Colorado is well known for its outdoor recreation offerings, but Governor John Hickenlooper wants to take it to the next level by making it even easier for people to access open space and parks. Over the summer he unveiled the Colorado the Beautiful Initiative and more recently a $100 million pledge to create and connect bike trails.
"The ultimate goal is connecting everyone from Denver to the foothills and mountains to the west," said Tom Hoby. He's the director of open space and parks for Jefferson County. He's standing at the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon outside of Golden west of Denver, and he's working on closing part of the gap in the trail. One phase will be done next year, but there's still about ten miles in Jefferson and Clear Creek counties before bikers could connect from the metro area to Loveland Pass and then the rest of western Colorado.
"Folks could get off a plane at DIA and ride their bike if they really wanted to almost to Newcastle, west of Glenwood Springs, in a very safe, connected situation," said Hoby.
Hoby estimated the total cost to connect these final miles could range between $70 and 80 million dollars, something his office, which is funded by county sales taxes, doesn't have.
"Every bit of funding helps. This happens to be an incredibly expensive project."
Expensive, but something Governor John Hickenlooper thinks is important for Colorado in the long term.
"You're looking at an asset Colorado already has," said Hickenlooper. "We are recognized as one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful state in the country and one that already has all these outdoor opportunities. What we're saying is, we believe in these opportunities, the things that have attracted so many young people here, we're going to keep investing in them."
That investment also includes building a database of all the gaps in trails throughout the state. Aaron Serna is the Project Manager for Colorado the Beautiful. He said there are many reasons why projects are incomplete.
"Is it financial, is it a property use issue, trying to acquire private property rights, trying to do access to a right of way? It's what can we do in state government to help these projects move a little faster."
Serna wants to identify 16 projects the state can easily complete in the next year. Colorado is also developing a map to make it easier for the public to access trails.
"When we talk about connecting people to the outdoors there's physical connection but also connecting them to information," said Serna. "[It might be] easier to get onto a website and see this trail is a five minute drive from my house," said Serna, adding other possible identifying characteristics, like whether it's family or dog friendly.
The interactive map and database are still in the beginning stages and the project's total cost is unclear. But in many ways, Colorado is already a leader in preserving open spaces and parks. In 1992, voters agreed to invest a portion of lottery proceeds into the outdoors. Lise Aangeenbrug is the Executive Director of Great Outdoors Colorado, which distributes those grants throughout the state.
"Even a place like Sterling wants to build trails out in the eastern plains," said Aangeenbrug. "We just gave a $1 million grant to Lamar to build a loop trail because we know that was their number priority. We know that in locations like Gunnison, Grand Junction, Basalt, Eagle County, trail connectivity is a huge priority for them."
Aangeenbrug says it will be even more crucial as the state's population grows and that's why the organization has committed $30 million to Colorado the Beautiful.
But some state lawmakers, including Republican Senator Kent Lambert who serves on the Joint Budget Committee, are weary that the Governor's effort will eventually encroach on the state's tight budget. Lambert says he supports parks and trails but….
"How we use our tax money for that is another question because we have to also balance all the transportation requirements. People in my district say they want to fix pot holes and add lanes. "
In pledging $100 million for bike trails, Hickenlooper is quick to point out that his office was careful not to take money away from other transportation needs or use money from the state budget.
"We're essentially taking money that we're already spending in different places and we're orchestrating and harmonizing it all together and I think getting a lot of PR benefit that's going to help the state," said Hickenlooper.
The Governor has also listed a long-term goal of having every resident within a ten-minute walk of a park, open space or trail. But that would likely take a generation to complete at a significantly higher price tag.