A few weeks ago, I set out on a long run, starting first up the Incline and then continuing another 6 miles up Barr Trail to the A-frame shelter, located approximately 3 miles below the summit of Pikes Peak. Along the way, I encountered a number of folks out enjoying the beautiful weather and fresh air. Two users, in particular, really stood out to me as each represented two diametrically opposed types of trail users with regard to stewardship ethic and responsible use of our natural assets.
I remember the trip up the Incline that day had been especially brutal for me. While not particularly crowded for a Saturday morning, it was hot, which zapped my energy and further compounded the difficulty of an already difficult trail. There was a ton of people at the top, basking in the sunshine, taking pictures, and waiting for friends and acquaintances to reach the summit. I don't do particularly well in crowds, so I had a few sips of water and started jogging down the Incline Connector Trail toward Barr Trail, eagerly anticipating the adventure that awaited me.
Over the past several years, RMFI has made significant improvements to the Incline Connector Trail, beginning first with an entire new trail layout and design to make the connection to Barr Trail much more sustainable. In addition, we've worked with partners to install hundreds of linear feet of fencing, largely designed to keep users on the trail to prevent them from cutting switchbacks. Most of the Pikes Peak Region is characterized by highly-erosive, decomposed Pikes Peak Granite, which is among the most highly erodible soils in the nation. When users cut switchbacks, the stability of the landscape is compromised, leading to the loss of already fragile vegetation and habitat as well as increased risk for erosion and sedimentation. Before long, hillslopes can become massive erosion gullies, restoration of which can be very expensive and time consuming.
I had made it approximately 0.5 miles down the Incline Connector Trail when I came across two users intentionally sliding under fencing, cutting switchbacks, and trampling over deadfall and other obstructions installed specifically to protect the fragile landscape. "DO NOT CUT SWITCHBACKS" signs installed on the fencing in front of them had done nothing to deter their behavior. Now, this isn't the first time I have witnessed switchback cutting on the Incline Connector Trail, and whenever possible, I try and take the opportunity to educate users about the negative impacts of this type of behavior. Predominantly speaking, most users are simply uninformed and are at least somewhat responsive to my improptu educational lesson. This day was different. The two users became aggressive, laughed in my face, told me to "f*** off" and to mind my own business, and then proceeded to slide under the next set of fencing, and the next one, and the next one, with absolutely no care about the destruction they were leaving behind and the improper trail behavior they were modeling for other users.
Admittedly, I was angry. In these types of situations, I struggle to understand the other side when to me the behavior is just so blatantly and obviously wrong. Yet, I found myself for the next several miles thinking about their behavior and trying to understand why they did what they did, why didn’t the signs help deter their behavior, why didn’t they respond positively to my friendly educational lesson, why is it so hard to just stay on the trail, how can we better engage these types of users – the exceptions, the seemingly 1% of users who tend to ruin it for everyone – through different messaging, education, etc.?
Fast-forward 6 miles and a few hours when I encountered another user just below the A-frame. We stopped and chatted for several minutes about various topics, including how lucky we were to be able to enjoy the amazing public lands (not to mention an iconic Colorado 14er) right in our backyard. This user had moved from South Carolina to Castle Rock about 4 years prior, and had been traveling to Colorado Springs/Manitou Springs every month to train for a summit attempt of Pikes Peak in August. He talked about his love and respect for the outdoors and his support for public lands stewardship. He also was proud about the gear he was carrying on his back – everything from waterproof gloves, raingear, and a bivvy, to extra layers and an ultra light down blanket. He was aware that conditions can change at high elevations and was prepared for anything. In his words, “I could survive out here for days if I had to.” After a few minutes of conversation, he continued up the trail to meet his friend who was just ahead of him. I spent a few minutes at the A-frame before turning back and heading down Barr Trail to the trailhead in Manitou Springs.
When you have hours to spend on a trail, you have a lot of time to think. And on this particular day, that’s exactly what I did. My thoughts focused almost entirely on analyzing the behavior and ethic of the two types of users I had encountered that day. How did each develop their ethic, why do signs and barriers work for some and not others, why is it natural for some to obey rules and be responsible users of our public lands when it’s not for others, why do some respond to education while others do not, how do we effectively change behavior, how can we more effectively reach users that seemingly don’t care or don’t even want to be reached? These questions and more were swirling through my head the whole way back to the trailhead.
There are no easy answers here. But, I feel strongly that some thought must be put into these questions in order to move the needle on public lands stewardship. What opportunities exist to change behavior so that everyone can enjoy our public lands not just now, but future generations – and to ensure that our public lands are stewarded and maintained so they can perform their important roles for ecosystem health and function? If you have thoughts and ideas, please send them our way at [email protected] – we’d love to read them and engage in meaningful conversation!