Interview: Elevate the Peak with Rebecca Jewett

    The Palmer Land Conservancy president and CEO talks about local outdoors, protecting our natural spaces and what the prairie has to do with blind dates.

    Rebecca Jewett of Palmer Land Conservancy hikes with Buddhist prayer flags in the background
    Rebecca Jewett leads Palmer Land Conservancy and other outdoor groups toward a collaborative plan for outdoors in the Pikes Peak region through Elevate the Peak. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Jewett.

    If you enjoy the trails and open spaces around Colorado Springs, you can thank the Palmer Land Conservancy. In a region fortunate to have many organizations devoted to our outdoors and outdoor way of life, Palmer Land Conservancy is often the group that secures easements and legal protections of land parcels. The work can be behind the scenes, but the group has played an invaluable role in creating just about every local open space. Red Rock Canyon Open Space, Stratton Open Space, Pineries Open Space, Paint Mines Interpretive Park, Catamount Ranch Open Space, even Garden of the Gods and the ongoing Ring the Peak Trail are just some of the local treasures Palmer has helped to create. 

    Now Palmer Land Conservancy is spearheading Elevate the Peak, a collaborative effort with other nonprofits to establish a comprehensive, 10-year plan to guide land conservation and recreation efforts in the Pikes Peak region. Led by its president and CEO, Rebecca Jewett, the group secured a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) to fund the project. We wanted to know more, so we sat down with Jewett to talk about Elevate the Peak, enjoying our local outdoors and her passion for protecting Colorado’s natural landscapes.

    Springs: What is Elevate the Peak and why do we need it?

    Rebecca Jewett: Elevate the Peak is a big community visioning and planning effort focused on outdoor recreational land conservation. Eleven environmental and conservation organizations have come together to create a coalition. Partners include Rocky Mountain Field Institute (RMFI), Catamount Institute, Trails and Open Space Coalition, Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance and Cattleman’s Agricultural Land Trust. 

    We realized a while ago that we need to be more proactive. People love living here for the outdoors. Ask anybody on the street why they love living here, and they look at Pikes Peak. But in the face of immense population growth over the last couple of years, and now coupled with increased awareness of the value of our outdoor spaces due to the pandemic, we realized we wanted to hear from the community about their goals and visions and set forth a collective regional vision for both outdoor recreation and the conservation of land. It’s never happened before on this scale. 

    We’re looking at four counties—El Paso, Teller, Fremont and Park counties—that identify with Pikes Peak as a focal point for the outdoors. It’s a four county effort to listen to those we haven’t heard from in the past. We want urban voices; we want rural voices. We want voices who use the outdoors and those who don’t use the outdoors. We want to bring it all together and identify where we need to go as a region to protect this tremendous quality of life and these natural resources—and be a little more bold in it.

    pikes peak in the fall
    Pikes Peak in autumn. Photo by Mike Menefee.

    What does the process look like?

    We’ve had focus groups where we tapped into various segments of the community we specifically wanted to listen to. We also have a short, three-minute survey at elevatethepeak.org that we hope will gather a broad swath of voices from every corner. We’re doing community roundtables around the region. And we’re going to pull it all together, find the common threads, the big ideas, the things that percolate to the top and put forth a 10-year vision and action plan that these groups together will collectively help get done.

    Why are you hoping to involve non-land users?

    We are naturally hearing from the people who have their favorite trail and go run five days a week. We want to hear those voices, absolutely. But we also want to hear from people who aren’t using it as much or who might not identify with the outdoors and ask why? Is it an access issue?

    We’re focusing pretty heavily in Southeast Colorado Springs, which is very underserved when it comes to parks and public open spaces. Why? What are the barriers? Is it because we need more outdoors and green spaces in the area? Is there something to do with access? Is it because there just isn’t an awareness or a lack of interest? We don’t know, and that’s exactly why we want to hear from people and reach into those areas that don’t tend to readily participate in a parks master planning process.

    Rural areas too. You think about Teller County being right there against Pikes Peak, and yet the accessibility of getting on a trail there can be difficult. We want that bigger view to try to figure out what’s going on from a big picture perspective.

    So what will Elevate the Peak do for me as an average citizen?

    I think we’ve all seen from the pandemic, this region is changing. We saw the pictures of trailheads in North Cheyenne Canon and Section 16 overflowing. I think the pandemic in a lot of ways was a wake up call to what we all enjoy every day, whether it’s seeing the views, a favorite trail or local food. So right now, Elevate the Peak is a chance to have your opinion heard. What is important to you? Because if you don’t say it and then you don’t fight for it, there is no guarantee that thing is going to happen.

    But I also feel like historically we, as a region, have taken a lot of these wonderful aspects of the great outdoors for granted. It’s easy to do because Pikes Peak is just right there and beautiful. But the fact of the matter is, in the face of a growing population, these things will change. To ensure that the quality of life you enjoy today is here tomorrow and in the future for your kids, we do have to be proactive. While there is a lot of support for the outdoors, that doesn’t translate into a lot of funding or action until we have a plan.

    How can people get involved as this project continues?

