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  • Writer's pictureTeam Backcountry

15 Years of Your Local Wild Place

Updated: 23 hours ago

The Backcountry Wilderness Area celebrates 15 years since the Highlands Ranch Community Association began managing the 13-square-mile conservation property in May 2009. Here's a look back on where it started and how far we've come. We will continue to add highlights of each year.  Scroll down to revisit each year.  2011 added 5/22/24. 


Prior to Mission Viejo starting development in Highlands Ranch in 1981, it was decided that two-thirds of the new, planned community would be made into homes, businesses, and interwoven green spaces. The final third—8,200 acres—would be set aside as a conservation property and called OSCA (Open Space Conservation Area) through the 80s, 90s, and 2000s until the Highlands Ranch Community Association (HRCA) renamed the property, the Backcountry Wilderness Area of Highlands Ranch. 

Mission Viejo handed over the development reins to Shea Homes in the late 90s. In the OSCA Plan, the HRCA would assume ownership and management of the Backcountry Wilderness Area once the community reached 90% build-out. Officially, that happened in 2009; 15 years ago this May!


In the decades leading up to 2009, pieces of what is today’s Backcountry Wilderness Area were taking shape. 

A man working with concrete on a hill with a mountain background.
The Compass at Highlands Point under construction in 2001.

In 2001, section one of the Douglas County East-West trail was completed from Grigs Road to Highlands Point where construction of the Highlands Point compass overlook was underway. Meanwhile, on the far south end of the property, Mark Giebel—the future Backcountry Wilderness Area Director and its first full-time employee—conducted research on knapweed-eating bugs that would drastically reduce the invasive weed in the Backcountry Wilderness Area and along the Front Range. This research, and the bug, would save HRCA tens of thousands of dollars across the coming decades. The time he spent learning the property in the decade before it would be turned over helped guide decision-making for the next two decades.



Photo (R-L): 1. The last pronghorn antelope in Highlands Ranch. 2. The knapweed-eating bugs that Mark Giebel introduced to the soon-to-be Backcountry Wilderness Area to mitigate the invasive plant. 3. A truck beginning construction on the Wildcat Mountain parking lot on Monarch Boulevard.

 

In 2002, our management plan was created—with input from State, County, and other stakeholders—to set the framework for how we manage the property today: to provide opportunities for recreation and education while protecting large swaths of the property for wildlife. This forward-thinking plan—to minimize human impact and reserve mostly unbothered land for wildlife—would be proven necessary for wildlife to thrive by research conducted throughout Colorado in the coming years. The Backcountry Wilderness Area got a running start at offering recreation opportunities and the community benefited, thanks to Shea Homes handing over the management of Wildcat Mountain (811 acres) to the HRCA to build the first singletrack trail system in Highlands Ranch in 2006. Building out the Wildcat Mountain trail system was the first in many deliberate decisions made to protect two keystone species of the area…the golden eagles and elk. Trail planning and construction specifically avoided the historic golden eagle nest in the west-facing cliffs of Wildcat Mountain and the prime elk habitat on the southeast corner of the section of property. This was the first of many upcoming decisions to put needs of wildlife as a conservation cornerstone in the Backcountry Wilderness Area.

A trail being built on a mountain.
The first cut of trail on Wildcat Mountain.

The building of the Wildcat Mountain trails was also the beginning of connections with the community including volunteer efforts to lead hikes, trail monitoring and maintenance, trash pickup along Monarch Boulevard, and the first of many Eagle Scout bench installations. Today, 90 percent of the benches on our trails have been installed by Eagle Scouts from our community and volunteers continue to play a significant role in the care of the Backcountry.


Boy Scouts installing a bench on a trail.
Boy Scouts installing a bench a Wildcat Mountain.

Even with wildlife as priority, the Wildcat Mountain area became a recreation hub where horseback trail rides and our Plant Hikes were our largest revenue streams with a whopping net of (maybe) $10,000.

Photo (R-L): 1. Road sign for Horseback Trail Rides at Wildcat Mountain. 2. Our first equine headquarters at Wildcat Mountain. 3. Community members on a Plant Hike at Wildcat Mountain. But, these were the humble beginnings of our program opportunities which reach tens of thousands of community members each year and exceed $1 million in revenue each year.  Each dollar earned represents an unforgettable experience in the Backcountry Wilderness Area.

 

2009

A "hike-in, hike-out" community has a charming appeal. Just three years after Wildcat Mountain became an outdoor recreation hub for Highlands Ranch, and only three months after HRCA obtained the entirety of the Backcountry Wilderness Area from Shea Homes, a second set of singletrack trails added an additional 5.25 miles for HRCA members to enjoy in August 2009, bringing the total mileage of HRCA trails to just over 11, along with several additional miles of the Douglas County East/West Trail through the Backcountry. Situated strategically close to homes in southern Highlands Ranch, the Highlands Point trail system enabled hikers, runners, equestrians, and cyclists to access family-friendly trails within mere minutes from their front doors—with minimal disturbance to wildlife.


