EDITORIAL: Offloading Jones Park to feds means an end to local control

August 23, 2014 Updated: August 23, 2014 at 9:05 am
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Local control has long been a popular theme in these parts. Coloradans trust friends, neighbors and local officials more than distant state or federal politicians and bureaucrats.

So it's right and reasonable that El Paso County commissioners and county employees want to gain ownership and control of the beautiful Jones Park, a 1,191-acre parcel of pristine forest in Cheyenne Canyon.

Colorado Springs Utilities owns the land; the city acquired it in the 1890s in anticipation of incorporating its aquatic basin as part of the community's water system. Those plans never materialized and the utility does not anticipate using the parcel in the future.

The Utilities board, also known as the City Council, may give the land to the National Forest Service. Utilities staff have recommended the move because they don't want the financial burden and liability of new trail construction and other improvements required by the federal government to save the Greenback Cutthroat Trout, a species federal authorities consider endangered.

A better idea may involve giving the land to the county.

Offloading the property to the federal government sounds like a simple option for washing our hands of a dilemma. But it's not that simple.

The Forest Service is notorious for closing habitats to humans the moment an excuse arises. They've already shut down trails in Jones Park, claiming hikers will somehow further endanger the fish. The day city politicians turn this property over to the Obama administration is the moment locals lose all control over access to Jones Park - an important asset for tourists and locals. The park's fate will rest with Washington, not people who answer directly to people of Colorado Springs and the surrounding region.

County Administrator Jeff Greene promises the county would dedicate resources to protecting the fish and keeping the area open for recreation and hiking. County officials have an impressive record of properly maintaining trails and parks. It's in their interest to save the fish, maintain the trails and protect the public's access to this jewel of nature.

The El Paso County Commission has committed $200,000 for trail work, in the event the city gives them Jones Park. But considerably more money may come available to whomever receives the property. That's because the National Forest Foundation, a non-profit arm of the Forest Service, has pledged $250,000 to the city for upgrades. One ranking Utilities employee told The Gazette the foundation money could transfer to the county. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has pledged another $250,000, which could also transfer to the county.

Furthermore, county government has $2 million in excess revenues this year that it must rebate to taxpayers. Commissioners are considering a ballot question that would ask voters for permission to keep the money as a fund to ensure proper upgrades and maintenance of Jones Park. The rebate would pay each taxpayer about $8. Greene said the county can properly upgrade and maintain Jones Park with or without the rebate.

If city politicians no longer want Jones Park, they should make reasonable efforts to continue local control. Don't give to Uncle Sam what can be handed off to locals who answer directly to voters of this region and are willing to accept the responsibility of another park.

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