If you love our public lands like I do, I hope you will tell the Trump Administration they don’t own these lands, we have entrusted them with the management of OUR lands.
If there’s one thing that Coloradans all share, it’s a love for our public lands. From the rushing waters of the Arkansas River to the otherworldly atmosphere of the Great Sand Dunes, our state and national parks are a shared playground where our communities can recreate and connect with nature — and with each another.
According to the latest Conservation in the West poll, 73% of citizens live here in the Centennial State thanks to our ability to live, work, and play near public lands. Public lands don’t just fill Coloradans’ weekend plans; the communities and businesses that thrive around public lands fuel a thriving outdoor recreation economy that supports nearly 230,000 local jobs and contributes more than $28 billion in consumer spending per year.
It’s clear that public lands aren’t just a part of the Coloradan’s lives; public lands are essential to the Colorado way of life.
We love our public lands so much that Colorado became the first state in the nation to establish a state holiday in honor of our public lands. Colorado Public Lands Day, which occurs each year on the third Saturday in May, celebrates Colorado’s varied public landscapes and offers all Coloradans an opportunity to spend time in and show their support for the places we love.
Across the state, dozens of different nonprofits and groups organized activities — from trail cleanups to speeches from the stage of a music festival — that gathered Coloradans around a common cause: to protect, preserve, and appreciate our public lands. The crew at the Rocky Mountain Conservancy organized a trash clean-up at around the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park. Together, 30 volunteers collected over 50 pounds of trash.
The folks from the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, the Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department, and the Friends of Red Rock Canyon worked to restore a trail in the Red Rock Canyon Open Space. Afterward, the group toasted to a job well done at Fossil Craft Beer Company, a Colorado Springs brewery, that released an “RMF-IPA” collaborative beer that was brewed using local ingredients. Public lands lovers with the Colorado Mountain Club helped perform essential tread maintenance, fixing three eroded areas and bolstered three sections of critical edge with rocks on the Cave Creek trail near Palmer Lake.
The Front Range Conservation Colorado team and Protégete, alongside partners Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, Continental Divide Trail Coalition, Sierra Club Colorado, and Mile High Youth Corps, gathered at Del Mar Park in Aurora to talk with community members about the importance of access to our public lands. The event opened with a blessing from Ralph Lefthandbull, a local Lakota man who burned sage as a part of a ceremony to start the Colorado Public Lands Day celebration.
For Regina Whiteskunk-Lopez, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and former Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Co-Chair, Colorado Public Lands Day arrives with the reminder that it’s vital that we recognize the history of our public lands and the ties to the lands, no matter our history. The outdoor recreation world has a challenge ahead of itself to continue to make sure our public lands are genuinely free, said Whiteskunk-Lopez, “we must acknowledge, reconcile, and most importantly heal from our past.”
It’s not a secret that the outdoor recreation industry — and most Americans — struggle to recognize and understand the fact that companies’ profits come from stolen land. It’s not a secret that public lands, now and throughout history, have not always been a safe place for black, brown, and indigenous communities. So, it’s not a shock that the members of the industry have made missteps in its efforts toward lasting, impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors. It is especially unsurprising when you take a look at the history of our public lands, examine which opportunities were given to governments and people, and think about which communities have reliable access to healthy, sustainable public lands today.
A New Frontier: Working on Inclusivity and Diversity in the Outdoors
Connor Ryan, an athlete ambassador with Natives Outdoors, recognizes that most Americans find it difficult to look at the reality of the devastating humanitarian and environmental implications of colonialism and Manifest Destiny policies; but “that’s a story we can’t get away from as native people.” In the outdoor recreation industry, Ryan recognizes that indigenous communities are looking for “some level of justice” and the acknowledgment that companies are reaping billions in profit “because we lost our home.” This reexamination and reckoning with history is crucial, affirms Ryan, as conservation and the environment play a role in public lands policy and the outdoor industry. “There’s an equal exchange that can come out of allowing our voice to play a role in how we take care of these places,” said Ryan, “because we’ve been doing that for thousands of years.”
“Nobody really wants to deal with the fact that the outdoor recreation industry tends to be a bunch of white, cisgender, heterosexual men — and few are willing to grapple with their privilege,” said Amanda Jameson, an avid backpacker and blogger who works with Big City Mountaineers and joined Conservation Colorado and Protégete on Colorado Public Lands Day. “The industry hasn’t taken the time to sit with their complicity in all of this,” said Jameson.
