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How do you access the outdoors?

Elevate the Peak, an initiative led by a coalition of nature-based nonprofits, is the first of its kind in the Pikes Peak region. With community input, it has the potential to identify how the Pikes Peak region uses the outdoors and pinpoint areas for improvement, expansion and collaboration.

The pioneering effort has adopted a “listen first” strategy. July marked the start of the community engagement component of the Elevate the Peak timeline; throughout the summer, residents in El Paso, Fremont, Park and Teller counties are invited to take surveys (at elevatethepeak.org) and join focus groups. The initiative has partnered with local businesses and the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership to offer prizes, like rafting trips, to incentivize participation. Elevate the Peak will use community input to create a comprehensive 10-year plan and funding strategy, which will be shared with the public in the spring of 2022.

“A landscape-scale, community visioning, planning project focused on outdoor recreation and conservation has never happened across our entire region,” says Rebecca Jewett, president and CEO of Palmer Land Conservancy.

The Conservancy is the project manager, facilitating the use of funds from Great Outdoors Colorado and others and overseeing the work of consulting firm Prosono. However, Jewett emphasizes that this is a collaborative effort. “It’s not one organization’s project,” she says. “It really is a project of the community, spearheaded by this coalition of nonprofits.”

The other 10 nonprofits in the leadership council are the Catamount Institute, Coalition for the Upper South Platte, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Fremont Adventure Recreation, Gold Belt Byways Association, Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates, Pikes Peak Community Foundation, Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance, Rocky Mountain Field Institute, and the Trails and Open Space Coalition. Each group has a unique focus as it pertains to land conservation and outdoor recreation.

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Rebecca Jewett

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Christopher Aaby

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Becky Leinweber

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Maggie Hanna

Though the Pikes Peak region has a robust outdoor nonprofit community, their work is somewhat siloed. “We all have our pockets of work that we do,” says Christopher Aaby, executive director of the Catamount Institute. These “pockets” include environmental education (Catamount Institute), land conservation (Palmer Land Conservancy), trail stewarding (Rocky Mountain Field Institute) and more. For nonprofits, Elevate the Peak is an opportunity to consolidate resources and work together to tackle projects too big to handle alone.

While the initiative started before the pandemic, COVID-19 has only increased its urgency, says Jewett. People have flocked to the outdoors, an upward trend that continues to make national headlines: “Pandemic-fatigued Americans are overrunning national parks.” “America’s long-neglected hiking trails are more popular than ever....” “Call of the Wild: Great outdoors is great escape in pandemic.” For a lot of Americans, lockdown renewed interest in and appreciation for nature.

“There’s an increased awareness that I think is really helping drive the effort and [helping us] to get really as much participation as we possibly can,” says Jewett.

In a city heralded for its hikes, sights and outdoor attractions, it’s easy to assume everyone has the same access and experiences. Ensuring the survey reaches underrepresented communities is a priority of Elevate the Peak.

“Typically, in planning processes and stuff like this, people of color and marginalized communities are overlooked …,” says Aaby. “I’m really interested in how they recreate outdoors or want to recreate outdoors, because it may not look like how I personally spend time outdoors or how the majority of people in Colorado Springs do. And that’s OK.”

Aaby recognizes that achieving participant diversity is one of the main challenges: “It’s making sure to get all the voices and enough voices. You can say, ‘Oh, well, I put out the survey. And these are how many people responded.’ But it does take work to, you know, knock on doors just to get people to respond and participate.”

The initial survey is broad-ranging, revolving around two main ideas: How do you engage with the outdoors? What issues matter to you? With the surveys and focus groups, Elevate the Peak hopes to diverge from a dataset of predominantly white voices, and gather information that is representative of the region as a whole.

Ideas like accessibility and inclusivity tend to be prominent players in conversations about our educational institutions, legal system and workforce, yet we seldom hear about equality when it comes to nature. Though “The Great Outdoors” can often feel boundless and infinite, at the end of the day, pollution, landscapes and natural resources are assets and liabilities that are distributed. Systemic inequality, the same force that has embedded itself in our schools and courtrooms, also shows up on our hiking trails and lakes and in state parks.

