Find out about the opportunity to bring our community its next great amenity!
National Geographic took notice of Highlands Ranch and put our sea of brown rooftops in the magazine in 1996. As many voiced their disdain for homes in close proximity and perfectly mapped out neighborhoods, time would pass before people began to realize and understand the master plan and how the deliberate decisions of the 1980s would impact Highlands Ranch 40 years later. The master plan allowed development to claim two-thirds of the land—about 35,000 homes—and conserve the other 8,200 acres for wildlife habitat. Highlands Ranch is 99 percent developed and the 13-square-mile Backcountry Wilderness Area remains our local wild place.
In 2006, the Highlands Ranch Community Association started taking over operations of the Backcountry Wilderness Area from Shea Homes. When the time came to build a staff to manage the Backcountry Wilderness Area, a young wildlife biologist and ecologist had already done the groundwork of studying the property. Mark Giebel, entering his 30th year with HRCA in 2023—and near two decades as director of the Backcountry Wilderness Area—Mark has had a front-row seat to the growth of our community and carries the historical perspective as choices are made. Raised locally with a love for all things outdoors at an early age, Mark watched as homes and grocery stores were built on the areas that once were his fields, his playgrounds, and what shaped his life. The sentiment of urban sprawl and loss of open space would only be replaced once the wide lens of time and thoughtful development revealed how the master-planned community gave way to a large, contiguous, conservation property held away for safekeeping.
Worth millions to developers and larger than Cherry Creek and Chatfield state parks combined, the Backcountry Wilderness Area’s island of conservation— within the rapidly growing south metro area—is a rare gem. The foresight of those planners from Douglas County, Highlands Ranch, and the developer of Highlands Ranch (Mission Viejo and then Shea Homes) to recognize the future value of conserving 8,000 acres astounds us to this day. Now, we find ourselves considering the Backcountry Wilderness Area for the generations to come.
In 2015, with the foundation of the Backcountry Wilderness Area strong, it was time to start building a team and programs to connect our community to the property. Between 2015 and today, we’ve been hiring a staff of experts to grow the mission of the Backcountry Wilderness Area. Many have advanced degrees in their fields. Our team lives by an ethos that for people to protect the Backcountry Wilderness Area they must love it, and for people to love it they must experience it (wise words from Baba Dioum). Our three balanced pillars— conservation, education, and recreation—allow us to stay true to our ethos without sacrificing the habitat.
We’ve had the chance to grow our permanent amenities in the past. In 2016, a capital construction plan was presented to the HRCA Board of Directors, delegates, and our community. This plan focused on having our permanent Base Camp in the vicinity of Grigs Road and the northern part of the property. We knew our programs needed an area to call home base. But, this plan wasn’t the right one, and the community’s feedback made that clear. The location would have disturbed an elk herd that calls the Backcountry Wilderness Area home year-round. The community didn’t want to see a building on a hill when they looked out their backyards. There were concerns about traffic building up on Grigs Road, and light pollution disturbing the naturalness of the area. Instead of forcing growth in the wrong location, we opted to move our operations to what is now the Backcountry Outdoor Center in 2016.
After six years of astronomical growth at the Backcountry Outdoor Center, it’s time to make it our HQ. Now stands an opportunity to put roots in the ground to grow Highlands Ranch’s newest amenity and for it to be the launchpad for the next generation of conservationists.
Enter the Backcountry Outdoor Center Project. The Backcountry Outdoor Center is located on the far western edge of the Backcountry Wilderness Area and is made up of Base Camp, Archery Ranges, and the Horse Corrals. Choosing to make the Backcountry Outdoor Center the headquarters of our operations and programming wasn’t by chance, but rather the next in our line of deliberate decisions.
We’ve put the location through test after test, and it’s absolutely the right place for us to be. In six years, we’ve gone from 100 kids at Camp Backcountry to nearly 1,500 spots this summer. Our equine programs have grown from simple trail rides to a robust, education-centered approach to camps, programs, and lessons. The three Backcountry Outdoor Center archery ranges are commonly included in the conversation of the top archery amenities in the state. The majority of human activity is concentrated in less than 100 of the 8,200 acres in order to let the habitat beyond its gates flourish uninhibited by overuse and human disturbance. Our decision to allow permanent roots to grow at the Backcountry Outdoor Center is to improve every facet of our current offerings and be a beacon of outdoor education for generations to come. Because to love it, our community must experience it.
What we have done in the Backcountry Wilderness Area, we have done without any building or permanent structures. Our growth with limited infrastructure has reached capacity in many ways including office space to house our growing team. But, the most critical challenge is that close to $1 million of our total revenue is dependent upon an agreement with the neighboring Law Enforcement Training Facility. The Law Enforcement Training Facility board currently allows us to use one of their buildings for shelter should our camps and programs need it during a storm. Our child care license is dependent upon that agreement and our revenue is dependent upon that child care license. Our current weather shelter at the Law Enforcement Training Facility is at max capacity. Our decision to grow allows us to be self-reliant.
The proposed project includes a building at Backcountry Base Camp: the Environmental Education Center. The building will be the launchpad for our community to engage with and learn in the outdoors. From a licensed nature preschool and staff offices to flexible indoor/outdoor spaces that will morph from gathering places to a weather shelter, the Environmental Education Center is the next great HRCA amenity. Once our staff's HQ is the Environmental Education Center, Base Camp will be open for more public hours to enjoy walking on our new interpretive trail and visiting our barnyard animals.
The Environmental Education Center will propel our programming to make the Backcountry Wilderness Area the place to learn outside on the Front Range.
The Backcountry Outdoor Center Project also includes a hub of horse education including an indoor riding arena. The Equine Center encompasses a place where a connection with horses from the ground to the saddle is an everyday occurrence. When days get shorter, and the weather turns unfavorable, the indoor arena will give our instructors and riders a consistent and safe area to progress skills with no limits.
Importantly, this can and will all be done with minimal impact on our conservation efforts and surrounding habitat. Mark likes to say “no one is more protective of the Backcountry than I am.” We absolutely would not recommend this project if the positive impacts of conservation did not far outweigh any negative impacts. The locations are well situated to ensure minimal impact.
Now, the opportunity to complete the blank slate and take the Backcountry Wilderness Area to the next level of significance, uniqueness, and value to the community is here. The Backcountry is already incredibly unique due to its size and scope, its location, and that it is funded 100 percent by homeowner assessments. But we aspire to bring the community the next great amenity that truly sets Highlands Ranch apart from any other HOA in the state, and possibly the nation.
The conceptual plan of the Backcountry Outdoor Center Project is complete. Now, we move into the months-long Community Involvement Process which includes two separate votes by the HRCA Board of Directors and HRCA Delegates along with multiple public meeting opportunities for you to hear about the project, ask questions, and give your feedback.
Join us to learn more about the Backcountry Outdoor Center Project
at a public meeting WEDNESDAY, APRIL 27 at 6 p.m. at Southridge Recreation Center.
Backcountry Wilderness Area Director Mark Giebel will give an overview of the conceptual plan and project timeline.
Following this first public meeting, there will be another in May, and likely the final one in June. The Community Involvement Process is expected to wrap up in July or August. If the community, Delegates, and Board approve, the earliest we would start construction is 2024.
Visit the project website (www.hrcabackcountryoutdoorcenter.org) and check back often for updates throughout the process!