For Cristal Cisneros, who’s currently pursuing a Doctorate degree and is a volunteer with Latinos Outdoors, the most significant growing pain the industry is facing — “and most frustrating aspect” of the industry — is that diversity, equity, and inclusion are meaningless buzzwords for a lot of companies.
“When you think about it, what are they really doing? Are companies hiring people of color; are they in executive positions?” asked Cisneros. “It’s not just people of color; it’s people with disabilities, it’s non-binary folk; all kinds of people that need a seat at the table,” she said. Systematic change across the outdoor recreation and conservation worlds, said Cisneros, is needed to create real change.
For a lot of Coloradans, Colorado Public Lands Day fosters a safe space for this conversation while providing an opportunity to celebrate our shared love of public lands.
“In Colorado, it’s kind of second hand to be involved with the outdoor world as a Coloradan. That’s unique and deserves to be celebrated,” said Ryan. He continued, “Having a day to honor our public lands is a beautiful thing — and it makes a lot of sense!” said Ryan.
“It’s really important for people, especially people from marginalized populations, to reclaim that bond with nature and reap the physical and mental health benefits of being in nature,” concluded Cisneros. “Colorado has so many beautiful spaces, so it’s essential to truly appreciate where we live.”
“There are a lot of organizations like African American Parks and Nature Experience, Queer Nature, and Latinos Outdoors that are out there spreading the word, doing the work, and trying to give a voice to those of us who have not been traditionally represented in the outdoor industry,” shared Jameson. “To have a state and the people in the state recognize that public lands are so important and that there’s an entire day devoted to that means a lot. It’s one of the reasons I’m out here in Colorado: the mountains, the sky, and the outdoors and to be around a lot of like-minded people on this day, in this place.”
Written by Jenny Gaeng
Saturday, May 18 is Colorado Public Lands Day. Like the best holidays, it’s not just a day; it’s a mission.
Eight years ago, I lay in a meadow under the stars, sea-level lungs aching after the climb, and gazed at the unimpeded Milky Way. At the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, the galaxy smeared across the sky as if someone dipped their finger in chalk and trailed the color through space and time. For the first time, I saw myself in the context of everything, thanks to our public lands.
Year after year, I returned to the Sangre de Cristos. I canoed to a waterfall in a glacial lake, learned to spot wild raspberries, climbed a fourteener and tearfully spat that I would never do it again (then I did it again). I brought guest after guest to the meadow of my metaphysical baptism: my mom, my friends, a once-true love, a random Tinder date. I presented the land and the lake as if I owned them, chatting proudly about weather and geology. Yes, the Sangre de Cristos were mine; they belonged to all of us, as public lands do. It seemed uncomplicated.
My story isn’t unique, nor is the fact that it’s one colored by privilege.
I started to research the history of the area. I learned that the Southern Ute camped and traveled in the Sangres, hunting elk and gathering roots and seeds for medicine. I read the dramatic crest of the mountains served as a fortress against invasions — before the Spanish found their way in from the south. I found out that “Blanca Peak” is another name for Sisnaajiní, the sacred eastern boundary of the Navajo homeland; today, the tribe still fights to protect this area from oil and gas drilling operations.
Millions of people visit Colorado’s public lands every year to hike, climb, ski, hunt, fish, and maybe have a life-changing experience as I did. And like me, the vast majority of visitors are white — nearly 95% of visitors to Forest Service lands self-identified that way during monitoring from 2010-2014. The disparity between racial demographics and National Forest visitors in Colorado ranges from 30-70%.
The roots of this fact are not a mystery. The United States has an established history of white supremacy that is set up, protected, and perpetuated by racist policies across our economy, government, and the systems these institutions create.
“Public lands for all,” we say. But you can’t just tell someone they own a locked building and expect them to find a way inside; everyone needs a key. I was lucky enough to be handed one.
Representation, marketing, and centers of outdoor recreation help cultivate a homogenous outdoor culture. It’s personified by being thin, fit, and clad in expensive gear; it’s predominantly male, cis, heterosexual, and hinges on the knowledge to survive and thrive in the wilderness. It’s what we see on the cover of Outside Magazine and it’s what we see on trails throughout Colorado. Coloradans that identify as nonwhite can hike for days in the Colorado backcountry without seeing a face that looks like theirs.
And that brings me to my mission — to our mission.
Outdoor adventurers and activists of all races, genders, and backgrounds are upping the representation game and inspiring new generations. You should pay more attention to their words and ideas than mine, and Conservation Colorado will be featuring their voices in the lead-up to Public Lands Day. Let’s talk about it. Let’s raise their stories as high as Mt. Elbert!