Highlands Point Trail System Grand Opening, August, 2009

Building upon the previous success of the Wildcat Mountain Trail System, trail design, location, and routing were critical considerations for the Highlands Point Trail System. Directly south of the Highlands Point trails lies a ridgeline that provides a natural buffer to wildlife from the sights and sounds of recreation until hikers and bikers retreat home. When they do, wildlife—especially elk—traverse over the ridge to snack on the greenery within the trail system as evidenced by elk scat and tracks throughout the trails. The locations of both trail systems, along with the extension of the Douglas County East/West Trail, were deliberately chosen to strike a balance between enjoyable terrain, easy access from Highlands Ranch homes, and maintaining a healthy buffer between human recreation and wildlife habitat. A collaboration with Douglas County to continue the East/West Trail helped maintain this balance and connect the two singletrack systems with a wide, natural surface, multi-use trail for all to enjoy.


Photo (R-L): 1. Elk Bugling Hikes. 2. Campfire Hikes


Additional recreation opportunities flourished in the Backcountry Wilderness Area with added guided nature programs, such as campfire hikes and elk bugling hikes. These programs explored parts of the property where human impact is purposely limited. Concurrently, excitement over close-to-home horseback riding spread across the community. Equine programs transitioned from a contractor-run business to an in-house operation, leading to the hiring of our second full-time employee. Annual tours for the HRCA Board of Directors and Delegates provided them with an understanding of the property’s size and the scope of our new responsibilities in managing it.

Cattle in the Backcountry Wilderness Area circa 2009.

In the 1980s through the 2000s, cattle were grazing throughout the community in vacant lots yet to be developed. Cattle grazing in Highlands Ranch has occurred for more than 100 years and is a historic use. Part of the agreement for the first five years of management in the Backcountry Wilderness Area included a grazing lease for more than 300 head of cattle. Monitoring the impact of the herd on the property was just one step in studying the overall health of the habitat and wildlife populations. We recognized that the quality of the grasses and browse would influence the number of elk, deer, turkey, and wildlife that called the Backcountry Wilderness Area home. The better the habitat, the higher population numbers the property could hold.  There was a realization early on that even though Highlands Ranch was nearly fully developed, other areas around Highlands Ranch that were currently wildlife habitat would soon be homes, offices, and retail centers. Elk and other wildlife would be pressed for space.  The better our habitat, the more elk would have a home.


To maintain a healthy property, and to improve it, vegetation management became essential. An inventory of weed populations led to prioritized treatment and long-term planning that would benefit the habitat in the near future. In 2009, our budget to manage the property hovered under $10,000—sufficient to maintain its current condition but far from adequate for the transition into the property we know today. Planning, and a lot of determination, would soon begin to transform the budget as well as the property and habitat.

 

2010 2010 marked our first full year of owning and managing the Backcountry Wilderness Area.  Part of our management plan's mission is to provide visitors with unprecedented opportunities in nature near where they live…


One of those unprecedented opportunities is hunting. 2010 was the first time the HRCA offered big game hunt opportunities for our residents through a lottery drawing.

Bull elk on a hill near a forest
Bull elk in the Backcountry Wilderness Area in Fall 2010

Let's rewind a little bit. The beginning of hunting in the Backcountry Wilderness Area started in 2001 when the property owner (Shea Homes) and the manager (Clough Cattle) recognized elk were overpopulated in the Backcountry Wilderness Area. The numbers caused resource degradation that was detrimental to the property's ecosystem. Shea Homes, Clough Cattle, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife worked together to begin a hunting program that would harvest approximately 50 bull and cow elk/year over the next nine years—until 2009 when the HRCA took ownership.

By 2010, the herd numbers were reduced from an unknown number to about 200-300 elk that spent most of their time on the property. Many of the larger bulls had been harvested over the previous years. Our hunt program started off cautiously, averaging a total of 20 elk hunts per year for the first five years, with two-thirds being cow hunts. The harvest rate for those hunts was a common 31 percent. For comparison, harvest rates on public land are typically between 10 and 20 percent. During the first five years, the lucky winners received a property orientation before their hunt and there were no guides. Management, or control over what elk were harvested, was slim to none. Our revenue year-to-year was less than $5,000.


Hunting opportunities for HRCA members with a focus on experiences for youth hunters.


By 2014, and for the next five-year period, the program would grow and see more success. We began offering staff-guided hunts in 2014 and made guides mandatory by 2016. We offered an average of 16 hunts per year, focusing more on quality than quantity. Our harvest rate soared from 31 percent to 53 percent. The guided hunts also allowed us to manage what elk were harvested. The management increased the quality of the harvests and began to impact the overall health of the herd—a decision that would pay dividends in the future. We also added spring turkey hunts in 2014 and one to two deer hunts in 2015. With the addition of the Elk Banquet and Auction event in 2012, revenue from the program jumped to exceed $30,000 annually.


Large bull elk seen on our trail cameras.


The most recent four years of our hunting program (2020-2024) are where the previous efforts and planning began to pay off. Our guided hunts in pristine habitat have formed our reputation for first-class, some might even say world-class, elk hunting to take shape. Our harvest rates increased to an astronomical 88 percent. 


