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Residents, officials support cleanup of Rainbow Falls at community meeting

August 11, 2016 Updated: August 12, 2016 at 8:46 am
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Bridge construction at Rainbow Falls is pictured on Friday, July 1, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

During a community meeting Thursday to discuss the future of the Rainbow Falls Recreation Area, multiple presenters mentioned the word "passion."

They spoke about the passion of graffiti vandals that have been tagging the area west of Manitou Springs for decades, returning time and again to the place known by some as "Graffiti Falls" whenever their spray-painted artwork is sandblasted away. And they talked about the passion of community members and El Paso County officials who for almost a decade have been trying to find a solution, a way to clear the paint from Rainbow Falls and restore what they described as a culture of pride.

About an hour into the gathering, county Director of Community Services Tim Wolken introduced a plan that would morph Rainbow Falls from a recreation area to an official historic site. It didn't take long for passion to once again turbulently stir among the two dozen people on hand that included Manitou Springs residents, county staff, members of a community action group and Manitou officials.

"We would like a dramatic shift in how we manage Rainbow Falls," said Wolken. "We don't want to go back. We want to go forward."

Those at the meeting quickly jumped on board with the idea, asking questions about security, wondering whether a change in culture at Graffiti Falls was possible and then sharing their own ideas of best practices to guarantee that Rainbow Falls would change.

Wolken said the plan would mean more limited hours of operation for Rainbow Falls, which currently is open from dawn to dusk daily. He said the area would have a staff presence whenever the gates were open to help prevent taggers from doing their thing.

"It will be considered trespassing if people enter after hours," he said, reminding all that law enforcement would be able to arrest invaders even if they weren't spray painting the historic bridge, the rocks, trees or anything else in the park.

Wolken said the plan would include signs and regular educational programs that would teach local residents and visitors about the rich history of Rainbow Falls. The area is considered a spiritual place to the Ute Indians that once resided in Ute Pass. The area was also part of a wagon train route that allowed people to venture into the mountains to the west. And historic Civilian Conservation Corps and Work Projects Administration flood projects were done above and around the falls in the 1930s. College geology students still come to the falls to study the "Great Nonconformity."

When Wolken asked if anyone had a better idea, the room fell silent.

"We all need to take ownership, as if this is a place to inspire," said Manitou Springs resident Valerie Rosenkrantz.

Rosenkrantz and others in attendance said the educational process needs to be communitywide, possibly even a curriculum to be taught in area schools, to create cultural change.

Since El Paso County was given ownership of Rainbow Falls from the Mansfield Development Corporation in 2010, county parks staff and the Manitou Environmental Citizen Action have been devising a plan to revamp the recreation area.

A 2013 flood recovery project led by the Colorado Department of Transportation to protect U.S. 24 served as a catalyst. And the county began implementing the Rainbow Falls Master Plan. Phase I of the plan included stabilization of the Fountain Creek banks and trail construction and maintenance.

After CDOT completes a $1.8 million maintenance project on the bridge over Rainbow Falls, Phase II will begin, featuring a redesign of the walkway leading to the falls and more trail and picnic area construction, said Elaine Kleckner of the parks department. She and Wolken added that graffiti will once again be removed.

"Our hope is that by the summer of 2017, it will be a clean site," Wolken said.

CDOT engineer Dave Watt said work on the U.S. 24 entry and exit ramps at the west end of Manitou Springs should be open by Sept. 16 and the entire construction project near Rainbow Falls should be completed by Sept. 30.

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