Last summer, cash-strapped Colorado Parks and Wildlife was outbid by a local government body for the lease on Berthoud's Lonetree Reservoir, which the state agency had managed for anglers and other recreation-seekers since the 1970s. Managers of the Berthoud Heritage Metropolitan District have said they will keep Lonetree open to the public.
"I don't see that as a problem," state Sen. Tim Neville said of a small local government taking over an asset that long had been managed by the state.
Neville told Colorado Politics that local governments may be more attuned to their communities. He added he could also envision cases in which a private company could be more efficient and responsive than CPW.
During the last legislative session, the Republican who represents Boulder, Denver, Gilpin and Jefferson counties helped kill a bill that would have allowed for increases in resident hunting and fishing licenses - last raised in 2005 - to rescue an agency that helps ensure access to 2,000 lakes, 800 reservoirs and 9,400 miles of stream and manages the habitats of 10 big game species. Many wildlife groups - including those comprised of hunters and fishermen - supported the fee hikes.
CPW projects its budget shortfall will reach $22 million by 2022-23 if something isn't done.
Jeni James Arndt, a Larimer County Democrat who co-sponsored the CPW finance bill when it originated in the lower house, told Colorado Politics that in an ideal world access to the Colorado outdoors "would be free for everyone all the time," with the costs covered from the general fund.
Bridging the distance between Neville and Arndt is among the complex challenges before policy-makers struggling to ensure Colorado's natural wonders are protected and accessible and continue to help drive the state's economy. The state estimated in 2014 that outdoor recreation contributed $34.5 billion yearly in economic benefits and that 90 percent of Coloradans participated in some form of outdoor activity, for the most part walking, hiking and backpacking, in 2013.
A conversation involving myriad interests and levels of government has taken on new urgency as the state's population explodes. Even before newcomers started increasing pressure on trails, waterways and mountains, Colorado's outdoors infrastructure, much like its schools and highways, was suffering from years of restricted spending and delayed maintenance. State lawmakers are loathe to raise fees and taxes or even ask voters to do so.
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The Great Recession prompted legislators to cut off general tax funding for Parks and Wildlife. CPW over the following years says it cut $40 million in spending, eliminated 50 staff positions and closed a park. Today, less than 1 percent of CPW's money comes from the general fund, down from about a third in 2010. More than half the agency's funds come from park entrance passes and camping, registration and hunters' and anglers' license fees. The Colorado Lottery and Great Outdoors Colorado and such sources as state and federal grants comprise the rest. CPW's total revenue for the 2016 fiscal year was $212.4 million.
State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Chaffee County Republican and avid outdoorsman, co-sponsored the legislation last year that could have meant, for example, that an elk hunting license would increase from $45 to no more than $46.80 and the daily park entrance fee from $9 to $9.81. Park entrance fees haven't risen since 2010. The total increase in revenue was estimated at up to $8.3 million for 2017-18 and $12.4 million for 2018-19 had the bill become law.
"I don't mind paying the (higher) fees if I know where they're going to go," Wilson said, citing, for example, the need to maintain and upgrade dams and reservoirs on CPW lands. While fees taken in multiply as more people visit places like Barr Lake, Castlewood Canyon or Harvey Gap, the costs of items like toilet paper in the park restrooms also is rising, and CPW's ability to raise costs to consumers is capped by law. Fish food that cost the state 26 cents a pound in 2005 is now 54 cents. Electricity went from 7 cents a kilowatt hour to 10 cents.
"It comes down to some of those very basic things ... that our park managers are struggling to provide," CPW spokeswoman Lauren Truitt told Colorado Politics.
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Last session, the Colorado Bow Hunters Association, Ducks Unlimited, the Colorado Wildlife Association and a host of other hunting, fishing and conservation groups supported paying more for CPW services. The bill passed in the House only to die in the Senate Finance Committee, rejected by Neville and the two other Republicans and supported by the two Democrats.
Neville called for a more streamlined proposal from CPW, whose bill last year ran 36 pages. The senator said, "Maybe they need to deconstruct that bill and look for some simple solutions to what is really needed."
