COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — After two years of record crowds at Paint Mines Interpretive Park, officials have decided to take a closer look at the future management of the colorful preserve on the plains east of Colorado Springs.
When plotting a master plan more than a decade ago, "we did not have this use or, frankly, anticipate this level of use," said Todd Marts, director of El Paso County Community Services, which houses the parks department. "So that will be part of the new master plan. How do we welcome people and encourage people to respect it?"
The county's updated plan will account for recent, disturbing trends. Visitors have been seen embarking off trail and causing harmful erosion on their way up the fragile rock formations that rise amid the grasslands around Calhan.
The hoodoos, spires and clay deposits were noted for "attracting visitors for thousands of years" in the Paint Mines' 2010 master plan. The geological and archaeological intrigues made the 750 acres worthy of National Register of Historic Places listing in 2000.
For years, "it felt like it was kind of the red-headed stepchild, where not that many people knew about it," said Amber Shanklin, conservation and stewardship director for Palmer Land Conservancy, which holds a conservation easement on a portion of the park.
At the onset of the pandemic, more people were looking for more outdoor destinations, and pictures of the Paint Mines spread far and wide on social media. County land managers responded by posting two part-time staffers at the park during peak hours — intended to keep people on designated trails, along with new fencing.
"We keep saying we want to spread out use," Marts said.
Current use is concentrated in an area between a western portion that's closed and a northern portion also largely untouched. That's the portion overseen by Palmer Land Conservancy, which has stated "low-impact recreation" is possible for the roughly 275 acres.
"We would certainly be happy to be part of those conversations and help the county (decide) whether it's appropriate to have folks access that parcel," Shanklin said.
As for the western portion, Marts said "it'll certainly be part of the (master plan) process."
But the prospect of expanded access comes with the prospect of additional maintenance and enforcement.
Trails and Open Space Coalition Executive Director Susan Davies sees the county as ill-equipped to maintain and staff the park as it is now. (General fund tax support for county parks has hovered around pre-recession levels in recent years, while visitation has grown and more parks have opened.)
"Either we're going to have to find a funding mechanism or maybe have some of those hard conversations about should it be turned over to somebody else," Davies said.
Marts said he was "absolutely" confident in the county's ability to manage the park. Asked about another idea from Davies, about gating and limiting access to Paint Mines similar to the county's Rainbow Falls Historic Site — where people are allowed certain days certain times of the year — Marts said, "that'll be something that could be discussed."
But the land poses particular challenges, he said. "When you've got a wide open space that's pretty remote, I guess gates and fences are going to be a bigger challenge to be effective. But again, the master plan should drive those conversations."
Marts said there was no timeline yet for the planning.
"We really want to do a robust public process to make sure we're capturing people's opinions and input," he said.
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This story was originally published May 12, 2022 5:30 AM.