    The best way right now is to take the survey at elevatethepeak.org. It’s quick and simple, three minutes. But have your voice heard there, and then continue to check into elevatethepeak.org for ongoing opportunities to weigh in on various elements. And participate in an upcoming community roundtable. 

    sunset of the prairie
    A golden prairie sunset over eastern Colorado. Photo by Mike Menefee.

    Beyond spearheading Elevate the Peak, what does Palmer Land Conservancy do?

    We are here to protect the Colorado good life. There are these critical elements that make up why we all love to live here: the great outdoors, local food and our amazing scenic views. We work to protect those, and it takes work. If we weren’t here doing it, there is no guarantee that more trails and open spaces will be added in the future, or that local food and local farmers will be here tomorrow to keep producing Pueblo chilis, for example. So we work with both public land owners and private landowners to actually conserve the land itself. That’s the bulk of what we do. At the end of the day, it’s real estate transactions. That’s the mechanism for how we do this. But that trail isn’t even a possibility until you actually can secure and conserve the land.

    Historically, Colorado Springs has a strong foundation of conservation, especially related to General Palmer’s founding vision for parks, scenic landscapes and outdoor recreation. In reality today, how are we doing and how can we do better?

    We have a tremendous legacy that started with Palmer. That’s certainly part of why my organization’s founders chose him as our namesake. I think by and large, we have amazing projects that we should be incredibly proud of. But I also think it is not the time to step back and pat ourselves on the back. With the population growth all of Colorado has seen, especially our region, in the last few years and the huge engagement with the outdoors through the pandemic, I feel a new urgency, looking to the future, that we have to act now. Conservation cannot wait. It takes a lot of work. A lot of people might say, “We have enough. Do we really need to conserve any more?” To which my answer is always yes—because look at how fast it’s changing. If you don’t set it aside now, it’s gone.

    Why do you do what you do?

    I’m a fifth generation Coloradan, which is a lot of generations. There’s so much of who I am wrapped up in the landscape of Colorado. Climbing mountains, getting to a summit makes me feel whole. Enjoying a local peach from Palisade—I have so much appreciation for Colorado. And over the years, I really learned that’s because of the landscape. I started doing trail work in college with Rocky Mountain Field Institute, and just stayed with it. I graduated from slings and pickaxes to eventually running Rocky Mountain Field Institute as their executive director, and then I came over to Palmer. I’m very passionate about it, I think is the short answer.

    How long have you lived in Colorado Springs?

    I came down here to go to school at Colorado College. I grew up outside of Boulder in Longmont and wanted to stay in Colorado for school. So I came down here and basically never left. I did a quick jaunt to get my master’s in Denver and then came back here. Professionally, I’ve been working in the Springs for 15 years. It’s certainly home.

    Rebecca Jewett of Palmer Land Conservancy hikes with her daughter near Pikes Peak
    Rebecca Jewett explores the Pikes Peak region with her daughter in tow. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Jewett.

    What are some favorite stories or surprises from all of your conservation work here in the Springs?

    I was meeting with a woman, a landowner out in Teller County. We were sitting there looking at the Peak and I said, “Gosh, the backside of Pikes Peak is so beautiful.” And she looked at me and said, “This is my front side, Rebecca.” I realized in that moment the power of perspective and seeing land—and life—from different perspectives. I have really loved learning about Colorado from different perspectives.

    I think I was most surprised by falling in love with the prairie. When I started working at Palmer, I traveled a lot to Rocky Ford, where we had an office. The prairie is beautiful. The native vegetation, the plants that are so resilient, and there’s a stark beauty to it that I think completely rivals our mountains. But you have to give it a chance. Someone told me early on that getting to know the prairie is like going on a blind date. The first time you go out there, you’re just checking each other out. You’re not quite sure what to make of it. The second date, it’s starting to grow on you a little bit. But by the third date, you’re just smitten by the prairie.

    What do you love most about Colorado Springs?

    It’s location. I think when a lot of people think of Denver, they think it’s a city up against the mountains. But Denver is a city on the plains. Colorado Springs is a city up against the mountains. That is so incredibly unique.

    What would you most like to see change here at the Springs?

    I do feel like in the past there has been some complacency with protecting our scenery. I don’t see a lot of engagement. I really want to see people step up and get riled up for the land. I want to see so much more action and big ideas. We have so many users of the land and people love it, but I don’t know if there has been a good outlet for them actually getting involved. I want to harness that. I want to create an army of land advocates in Colorado Springs. And I want a better sushi scene.

    When you’re not working, where are we most likely to find you?

    Definitely out on a trail. Pulling my toddler in a little Burley trailer on a bike. Cruising around, going to parks, trying out all the new parks now that she’s old enough to really enjoy swings and slides. Also, it has slowed down recently, but I’ve had a goal for a long time of summiting the 100 tallest peaks in Colorado. I’m nearly done with the 14ers. I’m at 46; there’s only a few left. And I’ve started doing the highest 13ers, which are more fun because they’re less crowded nowadays. So I’m still working on that.

    Do you have a favorite peak?

    Going back to my RMFI days, I spent my 20s building the trails in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and up Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak, so I have to say those.


    What Do You Love—or Hate—About the Colorado Springs Outdoors? 

    Give your opinions and help shape the future of your favorite spots through the Elevate the Peak project at elevatethepeak.org. 


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