As CPW prepared to approach lawmakers again this session, spokeswoman Truitt said last year's failure "although a hard-learned lesson, was a learned lesson."
Details and figures for a new request were still being worked out. Truitt said one tactic might be to separate out a bill seeking money to continue a vessel inspection program aimed at keeping out invasive mussels and other species that threaten to clog waterworks and disrupt the food chain. The program had been funded from severance taxes on mineral production and extraction, but that source dried up after a successful energy industry lawsuit required the refund of millions of dollars. CPW has resorted to stop-gap measures since the 2016 court decision. A long-term solution to the invasive species funding shortfall had been part of last year's bill.
Rep. Wilson said this year's bill also is unlikely to venture into the contentious area of whether other wildlife users, not just hunters and anglers, should pay more. Last year's bill proposed a study of that question.
Aaron Clark, who handles government relations for the Boulder-based International Mountain Bicycling Association, said cyclists are willing to discuss something akin to the fees owners of motorized off-road vehicles, such as dirt bikes and dune buggies, pay CPW to ride on the state's public land or trails. But he stressed the conversation was in very early stages and unlikely to result in any concrete proposal before 2019.
"Colorado could set the model," Clark said. "There's been great success with collaborative processes in Colorado."
Mountain bikers have resisted paying, in part perhaps because they just aren't used to doing so. But Clark said he's hearing increasing talk in Colorado and other states about user fees not just for mountain bikers but for kayakers, hikers and birders. Among concerns that need to be addressed, Clark said, is ensuring changes do not put outdoor recreation out of reach for some people for financial reasons.
Gary Moore, executive director of the Colorado Mountain Bike Association, said cyclists have already shown willingness to pitch in. COMBA members logged 6,800 volunteer hours in 2016 helping build and maintain trails, Moore said, adding some might find it more convenient to contribute money than time.
Moore moved from Georgia a year and a half ago, drawn in part by Colorado's mountain biking scene. The sport is growing, prompting the Jefferson County Open Space department to commission a survey, the first of its kind, that tallied 6 million visits to its trails in 2016. COMBA has been working with municipal and county officials in Clear Creek County to develop new trails that Moore hopes will take some of the pressure off Jefferson.
Moore has seen "the complexity of this whole conversation. There's a ton of moving parts - they move nationally and at state, county and city" levels.
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Collaboration, communication and time are key to any change. CPW spent months holding public meetings across the state before proposing last year's bill. Federal officials spent even longer determining how to respond to surging crowds at a lake, waterfall and hanging garden site in the White River National Forest that has been a bucket-list item since long before the phrase came into usage. Hanging Lake visitors grew from just over 78,000 in 2012 to close to 150,000 in 2016, when 70 percent of those visitors were first-timers.
A report on managing Hanging Lake going forward was released this past summer after consultations that started in 2012 and included, among others, the state transportation department, the city of Glenwood Springs, the private Xcel Energy company and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
In addition to the normal wear of so many feet, Hanging Lake visitors leave behind graffiti and waste. Forest Service Ranger Aaron Mayville said he has to spend more maintaining the mile and a half trail to Hanging Lake than on any other mile and a half stretch in his district.
"The increased visitation is not only a Forest Service issue of course. It's all public lands, it's across the state," Mayville told Colorado Politics. "It's something that no single entity can do on its own, can tackle on its own."
Rangers have proposed a Hanging Lake visitor cap, fees, a reservation system and a bus shuttle service to ease traffic congestion and parking lot rage. Mayville said public reaction to the proposals has been good and that the changes could be in place by this coming summer.
Dan Blankenship, CEO of the Aspen-based Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which might provide a Hanging Lake shuttle service, said mountain communities like his have had decades to grow accustomed to booming outdoor tourism.
"It's great for the economy, it creates a lot of jobs," Blankenship told Colorado Politics.
He added the boom can also create traffic jams, high housing costs and parking shortages, challenges more communities across Colorado will need to plan for in the future.
As lawmaker Wilson said, "People aren't going to leave Colorado because they don't like the outdoors."
It's that undeniable fact that will have Colorado Parks and Wildlife back before the Legislature this year, hat in hand.