We love our public lands in Colorado. We love them enough to fight for them, which is the reason Colorado Public Lands Day exists. We love them enough that we’ll never stop trying to make them the best they can be — which means looking critically at our history, and shaping our future to be more inclusive and representative of all Coloradans.
We have to work together. I’m never sure of the way forward, and I’m bound to say the wrong thing or screw up at some point — we all are.
As Teresa Baker said in a recent episode of the Safety Third podcast, “Rebranding the Outdoors: “This is going to feel inauthentic as hell — because it hasn’t been done…push your fears aside about it not feeling authentic because that’s just where we are.”
If I can climb Crestone Needle and cross the Conejos River in the spring snowmelt, I think I can learn more about what it takes to make public lands truly representative and open to all people. I think you can, too.
Last November, Colorado voters sent a clear message by sweeping pro-conservation champions into office up and down the ballot: Coloradans value conservation.
In the face of a federal administration actively working to reverse protections for clean air, clean water, and a healthy climate, Coloradans called on our state leaders to fight back. Our calls were heard. Of the 598 bills state lawmakers introduced this legislative session, overhauls of Colorado’s energy policies and oil and gas regulations were among the General Assembly’s top priorities.
After years of the same story at Colorado’s legislature of big, bold policies to protect our future being shut down by anti-conservation legislators, 2019 held a lot of promise for Colorado. We were excited to work with our elected leaders to deliver on that promise by taking on some of our biggest campaigns ever.
Thanks to you, our lawmakers passed legislation to make Colorado a leader on climate action, prioritize the health and welfare of Colorado’s communities, and protect the lands and waterways that define our state.
Tackling Climate Change
Dramatically reducing carbon pollution is key to Colorado swiftly acting on climate change—and the need for doing so has never been more clear. We put Colorado on a path towards a zero-carbon future by setting science-based carbon pollution reduction targets, decarbonizing our energy sector, and making it easier to buy and drive electric vehicles.
Numerous studies show we have a small window within which to prevent the most damaging impacts of climate change. The “Climate Action Plan” (House Bill 1261) will help us do our part to leave a healthy environment for future generations by creating a framework to reduce Colorado’s carbon pollution at least 90 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. A bill to better collect climate change data (Senate Bill 96) will keep Colorado on track to meet this goal by requiring state regulators to collect data on carbon emissions and propose reduction strategies based on their findings.
Currently, electricity generation accounts for most of the carbon pollution produced in Colorado. A bill to reform the Public Utilities Commission (Senate Bill 236) will drastically reduce these emissions by directing all utilities in the state to generate more carbon-free electricity and consider the “social cost” of carbon when planning future energy projects. This cost—used to measure the dollar value of long-term damage caused by carbon pollution—will allow utilities to evaluate the significant monetary benefits of continuing to invest in clean energy projects. Another utilities-focused bill (House Bill 1313) will help Colorado continue to play a national leadership role on clean energy by setting a template for Colorado’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, as well as other utilities, to achieve their bold carbon reductions targets.
And lastly, by 2030, our transportation sector is expected to surpass electricity generation as the top carbon emitter in the state. That’s why transforming transportation is critical to combating climate change. We took a big step toward electrifying Colorado’s transportation fleet by passing bills to extend electric vehicle tax credits to 2025 (House Bill 1159) and expand electric vehicle infrastructure (Senate Bill 77) while defeating a bill to prohibit the adoption of Zero Emission Vehicle Standards (Senate Bill 53). These bills will keep Colorado the “best place in the country” to buy an electric vehicle as well as make low- and zero-emissions vehicles more affordable and more accessible to Coloradans.
Prioritizing the Health and Well-being of Coloradans
For too long, Colorado’s oil and gas laws and regulations had not kept pace with development, leaving our communities and environment to bear the consequences. This year we made significant gains in ensuring that when it comes to oil and gas drilling, health and safety come first. The oil and gas reform bill (Senate Bill 181) outlines a number of common-sense reforms to put Coloradans’ well being ahead of industry profits. The bill not only safeguards our communities by prioritizing public health and welfare, it will help combat carbon pollution by minimizing methane emissions. As a result, this bill will protect the health of our communities as Colorado moves beyond dirty fuels.
Progressing towards a clean energy future is critical to our way of life—but we must ensure a just and equitable transition along the way. Moving toward an inclusive economy built on clean energy will require more than just technological solutions, it will mean supporting workers and communities whose livelihoods are impacted by this shift.
