The Manitou Incline has some wicked problems, but they’re still solvable. However, if key stakeholders, including the cities of Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs, don’t come together soon — the Incline will continue on its course to certain ruin.
Start with traffic. Counters under the trail indicate that roughly 350,000 people hike up the Manitou Incline per year, which has been devastating for the people that live in the narrow corridor that brings hikers to the start point. As one resident, Jay Beeton, recently told the Pikes Peak Bulletin, “You can’t throw 350,000 people a year up a dead-end street through a residential area without having impacts.” One neighborhood group collaborated with the city in 2015 to produce a report that demonstrated that the onslaught has led to a “decline in the quality of life.” The years since the Incline was improved and legalized have brought hordes of hikers—and without meaningful success at managing the swarm, our neighbors are justifiably upset.
Or consider the impact on the trail. So many footfalls make rapid degradation inevitable; it took less than half the hiker volume to trigger management of the Hanging Lake Trail near Glenwood Springs.
If the massive hiker increase wasn’t challenging enough, the behavior of some of those hikers might be even worse. I run it once per week, and each time I see dangerous breaches of the posted rules. By far the worst offenders are those that bring off-leash dogs. They’re not just a nuisance. At some point, a dog, spooked by another animal, could kill a hiker.
Next to the dogs, downhilling is the second-most-likely lethal threat to hikers. The rules officially dissuade, but don’t outright disallow downhilling, and so numerous hikers feel free to simply turn around, head downhill, and threaten the lives of all the uphillers they pass — like cars headed the wrong way into oncoming traffic.
All this, and more, has placed an intolerable stress on Manitou’s Volunteer Fire Department and El Paso County Search and Rescue, and both have recently alerted the public to the problem.
These issues inevitably raise questions about rules, management, and revenue to sustain real management.
Which leads to the central issue. The Manitou Incline has many stakeholders. There were 15 members of the original Manitou Incline Task Force (and three landowner representatives), who, representing crucial constituencies, forged the 2011 agreement (the Manitou Incline Site Development and Management Plan) that led to today’s upgraded, legal Incline.
But that Task Force disbanded. They did the “Site Development” part, and forgot about the “Management.” And as any Incliner or Pike’s Peak marathoner will tell you, getting to the top is just the beginning. There’s still a long way to go.
Right now, the truth is that nobody manages the Incline. While the 2011 agreement clearly stipulated that after the upgrades were complete — which they now are — it would then be time to reevaluate the rules of use, options for sustainable revenue generation, and an active management plan to support critical upgrades and ongoing operations. None of that happened.
Instead, when the task force broke up, all parties went their separate ways. For this vacuum to continue would be disastrous for our neighbors, the Incline itself, and likely expose the cities and stakeholders to a negligence lawsuit for failing to act to mitigate entirely foreseeable harm caused by well-known dangerous conduct on the Incline.
The stakes are also financial. The governor just pointed out that outdoor recreation’s overall economic contribution to the state was $62 billion in 2017, and the Pike’s Peak region is poised to capitalize on a sizable share of that pie. In the same breath, the governor signed an executive order forcing several stakeholders to coordinate to better manage this natural bounty.
The governor may well have taken this idea from seeing the success of the original Manitou Incline Task Force. It’s time to dust off the playbook from the first task force’s early gains, and use the same model to make the Incline safe, sustainable, and part of our local environment that adds to, and doesn’t diminish, quality of life for our friends and neighbors. Call it the “Incline Commission,” empower it with a charter to preserve the Incline as part of the community and economy, and do it before the coming snow gives way to next spring — the Incline might not survive another season like this.
Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a Manitou Springs resident and member of that city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, as well as a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.