Recreation vs. Conservation ... It's much more than that.
Updated: Jan 28
The Backcountry Wilderness Area is becoming an example of a place where healthy boundaries create a healthy home for wildlife and positive outdoor experiences for people.
We couldn’t be more thrilled about the progress made in the Backcountry Wilderness Area. We’re pushing forward the priorities of our nonprofit's mission: To improve wildlife habitat, inspire the next generation of nature stewards, and ignite a lifelong love of the outdoors for all. Above it all, there is also an anticipation looming that the work we’re doing in Highlands Ranch could set a standard for other developing areas in our state to model.
Highlands Ranch’s development is nearing completion, but people seeking Colorado’s easy blend of city life and the great outdoors continue to flood the state’s other areas. With population influx comes serious debates over the health of our state: conservation vs. development and conservation vs. recreation. More people mean more homes, roads, and infrastructure. More people mean a greater demand for trails and access to wild places. The question is, at what point does our eagerness to explore become too taxing on natural places and the wildlife that lives there?
In the southwest corner of Colorado, officials have been trying to increase the elk herd for nearly a decade without success. One theory is that, in this example, if elk are spending their time fleeing humans rather than eating, nursing their young, or conserving energy, then their survival rates will start to decrease. Further north, in the Routt National Forest near Steamboat, there is an on-going debate where bikers want more trails and conservationists argue that more trails may be detrimental to wildlife. Federal and State officials commented that more than laws, local decisions will determine the future of habitat and wildlife in our state. Local decisions that for the Backcountry Wilderness Area, started four decades ago.
Nearly 40 years ago, the planners of Highlands Ranch and Douglas County got it right when they set aside 13 square miles of open space for conservation. Ten years later, when just a few thousand of the eventual 31,000 homes were built, one-third of the total land area of Highlands Ranch—8,200 acres—was designated for conservation. We’re grateful for the forethought and local decision-makers who championed the importance of protected wildlife habitat.
Now, the Backcountry Wilderness Area is a potential model for community-level conservation in our state. In the simplest terms, the Backcountry provides a large, contiguous area with limited access to humans so wildlife can thrive, while also providing designated areas that are less valuable to wildlife for recreation and education. We are doing it all—conservation, recreation, and environmental education—and keeping it balanced. We’ve made fire mitigation a chief priority, according to a recent directive by the Secretary of the Interior, by clearing brush throughout our ponderosa pine forests and killing an invasive, highly-flammable grass throughout the property. All the while, we’re educating nearly 1,000 kids annually at Camp Backcountry, running a first-class archery range on the high traffic part of the property, host more than 150,000 visits annually to our 25 miles of natural surface trails, and still leave more than 5,000 acres of Highlands Ranch to the area’s first residents—elk, bobcats, bluebirds, foxes, black bears, golden eagles, mountain lions, and more diverse species. The fact is, the Backcountry Wilderness Area is becoming a rarer stretch of wild in a growing area and we’re eager to continue conserving it for the future.
Mark Giebel is the director of the Backcountry Wilderness Area. Mark was born and raised right here and is a HRHS (Go Falcons!) alum. He left Colorado for four years to attend Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas but came running back to Colorado as soon as possible. He is a life long lover of all things outdoors, married to the perfect adventure partner, and constantly striving for a healthy mind, body, and soul.