We helped to address the needs of workers, residents, and communities transitioning to a cleaner economy in a number of policies we worked to pass this session. The “Climate Action Plan” will help empower regulators to take bigger steps toward regulating air pollution in disproportionately impacted communities by specifically directing air quality experts to collaborate with a variety of different stakeholders, including frontline communities as they work to craft regulations. The “just transition” bill (House Bill 1314) will accelerate Colorado’s switch to cleaner electricity generation while benefiting local economies by providing grants, workforce training, and other re-employment programs to communities currently dependent on the coal industry. The Public Utilities Commission Reform bill will also help support communities making this switch by requiring energy companies to create a workforce transition plan when closing a coal-fired plant.
Protecting Our Lands and Waters
Climate change, pollution, and rapid population growth are putting significant strains on the lands and waterways that Coloradans depend on. This legislative session we made big moves to preserve Colorado’s wild places and cascading waters.
From mountain peaks to open grasslands, Colorado’s lands are central to our outdoor heritage and recreation economy. That’s why we supported a bill to update conservation easements (House Bill 1264). This measure will allow more Coloradans to protect the lands they love by extending and improving upon Colorado’s conservation easement program which already protects about 2.5 million acres across Colorado. It’s also why we worked to defeat a misguided wildfire mitigation bill (Senate Bill 37) which would have undone long-established, collaborative relationships between local governments and land managers to successfully address the threat of wildfires and maintain forest resiliency.
The water we use to drink, irrigate our crops, and sustain our communities is water that we share with our rivers, streams, and lakes. But severe drought and increasing water demands threaten to diminish both the quantity and quality of our water supply.
We passed two policies to help sustain healthy, flowing rivers: a mining reform bill (House Bill 1113) and a bill to fund Colorado’s Water Plan (House Bill 1327). The mining reform bill will preserve the quality of Colorado’s waterways by necessitating hard-rock mining companies to prove they can pay to treat polluted water prior to operating a new mine. This will ensure that Colorado’s water and communities are protected from the devastating environmental and economic impacts of hard-rock mining.
The Colorado Water Plan funding bill will maintain adequate flows in Colorado’s rivers and streams by creating a revenue source—through the legalization of sports betting—to fund the Colorado Water Plan, a roadmap to prevent statewide water shortfalls. If approved by voters, the bill will allocate 10 percent of proceeds—an estimated $10 million annually—towards water conservation as well as provide money to combat gambling addiction.
These victories would not have been possible without you! Thousands of Conservation Colorado members across the state took action this legislative session to ensure a healthy Colorado for years to come.
Thank you—our members, donors, and supporters—for everything you did to make the environment a priority for legislators this year. By joining us and raising your voice on conservation issues, you have been a crucial part of this success.
This year was a year of tremendous progress. Now, we have a stronger-than-ever foundation upon which to build a better future for Colorado.
With your help, we can continue to grow our movement and be a national conservation leader.
How Colorado is ready to lead on the Environment
Drove 1,800 megawatts of clean energy. Cut pollution from cars. Organized thousands of Coloradans to stand up to the Trump administration. Won 53 elections, electing more women and people of color than ever before in Colorado. When we pause and take a look back, it’s clear that our 2018 was pretty eventful.
Building a movement requires many small successes. And this year — with the support of our many dedicated volunteers, donors, and activists — we accomplished a lot to protect Colorado’s environment.
First, we put more time, money, and effort into electing pro-conservation leaders than ever before — and it paid off! We played a part in getting Jared Polis elected as governor and in electing pro-conservation majorities in the Colorado legislature!
But election victories aren’t the only thing we accomplished this year.
Energy and Climate
- We helped bring more clean, renewable energy to Colorado through Xcel Energy’s Colorado Energy Plan. This will save an estimated $213 million for energy consumers, replacing two coal-fired power plants using renewable energy, existing (but no new) natural gas resources, and doubling the amount of battery storage that is currently under contract in the entire country. We sent nearly 10,000 public comments (a new record) to the Public Utilities Commission to make this plan a reality.
- We worked to pass a bill that supports rural communities impacted by economic downturn, like a big industry leaving. The “REACT” bill provides much-needed coordination and resources for state agencies to assist rural communities. It does this by designating a specific state agency, the Department of Local Affairs, to coordinate economic assistance.
- We made big moves for cleaning up pollution from cars in Colorado. In November, Colorado became the first interior state to pass Low Emission Vehicle standards for cars and trucks, which will reduce pollution from tailpipes, help Coloradans breathe easier, and save money for families at the pump. We lauded Governor Hickenlooper when he kicked off the process with an executive order in June, and we brought input from more than 7,600 Coloradans to the agency in charge.
