FOTP: A Group of Friends Working to Make a Difference
by Mary Burger
I want to tell you about Friends of the Peak, (FOTP). While many people are 'friends', and each have their own perspective of how and why we came to be, I was there at the beginning. I will give you my version of this history. I cannot give any other. I hope I do not upset anyone if my story does not match their remembrances. Perspective is everything, and this is my perspective. So let's begin at the beginning:
I am Mary Burger. I moved to the base of Pikes Peak in 1985 because my job brought me here. I was working as a production manager in a local manufacturing plant. During the course of this history, I transitioned to systems engineering and cybernetics analyst, and then retired. My background is in figuring out how to get things done, and how to organize people to do it. I fell in love with Pikes Peak as soon as I saw it, and all the early years of hiking and exploring it just cemented that feeling. Within a couple of years, I stumbled upon a group of people who were planning to build a new trail: The Intemann Trail (ITC). They had contacted another group: Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, (VOC), and asked for help. I joined both groups and discovered my passion. I love volunteering in the outdoors! I love building trails! I lived for the weekends, and the time I could spend with other like-minded people creating trails, planting vegetation, restoring damaged area, etc. I learned to plan and implement projects from VOC, and to plan and build trails with ITC. Then, in about 1994, I met Gail Snyder. By then the ITC was nearing its completion. There was one section which could not be built due to access issues which would not be resolved for almost a score of years. So, I was a "rebel without a cause". I wanted to continue volunteering in the outdoors close to home. I wanted to 'take on Pikes Peak'.
Gail Snyder was an intern working with the geology department of UCCS. She was doing the field work for the "Huber Report"; a report on the damage being done to the ecosystems of Pikes Peak by the Pikes Peak Highway. It was completed, and presented to the City of Colorado Springs, and on the way to being just another report shelved in the archives, when Gail said 'No way Jose!' She decided to activate a group of concerned citizens and try to make a difference. She held community meetings, and met with the major agencies who manage land on Pikes Peak. She called on experts in various fields related to the health of the mountain. She contacted me, and asked me to speak for 20 minutes on "How to build a good trail". I spent a couple hours explaining why I could not do that. But, when she asked for volunteers to form a group which would attempt to affect a positive change on Pikes Peak, I was there!
Gail also recruited Linda Korman. Linda was a local business woman who understood the importance of a firm foundation for business. She worked tirelessly on the mountain of paperwork necessary to make FOTP a legal corporation in Colorado, and to obtain the 501(c)3 designation from the IRS.
Gail recruited many more. Some would become members of the board; others would volunteer their expertise, or their hard work. She recruited academics, artists, athletes, craftsmen, politicians and concerned citizens. Everyone who was concerned about Pikes Peak was encouraged to express their love of the mountain in whatever way they felt driven. She helped us all follow our passion. She got the word got out through media coverage, word of mouth, and awareness raising sessions. Our membership grew.
To understand the situation, we must digress into a little bit of geology. I am not a geologist. We have over the years, had several geology professors on the board and I think I can summarize the situation. Pikes Peak results from an old magma pool which formed under a sea. The magma heated the compressed sand above it and created varying degrees of granite. The closer the sand was to the intruding magma, the more it crystallized, and the harder it became. The further away it was, the less crystallized it became. Eventually, the magma pushed the earth up forming what would become Pikes Peak. It cooled and solidified without ever erupting. There is a lot more to this very interesting subject, but this is a history of FOTP not Pikes Peak.
OK, so here is Pikes Peak in 1995: hard rock in the center, and soft crumbly rock, (devitrified granite or sediment) on the outside. The problem is that when sediment gets wet, it flows. When the sediment flows, it covers the vegetation and stifles life. This problem was exacerbated by the Pikes Peak Highway, which was built on gravel slopes. Whenever the sediment flowed away or eroded, the highway management would haul in more gravel to replace it to keep the highway open. That gravel would then flow away and more would be brought in, in a never ending cycle of gravel flow. The gravel flow below the Pikes Peak Highway had buried the vegetation in some areas up to 30 feet deep over many acres of what had been subalpine forest.
The sediment flows everywhere on Pikes Peak, not just from the highway. It flows anywhere the surface is not stabilized by vegetation. Most of the area on Pikes Peak above 11,000 feet is covered by vegetation called tundra, after similar plants found in the Arctic Circle. These are small plants which grow very slowly in the short season attaining only inches of height after centuries of growth. Sediment flow is a normal process on Pikes Peak. The vegetation will return after the flow stabilizes. But, it will take centuries.
We also have the problem of popularity. Pikes Peak is a national icon. Almost every American knows about it. A vast majority have either made the pilgrimage to see it, or wish they could. Pikes Peak was being loved to death by the trampling of too many feet, which kills off the vegetation and exposes the sediment. The sediment flows.
