Seize the day

Celebrating Colorado’s first Public Lands Day

Aspen leaves around Chalk Creek in the San Isabel National Forest southwest of Buena Vista.
Christi Turner

This Saturday, May 20 marks the first-ever Colorado Public Lands Day, a holiday created as a non-political celebration of public lands, but whose meaning seems amplified in a national political climate where public lands protection is under threat.

More than 100 events of all kinds are planned around the state to ring in the new holiday, which is the only state-specific celebration of public lands (National Public Lands Day happens every September 30). There’s a group run in Durango, a hiking guidebook release in Grand Junction, a roller derby fundraiser in Parker. Of course, countless Colorado breweries will offer specially-themed beers, most donating proceeds to public lands conservation. There are cleanups and guided hikes, and even a few overnight camping trips. Gov. John Hickenlooper will speak at the Grand Junction Off-Road Bike Race, and the marquee event, a conversation with U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter on the future of public lands, will take place in Golden.

It seems fitting that Colorado be the first to make this a state celebration. After all, it’s a state where more than 35 percent of the total land area — around 24 million acres — is publicly managed. Polling shows most people recognize the environmental and economic value of public lands — in one poll, 93 percent of Coloradans agreed public lands are essential to the state’s economy — and a love for the Colorado outdoors seems pervasive and nonpartisan.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette says she is pleased Colorado is raising the profile of public lands issues through this new state holiday.

“Our public lands belong to all of us, and we must come together to guard them from people who want to despoil them,” DeGette says. “Now more than ever, public lands are crucial to wildlife conservation, climate change adaptation and the preservation of open spaces.”

DeGette introduced the Colorado Wilderness Act in Congress in 2015, which would protect 32 wilderness areas totaling around 715,000 acres across the state, or about 1 percent of the state’s land. She continues to press for its passage.

Jessica Goad, spokesperson for Conservation Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of the state’s natural environment, says the creation of Colorado Public Lands Day shows that Coloradans of all stripes value and want to celebrate their lands.

“The holiday certainly has heightened significance this year, given that we’re seeing troubling signs from Washington, D.C. as to where public lands management is going, such as a review of national monuments including Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients,” Goad adds.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Cortez came into being in 2000 under President Bill Clinton, and attracts around 30,000 visitors per year. Earlier this month, Gov. Hickenlooper met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to try to keep Canyons out of the review process, and assured Coloradans he would work to ensure its ongoing protection. Hickenlooper has said he believes the state needs more public land, not less, although his support of energy development on public lands is not without opposition in the state. Another public-lands focused organization, the Western Values Project (WVP), wants Colorado Public Lands Day to highlight the need to hold officials accountable to their duty to protect public lands.

“This is definitely time to celebrate the legacy of public lands. They’re interwoven into the economies in the West. And they’re directly under threat,” says Chris Saeger, executive director of WVP. “Number one is definitely this monuments review. Secretary Zinke has not been clear enough on what his intentions are.”

Saeger says that for Colorado Public Lands Day, WVP will call on Westerners to stand up to the monuments designation review.

A sign guides guests inside San Juan National Forest in Durango. Christi Turner

The bill that created Colorado Public Lands Day was shepherded through state congress by State Sen. Kerry Donovan of District 5, which encompasses Chaffee, Delta, Eagle, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Lake and Pitkin counties. Her district includes another national monument, Browns Canyon in Salida (not under review), where rafting on the Arkansas River generates more than $73 million in annual economic impact. The purpose of the bill and this new holiday, she says, is to unite Coloradans around a shared connection to public lands, leaving politics and partisanship aside.

“We really were trying to not make it about the issue of state takeover of public lands or any of that,” Donovan says, although the legislative struggle over the bill’s final content was fraught with partisanship. “Since we passed it, there have been some very real challenges and political discussion around the threat against public lands staying public. I think it has a new significance, showing how important it is that our public lands stay public and accessible to all.”

Donovan will stop in four of her five counties Saturday, joining in on a wilderness hike in Spraddle Creek (a proposed addition to Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area) in Vail, a community cleanup in Leadville, a public lands benefit at a brewery in Poncha Springs and an end-of-day festival in Gunnison.

Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC), an organization that has run more than 1,000 volunteer projects in its 33 years of existence, will spend Saturday celebrating the importance of citizen stewardship of shared public lands.

A group of volunteers with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado lays new trail at Dedisse Park in Evergreen. Courtesy of VOC

“Stewardship is just what we do. It’s something we feel is an important nonpartisan unifier in this partisan world we operate in,” says Anna Zawisza, VOC director of community relations. “We’re still lacking better stewardship by the public. These lands aren’t just here for our pleasure; they also need to be taken care of.”

VOC will offer three different projects in three distinct locations to celebrate the new holiday, including a trail construction at Dedisse Park in Evergreen and a family stewardship day at High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, each about an hour’s drive from Boulder.

Other Boulder County Public Lands Day events include a special brew and discounts at Asher Brewing Co. in Gunbarrel, invasive species removal along the St. Vrain Creek in Longmont, and both archery and fly fishing events at St. Vrain State Park just over the Weld County line.

State Sen. Steve Fenberg (D-Boulder), will celebrate with a morning hike up Grays and Torreys Peaks in Clear Creek County, maybe even some fishing later in the weekend.

“I think it’s telling that Colorado will be the first state to have a public lands day. Protecting and recreating in our public lands is a core part of the Colorado way of life,” Fenberg says. “The fact that Coloradans will be spending the weekend celebrating our public lands while Trump and Republicans in Congress are discussing selling them off just shows how out-of-step Washington is on this issue.”

And aside from the events organized specifically to honor the day, the Front Range forecast should allow for plenty of other ways to get out and celebrate — and contemplate — the state’s public lands this Saturday. From this year forward, Colorado Public Lands Day will happen annually on the third Saturday in May.

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