- We played a part in passing a bill to increase funding for transportation, a need that has grown as Colorado’s population has boomed. A true compromise, this transportation funding bill includes flexible, statewide funding that invests in transit, bike, and pedestrian options as well as highways and roads. SB 001 provides funding for all parts of the state to decrease congestion, promote equity, and reduce air pollution.
Wilderness and Public Lands
- We partnered with U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Jared Polis to introduce a bill in both chambers of Congress to permanently protect 96,000 acres in the White River National Forest, including Camp Hale as the first-ever National Historic Landscape. The Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness, and Camp Hale Act will protect the natural beauty, outdoor recreation, historic resources, and wildlife habitat in the nation’s busiest national forest.
- We supported a bill to reauthorize Colorado’s lottery to continue funding outdoor recreation and land conservation. Through this program, Great Outdoors Colorado has returned more than $1.1 billion to the people of Colorado through projects like community parks and trails in all 64 of Colorado’s counties.
- We mobilized thousands of Coloradans to speak up to the Trump administration, sending in comments on proposed changes to sage grouse plans, getting local elected officials on board to stop drilling near the Great Sand Dunes, and recruiting 103 businesses to send a letter to Congress to protect the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
- We worked with our legislative champions to pass three bills that allow reused water to be used for flushing toilets, growing hemp and marijuana, and cultivating edible crops. Reused water is recycled water that has been treated so it is clean enough to use again. These bills will save water for Colorado.
- We won a lawsuit to keep the Dolores River flowing. There is now water that is legally allotted to restore stream flows for the fish and wildlife that depend on it.
- Conservation Colorado Education Fund and Protégete registered 10,360 new voters in Denver and Pueblo counties—75 percent of whom identify as people of color—to help increase voter participation in Colorado.
- We graduated 44 Promotores, or individuals from Latino communities who committed to learning how to organize and lead their community toward local and statewide solutions through civic engagement. This included our first-ever youth Promotores, who are local high school and college students going through our program.
- We helped defeat Amendment 74, a ballot measure supported by out-of-state corporate interests who wanted to change the character of Colorado neighborhoods and our rural landscapes by giving developers loopholes to build anything they like, anywhere they like.
The Fight Continues
Our country is seeing a rare convergence of political climate, public concern, and capacity to make meaningful changes in the next few years — and those changes will be led by the states. We’re taking on some of our biggest campaigns ever to pass bold policies that will make Colorado a leader for the nation.
We’ve come up with a vision for the future that serves as a clear call for our leaders to make meaningful policies in 2019 and beyond to protect Colorado’s environment. It includes:
- Putting a limit on carbon pollution and advancing clean energy innovation
- Electrifying and cleaning up our transportation sector
- Safeguarding communities from oil and gas development
- Keeping water in our rivers and ensuring our drinking water healthy
- Protecting public lands and wilderness for all Coloradans
With your help, we can continue to grow our movement and make Colorado’s future one that we’re proud to leave as our legacy. Donate before the end of the year to support our vision for the future and become a part of the fight!
On Election Day 2018, nationwide voter turnout for the midterm elections was the highest its been in more than 50 years. In Colorado, an astounding 2.5 million ballots were returned, earning our state one of the top five highest-midterm-turnout rates in the country.
Coloradans were energized and engaged on environmental issues in the 2018 election by the threat that the Trump administration poses to our Colorado way of life and by our determination to make Colorado a national leader. That’s why this election cycle, Conservation Colorado spent more money, knocked on more doors, and engaged more voters than ever before.
With the help of our members, donors, and volunteers, we:
- Spent $4.6 million on direct contributions to candidates, expansive digital ad programs, direct mail, canvasses, and TV and radio ads
- Knocked on 585,375 doors in targeted areas across the state and made 2,735 calls
- Registered 10,360 Coloradans with the goal of registering younger, less affluent and more racially and ethnically diverse voters
- Mobilized more than 300 members and volunteers to knock doors, make phone calls, and take action to support pro-conservation candidates
Thanks to all of you, our hard work in the 2018 election paid off! We helped elect environmental champions to all of our state executive offices and establish a pro-conservation trifecta.
In the governor’s race, conservation was a key part of Jared Polis’ bold vision for Colorado’s future, and he has a long record of fighting to protect our clean air, public lands, and climate. “I look forward to working with [Conservation Colorado’s] 40,000 members to defend our public lands, grow our outdoor recreation economy, create good-paying renewable energy jobs that can never be outsourced, and make sure we can continue to enjoy our Colorado way of life,” Polis said. We’re proud to have knocked more than 500,000 doors to help elect a true conservation champion!