From the beginning, Friends of the Peak used community discourse to determine what was important. We came up with a core set of values: We wanted to be involved in the discussion of how to best protect the mountain from further damage by human use, and restore the eco-systems which were being damaged. Being humans, we are impatient; we don't want to wait centuries for a solution. We want the problem fixed in our lifetimes! We were opposed to reducing or limiting human visitation. In fact, we wanted to increase it so that more people would love Pikes Peak as we do. And we wanted to improve the experience of the visitors. Thus, our tag line: We work to preserve, restore, and appreciate Pikes Peak.
Back in the day, 1995, a lot of people were quite upset with the situation on Pikes Peak, particularly the condition of the highway, and the plant life around the highway. Many people were looking for someone to blame. It must be somebody's fault. There must be an enemy. Once you know the enemy it is fair to scream at them, and hit them with nasty letters to the editor, sue them in court, and beat them up any way you can.
But, who was the enemy? Was it the City of Colorado Springs? Was it the Forest Service; the Pikes Peak Highway Managers; the Race to the Clouds; the Colorado Springs Utilities? All of these organizations, and especially the people who worked within these agencies loved the mountain. FOTP decided to take a different approach. We decided to be friends with all the agencies who were in control of the mountain, and use that friendly influence to improve the situation.
The agencies that control more than 80% of the land mass on the mountain are: The United States Forest Service, (USFS), Colorado Springs Utilities, (CSU), and the managers of the Pikes Peak Highway, (PPH). Members of the board of FOTP met with these agencies and entered into a contract with them in which they agreed, if we would submit a yearly plan for their approval, we could have access to conduct educational trips on their lands. This contract was later modified to include work projects.
That first year, we conducted trips up onto the mountain, and we held seminars in town. The second year, we conducted our first work days. By the third year, we were doing more work days, and fewer educational events. And by the fourth year we were focusing on working to improve the situation, and educating the agencies on what could be done differently to minimize the negative impact on the mountain.
Our early projects were single day efforts with from a dozen to perhaps 50 volunteers at a time. Our initial work was all about containing the sediment flow, and protecting the tundra. The agencies were not convinced that anything could be done. We had some volunteers who were very concerned that the road cut above the highway was continuously shedding chunks of tundra which were swept away by the rains. And we had others who felt the largest problem was that the sediment continued to flow off damaged areas and cover more tundra.
There were two initiatives started: one mobilized to collect the tundra chunks and preserve them in a high altitude basin. Later, once we had stabilized an area, we would plant the reclaimed chunks of vegetation at Devil's Playground. We also planted seedlings, and cuttings provided by the USFS. The other built sediment traps and barriers to stop or slow down the sediment flow, at a couple locations along the highway and at Devil's Playground. All of this work was experimental. The USFS had no procedures to tell us how to do this work. So, we kept records, and did statistical analysis and helped the USFS to write reports and establish the methods that are used to stabilize the sediment and restore the tundra on Pikes Peak and other high mountain environments to this day.
After a while, the PPH said they could handle the sediment trapping better mechanically. Now that they understood the concept, they realized the traps needed to be bigger and stronger than anything we could build by hand. But, what they really needed was restoration of the cut slopes, and building some short trails from parking lots to overlooks. So, we restored the cut slopes at mile 4, mile 11, and later at mile 9. And, we built a short interpretive trail from the Crystal Reservoir parking lot, and an overlook trail at the Crowe Gulch parking lot.
After a couple years, Gail Allen joined FOTP. She had been a summer contract worker for USFS doing maintenance on Barr Trail, until Congress stopped the funding. Since then she had voluntarily, and single handedly, been maintaining Barr Trail. She needed help. With our help she founded the Trail Dogs: a group of volunteers who took on the monumental task of assessing the needs of Barr Trail, and making repairs. Her idea was to have one Trail Dog for each mile of trail. She found about a dozen of the 14 needed volunteers. We funded their training from VOC, and began paying for the tools and materials for Barr Trail repair. From then on, we staged a joint project every year with the Trail Dogs, addressing the issues identified by the Trail Dogs.
About this same time, the town of Cascade and the Trails and Open Space Coalition reached an agreement with a land owner to open a new access to the Mt. Esther trail. The old access had been located exactly where the landowner decided to put his house. FOTP was asked to design the trail and lead the work. We opened the new access and then spent several years of single day projects repairing and improving the trail to the top of the ridge, and then to the junction with a utility road, as well as repairing and relocating the connection from Crowe Gulch to the Mt. Esther trail. This work forced us to begin developing our own set of crew leaders, rather than have VOC do the training.
We were beginning to go in a lot of different directions by now. And our discussions with the agencies were asking "How do we know what we should do next?" So, along with our agency partners, with CSU taking the lead and making the largest monetary contribution, the public process for the Pikes Peak Master Plan was launched. This process was much larger than anything FOTP could have managed. But there was at least one, and generally several FOTP board members at every meeting for the Master Plan. Once it was finished, in 1999, we considered that we had our 'marching orders'.
The Pikes Peak Master Plan called for a citizens group or foundation to head up the creation of a non-motorized trail to circumnavigate Pikes Peak, later called Ring the Peak. It also called for the maintenance of a second trail to the summit of Pikes Peak, now known as the Devil's Playground Trail. It also called for the various agencies to work together to support the citizen's group, and to accomplish other restorative work on Pikes Peak. After the plan was complete, FOTP continued to hold meeting with the groups who were represented during the open meetings, to define the location of the Ring and to invite them to join us in accomplishing the work. Some of the members joined FOTP.
