeier, "It's not responsible of us to take hundreds of thousands of dollars of ratepayer money and put it into that."

So Utilities has been considering ways to transfer it to the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the surrounding land. A few months ago, officials say, they discovered an answer: Give it to the National Forest Foundation, which in turn would give it to the U.S. Forest Service.

The arrangement would save money and hassle. Utilities officials expected their board, made up of Colorado Springs City Council, to consider the transfer this month. And they would have — if El Paso County commissioners hadn't intervened.

Suits and swimmers

In a letter to the Utilities board, Commission Chair Dennis Hisey asks that any decision on the Jones Park property be delayed.

"El Paso County is interested in exploring the ownership of Jones Park as we have a successful history of managing similar sites ... through our regional park system," Hisey writes. "There are advantages to local ownership, including providing our residents access to local leaders and staff regarding the management of the site, and we have a successful track record of obtaining grants and third party support for park / trail improvements. We are also interested in exploring the potential connection of the Jones Park property to the City's park system."

Commissioner Sallie Clark says the county would have expressed its interests earlier, but, "[it] was not approached early on in the game."

"The game" began around 2012. For years before, recreationalists worked with Utilities and the Forest Service to maintain trails in the area, to preserve both recreation and the fish. Motorcycle trail riders were a big part of that effort. But in 2012, a study of the fish and related species called into question long-held beliefs about which populations of greenbacks in Colorado were pure.

The upshot: Bear Creek was found to be the last home in the wild to pure greenbacks ("Fifty shades of green," cover story, Oct. 3, 2012).

Not long after, the Center for Biological Diversity announced its intent to sue the Forest Service unless Jones Park was closed to motorized users, which the Center claimed posed danger to the fish. The Forest Service quickly complied. Then, in 2013, floods ripped through the area. Trails were closed while damage was repaired; they reopened to all but motorized users this summer.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been reevaluating the status of the greenback and expects to determine within the next two years whether it should be reclassified, from threatened to endangered.

Reclassification likely wouldn't greatly impact current planning, as the Forest Service is already in the middle of an environmental assessment of the area that aims to determine what uses are appropriate for Jones and what trail relocations might be necessary to protect the greenback. Citizens have been active in commenting on the process, usually asking that the trails stay open.

That's what got county officials interested. They say local control over at least parts of Jones might prove more effective at keeping the trails open.

But there's some doubt about that.

No walk in the park

Utilities Board Chair Merv Bennett says he has no problem considering a proposal from the county — that's why an initial meeting on Jones has been put off until Aug. 20. But he's not sure the county will be interested in the property once it's filled in on the details — "because of the cost of it, and the fact that they won't be able to control the use of it," he says.

Since Utilities' Jones property is surrounded by Forest Service land, the Service dictates access to it, and must follow federal guidelines for protecting the fish.

Both Bennett and Utilities officials say they're most inclined to give the property to the National Forest Foundation.

Bill Possiel, the foundation's president, says it's willing to pay fees for the transfer and match a $250,000 contribution from Utilities to start improvements. Once the foundation owns the property, it could quickly transfer it to the U.S. Forest Service. Then, Possiel notes, all of Jones except a city-owned bottom portion would fall under the same owner, making it easier to manage.

Plans are to protect the greenback through restoration work and limiting access to its habitat while leaving the larger area open to the public, he says.

stanley@csindy.com

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