Updated: March 21, 2014 at 10:07 am
In 1999, U.S. Forest Service officials closed the Severy Creek Trail on Pikes Peak to protect what they called the only pure greenback cutthroat trout in existence.
Here's what happened next: New testing in 2006 found that rather than being the last of their kind, the trout in Severy Creek weren't actually all that unique. They could be found in more than 50 waterways across the state.
"It's been an evolving picture and the circumstances have changed," said Doug Krieger, a senior aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, claiming that advances in genetic testing have verified that the Severy Creek trout are not in fact genetically pure greenbacks.
Yet 15 years after the trail closure and eight years after biologists realized they were mistaken, Severy Creek Trail remains off-limits to the public - in part because the Forest Service reportedly says it doesn't have the funds to reopen it.
Little known except to longtime locals, the Severy Creek Trail wound through 3.5 miles of aspen groves and pine forests from a point near the Crowe Gulch pull-off on the Pikes Peak Highway to Elk Park at 11,900 feet on the mountain's north side.
Questions over federal management of the lost trail have taken on new urgency since the Forest Service announced last year that it wants to shut down access to a 4-mile stretch of Bear Creek Basin, home of the much-touted Cap'n Jacks multiuse trail, to protect what biologists now say is the only known habitat of native greenback cutthroat trout.
Opponents of the proposal fear that once these trails are closed, planned reroutes never will materialize and the area will remain closed to public use - similar to what's happened at Severy Creek.
"It shows you that the Forest Service doesn't follow through with what they say they are going to do," said David Elwonger of Woodland Park, a retired physician and naturalist who has hiked the trails of Pikes Peak since 1977.
The proposal to reshape Bear Creek Basin, near North Cheyenne Canon Park west of Colorado Springs, is headed for a Thursday public comment deadline.
Forest Service officials did not respond to requests for interviews, except to refer questions to Krieger, who downplayed comparisons between the areas.
"The science has changed over time, but we're getting to the point ... that it's unlikely we're going to see further refinements in the genetics," he said.
State wildlife officers say new testing methods suggested as early as 2006 that Severy Creek trout weren't genetically pure greenbacks.
In 2012, further genetic testing found that fish in Bear Creek actually held that distinction, based on comparisons between the fish and specimens collected from Colorado waterways more than a century ago and stored in collections at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institute, among others.
Why the Severy Creek Trail hasn't reopened is unclear but appears to revolve around a combination of money woes and competing claims by a tangle of governing agencies.
Krieger said once the Severy Creek Trail was closed, Colorado Springs Utilities and the city of Manitou Springs objected to reopening it because of post-Sept. 11 security concerns related to water facilities in the area.
Utilities operates a number of water facilities at or near recreation areas, including those in the North Slope Recreation Area near Green Mountain Falls, which contain dams larger and water services more critical than those at Severy Creek.
Utilities spokesman Steve Berry said the city-owned company would not be the "primary obstacle" to the trail reopening.
In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scuttled plans to reopen Severy Creek Trail until "we have those fish replicated somewhere else," a Forest Service biologist told The Gazette.
By 2010, Fish and Wildlife officials were on board with a plan to reopen the area, but that too fizzled among concerns over potential parking woes, advocates say.
Krieger said Allan D. Hahn, the district ranger for the Pikes Peak Ranger District, is amenable to reopening Severy Creek Trail but is focusing on other threatened areas, including Bear Creek Basin and the fire-ravaged Waldo and Williams canyons.
"It's just (a matter of) priority and staffing and money considerations as far as I can tell," Krieger said.
Lee Milner, a longtime trails and open space advocate, said he received a similar answer from Hahn at a Feb. 25 public meeting on the Bear Creek watershed.
"He was actually interested in reopening it, but he said, 'Gosh, look at all the things we have on our plate,'" Milner said.
"It's an honest answer," added Milner, an early player in what became the Trails and Open Space Coalition. "I've never seen the Forest Service this busy. They've got a lot on their plate."
Hahn couldn't be reached for comment.