I think the next year, the USFS and PPH settled a lawsuit with the Sierra Club which required PPH to re-engineer the highway, and harden surface it to prevent further sediment flow from the highway. The Sierra Club settlement also called for restoration of the damaged areas surrounding the highway. The job was seen, by the board, as too large for the all-volunteer FOTP, and another group, RMFI, accepted the contract. They have a paid staff.
FOTP formed a group of interested friends to locate and sign the Ring the Peak Trail. A sponsor was found to pay for the materials. The group was led by Carol Beckman and worked to find an acceptable sign, design a simple yet distinguishing logo, and then install the signs. And, then re-install the signs, as the first ones were vandalized. And, then re-install them some more. Each year there are fewer signs destroyed.
Meanwhile, we received immediate approval to build a portion of the Ring the Peak, (RTP), from the top of the Mt. Esther trail to the base of Crystal dam, and to begin the repair of the Devil's Playground Trail. The first portion of the RTP is actually on City-owned property, the other two new trails are on forest property. They would need a NEPA, (National Environmental Protection Agency) study before the USFS could allow them to be built. So, in that year we not only held a couple projects building the Ring the Peak Trail, we began the work repairing the lower portion of Devil's Playground trail. We also planned a combined project for the summit of Devil's Playground Trail to happen the next year with VOC, and designed the two remaining new trails for Ring the Peak, so that the USFS could study the proposed alignment to ensure it complied with NEPA requirements. That is a lot of work. But, when you get a group of people together, all committed to the same plan, and everyone working on the things they are most passionate about, a lot can happen.
We continued to grow organically into whatever was needed.
During the work on the new RTP, some of the volunteers were discussing that they would like to continue the work on a weekday rather than being limited to weekends. These volunteers were either retired, or underemployed, or worked weekends, and wanted something fun to do, that was low cost, and would allow them to make a contribution. Voila! The Thursday work day was invented.
In planning the Devil's Playground project we realized we could not be effective if we asked people to drive all the way around to the western slope of Pikes Peak and hike to the project site, and then return home at the end of the day. We simply would not have any time to work on the project. So we borrowed a concept from VOC: The weekend project. We arranged for camping and hosted a dinner at the end of the Saturday for everyone who would be staying the next day. We would use the weekend project format for at least 7 more years while working on projects on the western side of Pikes Peak.
The rest, as they say, is history. Once the RTP connection was complete, the every other Thursday group would go on to maintain basically every access from the front range into the Pikes Peak Forest: the Bear Creek Trail, The North Cheyenne Canyon Trail, The Saint Mary's Falls Trail, and the former Section 16 (now Palmer Red Rock Loop) trail. And we continue to select trails for repair and schedule Thursday work days to this day.
The weekend format was used to repair the Devil's Playground trail, and build the two new trails for RTP: the Raspberry Mountain Trail and the Putney Gulch Trail.
Our crew leader training course grew over the years so that eventually we were training many of the City Parks maintenance people, and leading the coalition training for most of the 'Friends' groups in the city today.
Let's not forget Barr trail: The Ultimate Pikes Peak Experience; the most heavily used trail on the mountain, perhaps on any mountain in the USA. We have held at least one work day every year on Barr trail. We made many efforts over the years to address some of the most difficult sections, including but not limited to: rebuilding the 16 golden stars, hiring contractors to repair the area above the A frame, staging projects out of Barr Camp, or from the top of Long Ranch Road to install drainage devices, and repair the center section of the trail, and replacing the rails on the lower switchbacks. The problems with the trail continue and worsen with the increased pressure on the lower section due to increased use of the Incline. In 2012 we began seriously focusing on Barr Trail. With the help of the Incline coalition, the town of Manitou Springs, and other partners, a study was completed to determine how to correctly address the many varied problems with this poorly designed trail. Much of this work is being contracted out. But, much of it will be completed by volunteers and FOTP.
And let us never forget the ongoing work for the RTP. The existing trail network only circumnavigates about 80% of Pikes Peak. We have been working with USFS, local landowners, and municipalities to obtain permission to complete the trail around the southwest corner of the mountain. Several alignments have been scouted and proposed. The work is ongoing. Many people have completed the hike or bike ride around the peak through the backcountry where there is not trail. It is not illegal. At this time, due to the sensitive nature of the environment, and the need to protect the habitat of the bighorn sheep, we are still looking for an acceptable alignment for the trail.
In summary, with the help of thousands of volunteers we have successfully demonstrated that sediment flow can be stopped. Tundra can be restored. And we have built about 7 miles of new trail and repaired over 20 miles of exiting trail, established the Ring the Peak Trail, and much more. We have made a difference in the environment of Pikes Peak, and the quality of experience of perhaps a million people. This is what a group of friends can accomplish in 20 years. I am proud to have been a part of this endeavor, and I hope it continues for the next 20 years, and four score beyond that.