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Trails group celebrates 25 years as residents enjoy miles of trails, parkland
The Trails and Open Space Coalition website is a great place to learn about parkland around Colorado Springs and also about volunteer opportunities. There are many parks in the area that still need "friends" groups. TOSC staffers will help you organize a group.
John Covert remembers the conversation well, more than two decades later.
Colorado Springs officials were working on a drainage ordinance, one without provisions for trails along Monument and Fountain creeks and other waterways. Covert asked the public works director why trails weren’t part of the plan and was told the city was concerned about road access to the creek for maintenance and repair.
“You can call them maintenance roads,” he replied. “We’re going to call them trails.”
Twenty-five years later, Colorado Springs boasts a system of trails, parks and open spaces that are the envy of many other cities, funded by one of the few taxes approved by voters in recent history.
It might not have happened had Covert and John Maynard not formed the Pikes Peak Area Trails Coalition in 1987, now known as the Trails and Open Space Coalition.
“There was no trails plan,” Maynard recalled last week at the group’s 25th birthday party. “There was no coordinated effort to review construction projects for trail opportunities. But there were a lot of trail users.”
With 1,000 members, three paid staffers and a long list of successes, it’s easy to forget the coalition’s humble beginnings.
Maynard and Covert, outdoor enthusiasts who had neighboring offices, were concerned by a distinct lack of focus on trails in city planning.
“We decided maybe we ought to create an organization that was interested in trails,” Maynard said. “We wanted to be able to go to City Council and say we represented thousands of people.”
The group started with 15 members. Through perseverance, they persuaded the city to look at the trails master plan that was collecting dust in a city filing cabinet. Covert focused the group's lobbying efforts on creeks and drainages, convenient strips of public land running across the city.
“What the Trails Coalition was able to do was focus the city on the importance of having a master plan and trying to follow it,” said Lee Milner, member since 1989 and former president.
The coalition convinced not only the city but the business community that trails could increase the quality of life of local residents and draw people and companies to Colorado Springs. Early partners included groups as diverse as the Aiken Audubon Society, the Homebuilders Association and the Colorado Amateur Sports Corporation.
Donations allowed the group to hire an executive director in 1991 as Skye Ridley worked 70-hour weeks running the organization from her home. She had to overcome intransigence by officials and skepticism by some residents.
“We still had to fight misconceptions, that trails would bring the so-called ‘wrong elements,’ people coming around on bicycles looking for trouble,” Ridley said.
Still, by avoiding confrontation while working with the city and residents, the Trails Coalition made progress. The Pikes Peak Greenway along Monument and Fountain creeks was built. Expensive bridges over creeks and highways were constructed with federal funds. The Templeton Gap and Sinton trails were added to connect with the Greenway, and the ability to get around town without a car began to take shape.
Membership grew to 600. Every time a development or construction project was up for review, someone was there to ask, “Where are the trails?”
By the mid-1990s, trails advocates began to dream bigger and came up with a risky idea in fiscally conservative Colorado Springs.
The city was booming and development already had consumed large chunks of the foothills. A sales tax devoted to acquiring land for parks and open space could save these landscapes.
Voters disagreed and, in 1995, the Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) tax went down in flames. Unperturbed, the group — which changed its name to the Trails and Open Space Coalition to reflect the new focus — tried again, collecting 12,000 signatures to get the measure on the 1997 ballot. It passed, and voters renewed the one-tenth of a percent sales tax in 2003.
To date, according to the city, the tax has protected more than 6,100 acres as open space and helped build 46 miles of urban trails and 32 neighborhood parks.
Former city councilman Richard Skorman credits the coalition.
“We wouldn’t have TOPS without it,” he said. “We wouldn’t have Red Rock Canyon and the great trail system.”
When the economy soured and the city found itself facing a budget crisis, local parks were hit hard as staffs were cut and maintenance suffered. The city asked voters to allow the percentage of TOPS tax used for maintenance to increase from 6 percent to 15 percent, as some in Colorado Springs questioned the value of acquiring park land that couldn’t be maintained.
TOPS fought the measure, and it failed. The group spent ensuing months leading a community conversation about ways to fund parks, and they’re still searching for answers.
“Our trails, parks and open spaces still don’t receive enough support,” executive director Susan Davies said.
As it has for 25 years, the group continues the work of “politely harassing” city officials, helping park friends’ groups to organize and “protecting TOPS from those who would use it as a maintenance program.”
Other challenges remain. The membership is noticeably graying, and Davies acknowledged a need to attract younger members.
Skorman said he hopes the group takes a leading role in the years of work required to restore the Waldo Canyon fire burn scar.
“There’s no more important group to me in Colorado Springs than the Trails and Open Space Coalition,” he said. “There really is no other group that has made a difference as much.
“You can drive around Colorado Springs at night and look west at that mountain backdrop and there are no lights. We left it to the future.”