Trails and Open Space Coalition: Branching out 

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News flash: The Pikes Peak region is renowned for its outdoor recreation opportunities. Residents and visitors love to get out and play, exercise and contemplate nature.

Unfortunately, we've also become known for budget cuts affecting parks and open spaces. It's time to show our love in more tangible ways, through donations of time, money, goods, even some sweat.

The Trails and Open Space Coalition makes headlines for spearheading the acquisition and protection of the region's open spaces, but the group also acts as a liaison for friends groups and other organizations in need of volunteers and guidance.

"When the city went through its amazing budget cuts a few years ago, from $19 million to $3 million general fund money, they didn't even have the capacity to manage a vibrant volunteer program at a time when they've never needed it more," says TOSC executive director Susan Davies.

Davies, who hit the ground running after she took the job in August 2009, is all too familiar with the grim statistics.

"You have 10 city parks workers maintaining 128 neighborhood parks. That is not sustainable," she says. "You have 1½ workers that are now taking care of all the open spaces and all the trails. It's not sustainable."

Then there's the burnout factor, when too few volunteers step up to take responsibility for too much acreage.

"Volunteers can take a piece of it, and will, but it does put too much on their shoulders," Davies says. "They're going to say, 'That's it, man, I'm walking away.'"

The former KOAA-TV reporter, who has a degree in environmental science, knows the coalition's mission depends on effective marketing and communication. That's crucial to informing residents that, although Colorado Springs City Council has restored a fraction of the funding, the situation is still dire.

TOSC will assess residents' commitment to their parks to see if they're willing to follow the Trails and Open Space program model and pay a small percentage in sales tax for parks preservation and maintenance.

Through its Sustainable Parks Initiative, TOSC hopes to generate interest in "orphaned" neighborhood parks and open spaces — ones that need friends groups.

Davies says the coalition hears from people wanting to save small chunks of open land in their neighborhoods. TOSC can then shepherd them through the process.

TOSC is hardly alone in its efforts to care for our green spaces, of course. Among the other organizations doing similar work are Palmer Land Trust and Friends of Cheyenne Cañon, both of which need volunteers for various chores; Venetucci Farm, which needs education-program volunteers, farmhands and tools; and the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, which needs volunteers, interns and implements.

The granddaddy is, of course, Garden of the Gods. The 1,325-acre city park is a beloved sanctuary for the city's residents and gateway to the city for tourists. The garden's friends group is targeting younger residents with environmental education and stewardship programs, in hopes of preserving it for generations to come, and needs volunteers and tools.

And while at Garden of the Gods, you can add a dash of history to your fresh air and exercise by visiting Rock Ledge Ranch on the park's eastern edge. The historic site, a combination open-air museum and working ranch, hosts blacksmithing and sheep-shearing demonstrations, old-fashioned baseball games, weddings, folk art festivals, powwows and theatrical performances.

The Living History Association, the ranch's nonprofit foundation, has approximately 1,500 members. LHA secretary Mary Howell Mais estimates that the ranch and the association can count on 200 active volunteers; roughly half are junior and adult docents who dress in period clothing to give talks and demonstrations.

"Our challenge is to reach some of the rest of the community, people who aren't aware of the ranch. The city has grown east so much, and they have all their services and retail out there, and many of them never come into the central part of town, let alone the west side. So we're trying to get more people aware of what the ranch is and what it has to offer."

Although admission to most of these places is free, they do come with a price tag. They cannot keep contributing to our collective health without help.

As Davies says, "If you love your parks, get out, pick up a shovel, pick up a trash can, put some gloves on and let's get some work done."



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