Open space initiative offers hope

  • SAVING THE VIEW: Open space preserved by the LCOSI effort includes the banks of the Arkansas River, foreground for some of Colorado's tallest peaks

    Mike Conlin
  • Mike Conlin

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

LEADVILLE, Colo. - Cross-country skier Mike LeVine strides by the rusted ore car and other mining relics that decorate the Mineral Belt Trail.

LeVine moved to Leadville from Chicago five years ago, looking to retire in a mountain town that isn't a glitzy resort.

It's what some people here hope for - migrants and tourists coming to enjoy the mix of Old West and New West.

The Mineral Belt Trail opened two years ago, threading for 12.5 miles through town and the historic mining district. It's already gained a national reputation for quirky skiing, and bikers and hikers come in other seasons.

"We're trying to draw in dollars from outside the community. Mining did that. Tourism can do it," says Mike Conlin, an economic development consultant who's lived here for 30 years.

With mining busted out, for the last 10 years Conlin has worked on creating new attractions like the trail, but it isn't easy. The trail required cooperation from mining companies, the Environmental Protection Agency, the town, Lake County and many private landowners.

Now, Conlin is working on the county's first historic preservation plan, and a recreation master plan.His biggest project involves 25 organizations and several million dollars, and aims to open thousands of acres for public recreation. The effort - called LCOSI, for Lake County Open Space Initiative - "is a ray of hope," Conlin says. But, he adds, "right now we're struggling to keep it alive."

A showcase

LCOSI (pronounced Lo-cosi) got going in 1997, when ranches amounting to 11 percent of the private land in the county came up for sale all at once. It's the best land in the county, along the Arkansas River south of town, including wetlands, winter range for 600 elk, and habitat for 200 species of migrating birds. It's the beautiful foreground to Colorado's tallest peaks, and most of it had been off limits to the public for 120 years.

LCOSI emerged as a partnership. Conlin and key Lake County officials wanted to preserve the view and increase opportunities for recreation. The distant city of Aurora, a booming suburb of Denver that siphons off mountain water, saw the chance to buy more water. Agencies including the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Land Department - which owned parcels in a patchwork with the ranches - saw a chance to consolidate. The local branch of Colorado Mountain College wanted an outdoor classroom, and Colorado Outward Bound school, also based here, wanted a larger buffer of open space.

In a series of complicated deals, Outward Bound bought land, Aurora bought land and water, the BLM and the state bought land, Lake County bought land and optioned water, and so on.

The partnership is taking over about 9,000 acres, and another 5,000 acres are being managed with similar goals of recreation and ecosystem health.

Five miles of riverbanks have been opened to the public. There's a new 60-acre park, 14 ponds are open for fishing, and cattle grazing has been adjusted to help wildlife.

LCOSI is "a showcase project ... ecosystem management in action ... very refreshing to be part of," says Laura Coppock, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

Enough open space, already

But local politics have been in turmoil, and LCOSI became a target. Some people think there are more pressing needs, and that with more than 70 percent of the county already run as national forest or in other government hands, too much private land and water is being snatched up.

"They were not paying attention to basic services," like fixing roads and bridges, broken bathrooms in county parks, and problems at the local dump, says Ken Olsen, an accountant and lifelong local who was elected in November as a Lake County commissioner. "Their purpose is to obtain grants."

When Olsen takes office in January, he'll join another skeptic, commissioner Bill Hollenback, elected in 2000 and already a survivor of two attempts to recall him from office. They will form a 2-1 majority on the commission. "There's been enough done on open space," says Olsen. "We can't afford any more, long term."

"A lot of people locally still don't understand," Conlin says. "Partnerships are being built, and we're trying to create the tools to build a sustainable future - to compete with our surrounding communities for the recreation dollar."

He adds, "We're frantically working to complete our real-estate deals before (Olsen) takes office."