In the race for attorney general, the health of Colorado’s environment and communities was at the forefront of Phil Weiser’s platform, propelling him to victory over an opponent with a history of favoring special interests like the oil and gas industry. “As attorney general, I will lead the fight to address the reality of climate change, not deny it. I will protect our public lands and ensure we have clean air and water, standing up to the Trump agenda and suing our federal government when necessary to protect Colorado. I am proud to join Conservation Colorado…to protect Colorado’s land, air, and water, to fight for our children and future generations,” said Weiser. We’re thrilled to have an attorney general who will stand with us in fighting back on behalf of all Coloradans.
In state legislative races this year, we fought hard in key districts to uphold the pro-conservation majority in the state House and to take back the state Senate. This work paid off on election night when we saw victory after victory for pro-conservation candidates! In each of our toughest races, candidates who prioritized the protection of our clean air, clean water, and public lands won by more than 10 percentage points over their opponents. Such massive margins make it clear that Colorado voters value our conservation and vote with it in mind.
Dylan Roberts, representing Eagle and Routt counties in House District 26 added: “Up here in the mountains, this is what voters really care about: protecting our environment, protecting our water. I look forward to working on those issues.”
In addition to our efforts to get pro-conservation leaders elected, we worked on several ballot measures — and had mixed results. We fought with all of our strength to defeat Amendment 74, one of the scariest measures we’ve seen on Colorado’s ballot in years. Even though the oil and gas industry spent more than $10 million to support 74, our side helped voters see through the deception and vote for local communities to have power over big industries. We’re grateful voters rejected this disaster!
Unfortunately, Proposition 112 failed on the ballot. We endorsed this measure to increase the setback for new oil and gas development to 2,500 feet from buildings. We supported 112 because the health and safety of our communities should come above all else, but a $30 million campaign bankrolled by the oil and gas defeated this community-led initiative. Though 112 did not pass, more than 800,000 people voted for it because they’re fed up with the oil and gas industry. We need our legislators to listen to these voters and make sure Colorado has the strongest safeguards in the West for the oil and gas industry.
A Winning Percentage
In all, 53 out of our 55 endorsed candidates in the 2018 election won their races, resulting in a 96 percent win rate and a continued track record of electing environmental champions who will protect our air, lands, water, and people.
Thanks to your help, we are excited to work closely with all of our elected officials to enact bold policies that prioritize our conservation values during the the 2019 legislative session and beyond.
Written by Jenny Gaeng
I was twenty-six years old and standing – just barely – in New Mexico. My backpack was already digging into my shoulders. My feet, wrapped in shiny new trail runners, scratched nervously at the desert sand.
The hot air rippled like a curtain. Brown mountains rose in enormous triangles from the flat expanse; they could have been painted, like the backdrop of a play. Behind me stood a small barbed-wire fence: Mexico.
3,100 miles ahead shone a luminous bullseye: Canada.
There was a monument at the trailhead, a sturdy stone obelisk reading: Southernmost Point, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The route was engraved on the side: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana. It took seconds to run my fingers from beginning to end; I figured it would take five or six months by foot.
The shuttle to the trailhead had gone, and I was all alone. I was afraid to start hiking, afraid that I was really here and had no one to blame but myself. The path forward was littered with cholla cacti and wiry ocatilla, their tips like red arrowheads pointing at the sky.
I tried to imagine what I could not see: the promise of rivers and peaks, of strength and redemption. I pointed my body north and began to walk.
The Continental Divide Trail was created in 1978 under the National Scenic Trails Act, joining other long-distance hikes such as the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. While those trails attract thousands of “thru-hikers” each year, the Continental Divide Trail only sees a few hundred. This is due in part to the challenges of the trail: remoteness, route-finding, weather, and everyone’s favorite fear, grizzly bears. The trail is also incomplete. Today, 20 percent of the trail is on roads, from bumpy dirt roads to actual highways, where hikers’ feet throb on the scorching pavement as cars whiz by. About a thousand miles in, I started sticking out my thumb.
Future hikers may not have to, thanks to the amazing work of land management agencies, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and other partners working to complete the trail. This means fun work like mapping and trail-building, but land acquisition comes first.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was created in 1964 to repurpose taxes from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund something that virtually every American benefits from: public land. Money from LWCF is used to purchase private land and give it back to the people – and it’s not just trails and forests; every state in the country has used LWCF to pay for parks, bike paths, and more. In this case, purchasing those last remaining parcels along the Continental Divide is instrumental in completing the trail from Mexico to Canada.
