Colorado is well-known for its outdoor recreation, but Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to take it to the next level - by making it even easier for people to access open space and parks. In addition to a previously unveiled Colorado the Beautiful Initiative, the governor has also pledged $100 million to create and connect bike trails.
"The ultimate goal is connecting everyone from Denver to the foothills and mountains to the west," said Tom Hoby, Jefferson County's director of open space and parks.
Standing at the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon outside of Golden, Hoby is working on closing part of the gap in the Peaks to Plains Trail. One phase will be done in 2016, but there's still about 10 miles in Jefferson and Clear Creek counties to go before bikers could connect from the metro area to Loveland Pass and western Colorado.
"Folks could get off a plane at [Denver International Airport] and ride their bike if they really wanted to, almost to Newcastle, west of Glenwood Springs in a very safe connected situation," said Hoby.
Hoby estimated the total cost to connect these final miles could range between $70 and $80 million, something his office, which is funded by county sales taxes, doesn't have.
"Every bit of funding helps," Hoby said. "This happens to be an incredibly expensive project."
Expensive, but something Gov. John Hickenlooper thinks is important for Colorado in the long term.
"You're looking at an asset Colorado already has," said Hickenlooper. "We are recognized as one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, state in the country and one that already has all these outdoor opportunities. What we're saying is, 'we believe in these opportunities, the things that have attracted so many young people here, we're going to keep investing in them.'"
That investment also includes building a database of all the gaps in trails throughout the state. Aaron Serna, the Project Manager for Colorado the Beautiful, said there are many reasons projects are incomplete.
"Is it financial, is it a property use issue, trying to acquire private property rights, trying to do access to a right of way? It's what can we do in state government to help these projects move a little faster," he said.
Serna wants to identify 16 projects the state can easily complete in the next year. Colorado is also developing a map to make it easier for the public to access trails.
"When we talk about connecting people to the outdoors there's physical connection but also connecting them to information," said Serna. "So if it's easier to get onto a website and see this trail is a 5 minute drive from my house, it's pretty easy and I can bring by kids. Can I bring my dog? Oh, no I can't."
The interactive map and database are still in the beginning stages and the project's total cost is unclear.
In many ways Colorado is already a leader in preserving open spaces and parks. In 1992 voters agreed to invest a portion of lottery proceeds into the outdoors. Those grants are distributed throughout the state by Great Outdoors Colorado.
"Even a place like Sterling wants to build trails out in the eastern plains," said Lisa Aangeenbrug, Great Outdoors Colorado's executive director. "We just gave a $1 million grant to Lamar to build a loop trail because we know that was their number one priority. We know that in locations like Gunnison, Grand Junction, Basalt, Eagle County, trail connectivity is a huge priority for them."
It will be even more crucial as the state's population grows and that's why Aageenbrug said the organization has committed $30 million to Colorado the Beautiful. But some state lawmakers, including Republican Senator Kent Lambert, who serves on the Joint Budget Committee, are wary that the governor's effort will eventually encroach on the state's tight budget.
Lambert supports parks and trails but, "how we use our tax money for that is another question, because we have to also balance all the transportation requirements. People in my district say they want to fix pot holes and add lanes."
In pledging $100 million for bike trails, Hickenlooper is quick to point out that his office was careful not to take money away from other transportation needs or use money from the state budget.
"We're essentially taking money that we're already spending in different places and we're orchestrating and harmonizing it all together and I think getting a lot of PR benefit that's going to help the state," said Hickenlooper.
The governor has also listed a long-term goal of having every resident within a 10-minute walk of a park, open space or trail. But that would likely take a generation to complete at a significantly higher price tag.