CAÑON CITY • We pull off the main drag in town, passing through the neighborhood and cemetery before the road becomes dirt and our path becomes thin.
I’m with Ashlee Sack, a resident who doesn’t think of prisons when she thinks of home. She thinks of this beautiful singletrack threading this beautiful mosaic of piñon and juniper, rugged and just out the back door. When her two boys grow up, wherever life takes them, she wants them to remember home like this: beautiful.
“This is where I experienced one of my first trail rides,” Sack says. “I had my boy, and my friends took me here. They said, ‘We’re gonna teach you how to really mountain bike.’”
We reach a point with the full panorama: the Wet Mountains rolling ahead, Pikes Peak soaring in the clouds far behind, colorful ridges and hogbacks festooned with rocks all between. This is the point where the loop known as Section 13 starts — a gateway for the grand South Cañon trail network.
“OK,” Sack says. “This puts us on the parcel boundary.”
It’s listed as “Parcel 8423” in a planned Bureau of Land Management gas and oil lease sale.
And now Sack reaches through her imagination, the dark side of it.
She thinks of some rig joining this view. Would that bother her?
“If it was over there by that juniper tree? I don’t know, maybe. If it’s right here on the trail? Uuhh, yeah!”
Before diving too deep into this issue — an anecdote for this age where outdoor recreation meets the current administration’s call for energy development — let’s make one thing clear about the organization Sack represents.
That is Fremont Adventure Recreation, which recently received the 2018 local leadership award by the international body of mountain biking advocacy. FAR is largely to thank for Cañon City becoming a riding destination, for rallying alongside the BLM to craft the masterpieces that are Oil Well Flats and South Cañon. (The trail system on the north rim of Royal Gorge Park is getting juicier, but that’s a story for another day.)
FAR wants you to know that it is not categorically against gas and oil. Sack, the group’s coordinator, wanted the City Council to know that when she spoke at an October meeting.
While she and FAR were concerned about potential extraction, this was only because of their concern for how an investment could be impacted, she told the council. The trail system has been possible through grants, donations from local businesses and, yes, city money.
“This is kind of a mutual concern, seeing as the city put forth considerable effort and significant funds, as has FAR, to help make these trails accessible and beautiful for our community,” Sack said.
After her, a local conservationist spoke up against the sale, which is set for March after the ongoing public comment period and further analysis. Also making his voice heard was a resident of the Dawson Ranch neighborhood, bordering the proposed 602 acres of public land.
Randy Keller said he was encouraged by “the tremendous steps” Cañon City has taken to attract tourism. “I would hate to see us take a step backwards with possible scars to our community or scars to the view of our community,” he said.
Near the end of a three-hour meeting, Mayor Preston Troutman grumbled. “I just can’t imagine, if we found gas and oil around this area, this wouldn’t be a boon for us. OK?”
But counselors almost unanimously agreed to submit a letter to the BLM, aligning the city’s views with FAR’s — a plea to protect the investment. Now all sides will wait to see. Land managers will continue to take comments through Dec. 14, and another 30-day protest period would be scheduled before the land went out for bid.
Unknown are the intentions of the anonymous “expression of interest.”
“Something important to know here is, just because a parcel is leased, that does not mean drilling occurs,” says Kirby Shedlowski, speaking for the BLM Denver office that administers the sales. If sold, the operator would have to submit an application for any projects, kick-starting a whole new review.
So far on Parcel 8423, land managers have released a 97-page assessment that mentions “low to no development potential.” To an extent, that’s a relief to opponents.
“It’s definitely odd,” says John Sztukowski, with Wild Connections, who along with other conservation groups has protested by citing nearby corridors deemed significant for wildlife and biodiversity.
Sack describes FAR as being “blindsided” by the lease sale. As the 8-year-old organization comes of age, it is grappling with the issue that the outdoor recreation world has been reckoning with since President Donald Trump’s election led to the slashing of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. As National Public Radio recently noted, the amount of land for lease has expanded six times over since 2016.
FAR is a recreation agency, not an environmental one. So it says. Can it be?
Within the outdoor recreation world now, there is a contradiction. A highly profitable industry pushes for recreation and uses these big economic impact reports to build its political muscle, to fight for play on public lands. To make a case for more trails, nonprofits, including FAR, use those same reports. They’re building muscle too, but is it political? Should it be?
A tough question for FAR. Also, could Parcel 8423 just be the first of more to come? “Good question,” Sack says.
No gas and oil leases are held across South Cañon and Oil Well Flats. But the management plan at the BLM’s Royal Gorge field office includes no restrictions, and “if these areas are nominated for leasing, they would be considered for a lease sale,” Shedlowski says.
At the moment, Sack simply wants the trail she’s on to remain undisturbed. This was, she notes, one of FAR’s first hand-built trails. That’s another part of the investment here. “Can’t put a value on sweat equity,” she says.