Colorado’s outdoors are always a winner in the state lottery, even if you’re not

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Blackpackers, an organization that aims to encopurage people of color to expreience the Colorado outdoors, held its inaugural camp out Aug. 17-18 at Eleven Mile State Park west of Manitou Springs.

Ever taken a walk through Colorado's state parks? Notice the scenery. The well-maintained trails. It’s the outdoors that people think about when they think of Colorado.

And it takes millions to keep these parks maintained and preserve wildlife. 

Colorado maintains funding for its parks from a source that some might consider lucky:  When someone buys a scratch-off ticket or puts in lottery numbers at the local convenience store, that open space area, those dog parks, and many winding hiking trails are the ultimate winners.

That’s right. The lottery funds state parks. Colorado Lottery executive director Tom Seaver said Colorado is unique in this way.

“We're not only the only state lottery, but we're the only lottery in the world whose proceeds are primarily dedicated to the outdoors,” Seaver said. “There are some other lotteries that have smaller percentages that go into conservation. But we are the only one in the world whose complete focus is on improving and maintaining the outdoor environment in Colorado.”

The Colorado Lottery had a record fiscal year in  2023. It generated nearly $890 million. That’s its highest amount of annual ticket sales to date. According to the Colorado State Auditor’s Office, that’s a 34 percent increase since fiscal year 2020. Since its launch in 1983, the Colorado Lottery has returned more than $4 billion to outdoor projects.

Seavers says scratch tickets are the most popular amongst Coloradans.

“Scratch games are the most popular category of product that we sell, but we have scratch tickets for $1, $2, $3, 5, 10, 20, and $50,” Seaver said.  “So if players want to play for larger prizes or spend more time on the tickets, we give them lots of options.  And, I think that's the critical thing is we listen to our players, we do a lot of player research and they tell us what they want and then we try to put it into product form and make it available for them.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Climbers heading for a route in Eldorado Canyon State Park on August 2, 2023. Visitor numbers in the park have risen 90 percent since 2016, overwhelming trails, picnic grounds, climbing spots and river access.

How is the lottery revenue doled out?

Prizes are the biggest allocation of where the money goes. About 62 percent of the revenue goes to the players. Retailers get about a 15 percent chunk for commission, in part, for selling the tickets and games. 

Half of the lottery revenue goes to the entities that fund conservation. They received $195 million in fiscal year 2023.

 In 1992, voters approved the creation of Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) – which is part of the state Constitution — with the sole purpose of investing lottery revenue in state parks. 

GOCO receives 50 percent of revenue set aside for the outdoors and conservation. 

“Half of our funding is awarded through competitive grants, so a quarter of that goes to local governments and other partners for park and trail development work,” said GOCO executive director Jackie Miller. “So, our core function here is to be a trust-based grant maker for the state of Colorado to advance our state's outdoor priorities and really preserve what we all cherish about Colorado, which is our outdoors.”

The Conservation Trust Fund receives 40 percent. Ten percent of lottery revenue goes to Colorado Parks and Wildlife projects. Any money over the cap is allocated to the Outdoor Equity Fund, the Wildlife Cash Fund, Parks and Recreation Cash Fund, and the Public School Capital Construction Fund.

Sam Brasch/CPR News
22-year-old Carly Sorensen with Mile High Youth Corps at a worksite in the Cold Springs Fire burnscar in Boulder County.

The kinds of projects GOCO funds

Since its creation, GOCO has invested more than $1.4 billion into over 5,600 projects. 

In 2023, the organization funded the Mount Tom project to improve public access. They also worked on a Colorado Strategy for climate resilience, conservation, and sustainable recreation. One project that Miller is proud of is a redevelopment project of the Erie Community Park.

“That involved a really great playground and splash pad and walking trail around the perimeter of the park. So that was a cool community impact project,” Miller said. 

Other projects include youth programs including Generation Wild and Youth Corps.

“We invested about a million dollars in Youth Corps last year, which employed over 265 youth who worked on over 9 miles of trails,” Miller said. “They remove invasive species across the state, restore habitat. They do work to help reduce wildfire risk and so much more. So that is a really meaningful program for us as well.”

Some upcoming projects during this fiscal year include the Reynolds Landing Park in Littleton, The Meeker Riverfront Revitalization Project in Meeker, and the Marble Outdoors Basecamp Acquisition in Aspen.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife received $141 million from lottery revenue, which is more than one-third of its budget. About 42 percent of their budget licenses, passes, fees and permits.  

The lottery has been a major contributor to projects at Fishers Peak State Park, Stagecoach State Park Visitor Center, Cherry Creek State Park Dog Off Leash Area, and Crawford State Park Southern Trail Connection during 2023.

The Colorado Lottery is a financial supporter of CPR News. Financial supporters have no editorial influence.