In 2024, thanks to the new raffles and auction adding $60,000-$70,000 annually, we’ll likely see revenue surpassing $100,000 annually. We have auctioned off one of our premier hunts each year since 2020 fetching up to $30,000 for one hunt. Additional hunts are raffled for $25/ticket and the chance to win a hunt that can be purchased for as much as $30,000 for a $25 ticket drives sales worth more than $40,000.


Although we offer many “unprecedented opportunities in nature” for our community besides hunting, the hunting program and its success stand out as an incredibly unique opportunity for HRCA members. There may not be anything that compares to it in the nation as far as what a community association offers its members. Its success—both in opportunities provided and financial gain–continues to help the overall conservation of the Backcountry Wilderness Area. The elk herd benefits as a result. The population has at least doubled since 2010, and the overall health of the herd is good.


Fifteen years of habitat improvement, cattle grazing reduction, and many other improvements to the property have increased the capacity for wildlife while preserving the resources. By connecting hundreds of hunters to the property over the years—of whom a large percentage donate annually to our 501c3—large sums of money are raised that go back into improving the habitat in the Backcountry Wilderness Area.



 

2011

Perched majestically atop Wildcat Mountain, with a commanding view of Highlands Ranch to the West, lie the historic nests of Golden Eagles. Since 1936, these cliffs have cradled generations of Golden Eagle pairs, embodying a legacy of conservation and preservation.

A golden eagle in fight.
A mature Golden Eagle takes flight from the cliffs of Wildcat Mountain.

In preparation for Wildcat Mountain opening in 2006, fueled by a revitalized commitment to local conservation efforts, the Backcountry Wilderness Area implemented stringent guidelines aimed at fostering future nesting activity and enticing the return of these regal raptors to their ancestral habitat. This forward-thinking initiative extended beyond mere adherence to federal statutes safeguarding Golden Eagles; it involved strategic decision-making regarding the placement of the new section of the Douglas County East-West trail along Monarch Boulevard, diverting it away from sensitive nesting areas. The route of the new trail was located along the bottom of the cliffs as to not fragment the habitat more than necessary, resulting in an inviting habitat and location for future eagles to nest. In 2011, these strategic decisions paid off with the return of the eagles to a historic nest site. The rules and closures were in place and ready to be implemented as soon as they returned…and in hopes that they would. Distinguished from their more gregarious Bald Eagle counterparts, Golden Eagles are exceptionally sensitive to disturbances near their nests, with even the slightest disruptions capable of prompting abandonment. To help avoid this, meticulous precautions are taken during the early courtship season, including the closure of trails in proximity to the nesting sites. These closures persist through the entirety of the nesting cycle, encompassing hatching, fledging, and the eventual departure of the eaglets—a process spanning nearly eight months.

Photos: A mother Golden Eagle returns to the nest to care for her pair of twin eaglets in 2019.


The Wildcat Mountain nest site has had success in six of 13 years since 2011, producing 10 fledglings. The Wildcat Mountain pair did not nest in 2024 despite being seen during the nesting period. We do not know why nests fail, but we hope for a successful nest in 2025.

However, the conservation endeavors extend beyond our avian inhabitants. A system of watching, learning, evaluating, and planning spread across the entire property including strategically placed trail cameras, surveilling the wilderness and its inhabitants. These cameras facilitate wildlife monitoring, enabling the assessment of overall health and behavioral patterns while minimizing direct human interference.

Two Golden Eagle fledglings in nest on cliff.
Twin Golden Eagle fledgings in the nest on the Wildcat Mountain cliff.

The results have been nothing short of extraordinary. From a modest elk population of approximately 200 in 2011, the numbers have more than doubled. Likewise, the once-scarce wild turkey population has proliferated, with flocks now roaming across the Backcountry Wilderness Area, including Wildcat Mountain—an unforeseen expansion facilitated by the availability of rare water sources within the property. Curiously, despite the abundance of elk, the deer population remains comparatively modest—a phenomenon attributed to the inherent separation maintained between the two species.   Today, deer tend to inhabit areas near and around humans such as our trail systems and even neighborhoods.  While the less tolerant elk prefer the limited human intrusions in the Backcountry.

There are also unexpected creatures in our normally tranquil woods. The Haunted Forest, a spine-chilling spectacle, takes over the wooded creek bed south of Rocky Heights Middle School for two nights each year. Originating in 2011, this eerie event has evolved into a loved tradition and a pivotal fundraiser for the Backcountry Wilderness Area.

Photos: Scarers and "the scared" inside the Backcountry Wilderness Area's Haunted Forest.

Partnering with local high school students, the Haunted Forest comes alive with meticulously crafted scenes and live scare actors, captivating thousands of thrill-seekers over the years. This hauntingly delightful event not only fosters community engagement but also generates crucial funds—exceeding $20,000 annually—for the preservation of habitat and the advancement of environmental education initiatives through the Backcountry Wilderness Area Fund. We think the fright is worth the funds that help take care of the Backcountry Wilderness Area’s “real” inhabitants.

STAY TUNED AS WE TELL THE STORY OF ALL 15 YEARS!

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