But these days, there’s not much that we don’t have to fight for. On September 30, LWCF is set to expire, and it will take an act of Congress to keep it afloat. If Congress doesn’t vote to save it, we could lose our most precious resources to the backlog of defunded yet essential conservation efforts. The Continental Divide Trail could forever remain a trail of broken links along the nation’s spine.
September 22 was the first day of fall. It was already bone-cold in Montana, ten miles from the border in Glacier National Park.
I woke up to water dripping through the seams of my tent. Everything was soaked: my clothes, my pad, my sleeping bag. I didn’t care. “Squirrel!” I yelled to my buddy, who had joined me for the last few days. “Wake up. Let’s get the heck to Canada!”
The trail had turned into a river of mud, two steps forward and big slides back. The rain made it worse. We followed a creek up, up, over a hill, gritting our teeth until finally-
Squirrel was ahead, and I heard him start to whoop. “Oh my god,” I whispered. I opened my throat to join in, but only air came out. I braced myself to feel – what was I supposed to feel?
A bleary parking lot emerged from the fog: a pit toilet, two flags, and a few lonely cars. Squirrel was staring up at the sign and shielding his face from the rain.
“This is anticlimactic,” he said.
“No!” I cried. This was the punctuation mark at the end of a very long sentence. It had started five months and two days ago at the barbed-wire fence, or maybe earlier – the first time I scaled a mountain, or saw the Milky Way, or sat in the city listening to sirens howl and thinking, I wish I was far away.
Wherever it began, it snaked here over five million footsteps. Ten for the sirens, one hundred for an illness, one thousand for a broken heart – and all the rest for the people who told me I wouldn’t make it. The Continental Divide Trail was every oozing blister, every misstep that sent me face-first into the dirt. It was every time someone asked, Are you alone? and their tone said, You shouldn’t be here. It was every basin that drained my breath, all the mountains that washed over me and carried everything else away.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund isn’t just about land or water. It’s the currency of the human spirit, of challenge and healing. It keeps us alive and free.
“I knew the trail wouldn’t let us down easy,” Squirrel groaned.
My nose was numb from the rain. I scraped my teeth against the my peeling lower lip and looked out at the fog. I didn’t know how to get home or even where home would be. But I knew that I could keep moving, even if it took another five million steps to get there.
I said, “This is perfect.”
Read more from Jenny Gaeng, Field Organizer at Conservation Colorado, and her outdoor exploits at adventuresofcloud.com. Next week she will begin a traverse of the Sangre de Cristo range, a wild area currently under threat from oil and gas drilling. Her blogs will explore the Sangres’ history, geology, and the intersection of indigenous activism and environmentalism.
From the valleys of the West Slope, Colorado rivers are a cornerstone of our communities, economy, environment, and shared way of life. However, our state’s landlocked status means that the rivers’ water isn’t naturally accessible for a lot of Colorado communities; most often, we have to bring the water to us. Snowpack melts from mountain peaks and irrigates through tunnels and pipes to reach communities throughout the state. Water, as a seasonal and limited resource, is increasingly scarce as snowpack peaks earlier and warm temperatures arrive earlier.
Despite the fact that Colorado is home to some of the best water recreation opportunities in the West, we’re facing a prolonged drought — and all the environmental issues associated with it.
Consequently, many Colorado rivers aren’t in great shape. The damaging effects of climate change and lingering impacts of overuse, poor management, and energy development continue to devastate our water supplies.
Summer after summer, our rivers seem to be shrinking. However, something about this summer is remarkably different. Currently, abnormally dry conditions are impacting approximately 4,023,000 Coloradans — about 80% of the state’s population.
Let’s look at a few of the rivers across the state to reflect on the past and what our new normal may look like.
Hold On: How Do We Measure Water?
We use the measurement of cubic feet per second (cfs) to measure water in motion. One cfs represents 7.5 gallons of water flowing by a particular point per second.
Imagine one unit of cfs as roughly the size of a basketball. So when we say a river has 449 cubic feet per second, imagine about 449 basketballs bouncing downstream every second!
Flows on July 23, 2018: 2190 cfs
Average flows on July 23 over the last 51 years: 4270 cfs
That’s over 2000 cfs less than the past average; that’s roughly 51 percent less than the average.
Also known as the “American Nile,” the Colorado River supplies more water for Coloradans than any other river in the state through pipelines from the West Slope to the Front Range. As one of the southwest’s most utilized bodies of water, the Colorado River is also one of the most vulnerable to increasing demand and the long-lasting impacts of climate change. Decreasing flows, increased evaporation resulting from higher temperatures, and dwindling snowpack levels continue to increase the gap between supply and demand.