In “The Nature Gap: Confronting Racial and Economic Disparities in the Destruction and Protection of Nature in America,” the Center for American Progress states that “[A]merican society distributes nature’s benefits — and the effects of its destruction and decline — unequally by race, income and age.” Most outdoor participants are white or Caucasian and live in urban or suburban areas, and as of last year, Black and Hispanic Americans remained significantly underrepresented outside. A 2021 study commissioned by the Outdoor Industry Association cites proximity and low barrier to entry as factors that make people more likely to pursue outdoor recreation.

For Aaby, equitable access is a priority. Tackling this is two-fold: (a) removing barriers to the outdoors and (b) creating opportunities for more people to enjoy the outdoors. This might mean a summer bus service to Cheyenne Mountain State Park or more parks in neighborhoods that lack them.

“Some people may think that more people using the outdoors is a threat,” says Aaby. “I see it as an opportunity of, let’s make sure that these places are available and open and accessible to everyone who wants to use them. And that it’s OK if people want to use them in a different way than they’ve traditionally been [used].” Learning how residents currently use and experience the outdoors is the first step in building a stronger, more inclusive outdoor community.

“When people connect to the outdoors, they learn to care about it,” says Becky Leinweber, executive director of the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance. “And I think if we can make more pathways, make it a more welcoming place for everybody, then everybody reaps the benefits of being outdoors. Otherwise, it’s just those of us who know how to get there, who know how to experience that. We’ve had a history of that.”

Recent legislation is also making the outdoors more accessible. The Colorado Outdoor Equity Grant Program, enacted in June, is helping underserved youths get outdoors by eliminating financial barriers (costs for programming, gear rentals, equipment, staff supervision, transportation, etc.). The “Keep Colorado Wild” pass, set to begin in 2023, will give Coloradans registering their vehicles the option to purchase an annual state parks pass for $40, a half-off discount. And then there are grassroots efforts, like Blackpackers and Native Women’s Wilderness, organizations that are helping connect more people with the outdoors.

Elevate the Peak has the potential to address more than the nature gap. “I also think this project has the opportunity to bridge other gaps as well ...,” says Maggie Hanna, director of external relations at Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust. “The agricultural community isn’t always out biking and swimming and paddleboarding. But they are utilizing these spaces in a variety of other ways. How can we figure out how to see multi-use spaces function well, and how do we [close] that gap [in] understanding how these uses impact each of us differently?”

Nurturing outdoor recreation-conservation efforts also happens to be economically advantageous. According to a 2017 report by The Trust for Public Land, the public park and recreation system in Colorado Springs enhances property values — increasing nearby residential property values by $502 million, and property tax revenues by $2.58 million annually. Parks also provide natural goods and services, like stormwater infiltration (valued at $3.06 million annually) and pollution control ($201,000 annually).

Parks, trails and open spaces also generate health care savings. Increased park use, and the resulting increase in physical activity, “equate to an annual medical cost savings of $56.5 million,” according to a 2017 report by the Trust for Public Land. It boosts the local tourism economy as well: “At least 9 percent of visitors to Colorado Springs come to visit parks, trails, open spaces, and facilities. These visitors are estimated to spend $135 million annually in Colorado Springs and generate $6.36 million in local tax revenues.” In brief, the way we cultivate and take care of the outdoors impacts the health of our economy.

Tatiana Bailey, director of the UCCS Economic Forum, used existing studies to conduct a literature review for Palmer Land Conservancy: “The low-range estimate of the per-person benefit for conservation easement programs in Colorado per year — and this is looking at data from 1995 to 2016 — was about $1,000. It was $996 per person per year. And that’s not insignificant.” (The high is $2,481.)

“I think sometimes we think of our parks and our forests and our trails and our campgrounds as belonging to those who manage it,” says Leinweber. “But that’s not the case. It really belongs to all of us. And so, we have to take some ownership in how it’s utilized, how it’s planned for, how it’s protected. That matters to every citizen of the Pikes Peak region.”

“I think whether you are a person who makes your living off the land or [are someone who] finds solace in open space, we all have a vested interest in this outcome,” says Hanna. “So I invite everyone to get engaged.”

So … what does the future of Pikes Peak look like? It’s up to you. 

Anna Fiorino is a graduate from San Diego State University. She is a journalist with (more than three but less than twenty) years of experience. In her free time, she edits novels.