I had been in Colorado Springs no more than two months when I found myself in the Garden of the Gods parking lot on a chilly fall morning. There were around 20 of us ready to tackle our day’s objective: to help the Rocky Mountain Field Institute (RMFI) construct proper drainage channels and stop erosion of a popular path. After a safety talk, we got started crushing rocks, lifting and placing beams, and bonding. In our gaggle of volunteers, there were Air Force Academy cadets, young couples, retirees and everyone in between. I quickly felt welcomed by a group of people all linked through a common love for outdoor spaces.
Fast forward two years and my work on trail crews has given me a feeling of responsibility and respect that sticks with me every time I arrive at a trailhead. Here in the Springs, trail maintenance is a source of community just as much as it is a vital way to keep our trails and open spaces healthy and accessible to the public.
COVID-19 has been an interesting time for local trails and open spaces. Throughout the various levels of safety restrictions, the outdoors has remained open, and locals have hit the trails in large numbers for their health and well-being. At the same time, the pandemic has threatened the typical routines of trail organizations and the community they foster. Many events across the Front Range were cancelled this spring, and volunteer groups were limited or banned altogether due to public health concerns.
Yet despite setbacks, organizations on the Front Range are still moving forward with their pertinent conservation work. We checked in with Jennifer Peterson, executive director of RMFI, about how the pandemic has impacted trail work and what volunteers might anticipate for the summer.
Every year, RMFI hires a seasonal crew that starts work at the end of March. When Governor Jared Polis declared a state of emergency on March 10, plans quickly were adapted. Volunteer crews could no longer run, but the Colorado Springs Parks Department gave RMFI the green light to continue its essential work using their hired seasonal staff in groups of four to six. Projects have included restoration in Ute Valley Park, trail maintenance of the Scotsman Trail at Garden of the Gods, and extensive trail and restoration work in North Cheyenne Cañon Park.
RMFI has also been able to support its staff through these difficult times. “[We] have been able to keep paychecks in their pockets and keep them employed, while at the same time accomplishing critical stewardship projects,” Peterson says.
With increased use of trails and open spaces throughout the spring, RMFI has altered its typical maintenance schedule to help minimize contact with the public. Trail crews now work from Monday to Friday. While weekends are usually important for volunteer groups, it remains unclear if any RMFI volunteer opportunities will open up this summer. It all depends on how COVID-19 guidelines continue to unfold.
But Peterson stresses that there’s still a lot we can all do, especially with so many of us out on the trails: “Everyone can support not only RMFI, but all the other friends groups and our City parks department and other land managers by being a responsible user of trails and public lands.”
Being a responsible user boils down to some simple standards. If you’re new to getting out on the trails, educate yourself about the proper ways to enjoy outdoor spaces. A great place to start is by checking out Leave No Trace. Most importantly, make sure to take your trash and waste out with you and stay on existing trails. Staying on trail reduces the creation of social trails, which destroy habitat, contribute to soil erosion and make it more difficult for friends organizations to keep the areas maintained. Crews spend a lot of time maintaining trails for reason, so stay on them!
Also, check out the Trails and Open Space Coalition’s Get Out Spread Out campaign to keep yourself and others safe from COVID-19, so our trails and open spaces can remain vibrant and accessible to the public.
If you’re still eager to do trail work, keep an eye out. Some friends groups, including Friends of Ute Valley, Friends of Palmer Park and Cheyenne Mountain State Park, have resumed volunteer trail work days with group size limitations and other social distancing measures. Watch the TOSC Volunteer Calendar for upcoming opportunities. Interested volunteers should check with each event organizer to see what protocols are in place and if the volunteer day is still running.
For upcoming opportunities with RMFI, watch their social media feeds and monthly newsletter for the opening of volunteer projects. Friends of the Peak is also waiting for the Forest Service go-ahead to continue its work on and around Pikes Peak. With that clearance, the group says it will likely begin volunteer projects if they can do so safely.