Flows on July 23, 2018: 98.1 cfs
Average flows on July 23 over the last 33 years: 914 cfs
That’s over 800 cfs less than the past average; that’s roughly 10 percent of the average amount of water.
The Yampa River remains as the last major free-flowing tributary to the Colorado River, the backbone of the West’s water supply. As the Colorado River continues to get exhausted from increasing demand, the Yampa is emerging as a source to meet growing water demands. There have been a number of proposals over the years to dam and divert water from the Yampa to send it to thirsty cities east of the Continental Divide, which would be a disaster for one of the West’s last wild rivers.
Near Bedrock, CO:
Flows on July 23, 2018: 6.04 cfs
Average flows on July 23 over the last 34 years: 93 cfs
That’s less than the past average; that’s roughly 6.5 percent of the average amount of water.
The Dolores River has faced numerous challenges over the years, including dams, high water demands, mining pollution, and climate change. This river is severely threatened, recently scoring a D- on our Colorado Rivers Report Card. However, recent local efforts to revitalize the water have helped build a drumbeat to reinvigorate one of the most unknown and underappreciated rivers in the state.
The steps we take now to protect and improve our rivers will determine the viability — and future — of Colorado’s water. More importantly, what we do now will determine if we have healthy rivers and enough drinking water in the future.
Written by Audrey Wheeler
A year ago, we reported on the West Elk Coal Mine, a highly contested mine in Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest. At that time, we and many other Coloradans were concerned about Arch Coal’s proposal to expand its coal mine, which would destroy 1,720 acres of forest.
Now, those concerns have become reality. Just two weeks ago, the Trump administration’s Forest Service announced that it is forging ahead with a plan to allow the company to expand the mine. If approved, this decision will cause irreparable harm on the national forest in more ways than one.
To take a step back, the West Elk coal mine is located in western Colorado, north of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It’s an extremely controversial mine for a variety of reasons, including its location inside a roadless area of a national forest, its exemption from a new moratorium on coal leasing, and the fact that it is owned by formerly bankrupt company Arch Coal. But perhaps the most disturbing issue is the air pollution that it already causes, which would increase if the mine expands.
The West Elk mine has already been the single largest source of methane pollution in Colorado, spewing 58,000 tons of methane into the air every year. Methane — an immensely potent greenhouse gas — has more than 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide, and is a major contributor to climate pollution.
Although Colorado has some of the strongest rules in the nation for methane pollution from oil and gas activity, as the Colorado Independent reports, “Unlike methane from oil and gas drilling, coal mine methane remains unregulated at both state and federal levels.” The proposed expansion to the coal mine could mean emitting enough methane to negate half of the emissions prevented by Colorado’s methane rules for oil and gas.
Plus, under Arch Coal’s plan, more than six miles of forest will be bulldozed for roads and up to 48 drilling pads will be built in the Sunset Roadless Area, which connects to the West Elk Wilderness. The area is a rolling landscape of aspen and spruce-fir forests that provide habitat for native black bear, elk, lynx, and cutthroat trout.
The actions by the Trump administration to move forward with this mine expansion are even more disturbing because of how they deal with the impacts of government projects on climate change. Previously, government environmental reviews like this had to take into account the impact of the project on climate change. Now, the Forest Service claims that calculating climate impacts is not an “appropriate tool at the project level” and is “no longer representative of governmental policy.” This comes out of a Trump executive order that disbanded the agency working group associated with it.
The Forest Service wants to give Arch Coal access to more than 17 million tons of coal — but at what cost? The West Elk Mine already has over a decade of coal in reserve, and this decision not only ignores the economic realities that face the coal industry, but it generates even more greenhouse gas emissions, further exacerbating climate change. Coal has been central to the local economy in this area for generation, but this coal mine expansion is a bad idea for the forest and for our climate.
The negative consequences of expanding the West Elk Coal Mine and the damage it would cause to our national forest are obvious. The U.S. Forest Service is asking the public to weigh in on this problematic West Elk Coal Mine expansion. Take action today to send a message to the administration that we value our public lands too much to watch them be destroyed. Follow this link to sign a petition to the Forest Service.
This one decision could destroy aspen groves, displace native wildlife, and vent methane pollution into our air. It’s a sign of what to expect under the Trump administration in terms of our public lands — and it’s up to us to stop it.
Cover image: The West Elk Mine. Image from WildEarth Guardians flickr.
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