Cascade - Advocates couldn't have crafted a better scene.
There were the kids, some with bikes, some sitting cross-legged, their attention on the front steps of their school, Ute Pass Elementary, where Colorado's most influential man spoke Monday on a trail project that he said would be important to their future. And there were the reporters with their cameras to capture the words from Gov. John Hickenlooper.
"Once Ring the Peak is done," he said, "it will be a national and ultimately an international destination."
Smiling larger than the kids were the adults who have spent years upon years trying to realize the project, which aims to fill a crucial gap in Ring the Peak Trail's southwest quadrant. The alignment could span between 8 and 14 miles, advocates say, through the backcountry near Victor and Cripple Creek. Constructing it is the last great effort in completing a fully connected 70-mile trail wrapping Pikes Peak - a vision born in 1999.
Hickenlooper was in the area to promote the project, designated as one of 16 high-priority trail projects in his "16 in '16" initiative, announced in January. Advocates were successful in their application to make that list.
And now they're hoping to receive the $100,000 grant they recently submitted to Great Outdoors Colorado, which is expected in early December to announce decisions with money it receives in lottery proceeds. The grant, written by the Trails and Open Space Coalition, would hire a planning consultant to facilitate matters involving multiple land owners through the proposed route of the connector trail.
"It's part of my job, part of sitting on my bully pulpit, to go out and draw attention to some things that just need a little bit of a push," said Hickenlooper, whose visit was coordinated by the Trails and Open Space Coalition. "There's a very complicated property ownership situation, and we need to get people to roll up their sleeves and work together. And, well, if they know it matters to the governor and it's a good way to get on my good side, which it is, then maybe that'll add a little more incentive."
Before his appearance at the school, Hickenlooper met with stakeholders down the road at the head of the Ute Pass Regional Trail, the site of a second effort under the Ring the Peak mission, being led by El Paso County. Project manager Jason Meyer said the goal is to have a 5-mile gap of the regional trail, a Ring the Peak spur, filled by 2022. Construction is set to begin next year near Ute Pass Elementary on the first mile stretching east to the spine's planned finish in Manitou Springs.
Along with a map from Meyer, Hickenlooper was showed a map by Paul Mead, president of the Friends of the Peak, the nonprofit that has worked with TOSC to come up with the southwest alignment.
"When we got here, we ran into a challenge," Mead said, pointing to a shaded area representing what he said were as many as 25 property owners, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Teller County, the cities of Victor and Cripple Creek and private individuals.
Advocates continue to push for what they feel is the best route for the trail, near three municipal watersheds. Victor and Cripple Creek leaders have objected to the idea, saying that recreation could bring harm to their only drinking water sources. Those leaders have also stated their beliefs that the route would not benefit them economically, and they've proposed a route that would run along roads.
An alternative scenic route by advocates would endanger a herd of bighorn sheep, officials say. Much of the area is designated for big game wildlife by the Forest Service, making it off-limits to recreation. On hand for the governor's visit Monday was Erin Connelly, supervisor for the Pike and San Isabel National forests, who said a revised forest plan - necessary for the trail's construction - wasn't due for another two to four years. With an environmental analysis, an amendment to the current plan could be made before then.
"As much as we may want a ring around the peak, there are things that we are charged by Congress to do," Connelly said, referring to conservation duties. "I think the biggest challenge right now is, is there a route? Is there a route that might work?"
A representative of the other federal agency that would have to grant easements for the trail sounded excited.
"We have a pretty big recreation program, and this is a big partnership for us," said Keith Berger, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management's office in Cañon City. "This is a high priority for us."
The fact that it is that for the governor helps the cause, said TOSC executive director Susan Davies. If the organization's $100,000 grant proposal is approved, the hope would be for the hired consultant to have a master plan formed by the end of 2017.
Asked how confident she was going forward, Davies smiled. "I think this is a priority project for the governor," she said.