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Bear Creek Regional Park Update

A Letter From the Board of Trustees

Dear Community Members and Partners,

Palmer Land Trust’s mission is to preserve natural areas, public open spaces, and working farms and ranches in southern Colorado. We are stewards of the land that we protect through the use of conservation easements and other methods. Palmer Land Trust’s role is to help identify and facilitate land conservation in the communities we serve, and safeguard that conservation into the future. In the midst of recent discussions around Bear Creek Regional Park, Palmer Land Trust would like to take this opportunity to clarify its role, its mission and our partnerships as they pertain to the protection of public open spaces.

The conservation easement placed on Bear Creek Regional Park (BCRP) was the outcome of public concern over the possibility of El Paso County selling off parkland during times of budget challenges. Following community discussions on this issue, in October 2008, the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners approved a resolution recognizing the importance of its parkland and directing its staff to explore methods—such as conservation easements—to protect public properties. When Palmer Land Trust was approached by El Paso County to consider holding the conservation easement on BCRP, the overarching goals of the project were to prevent urban development and protect public access—goals that align with our mission.

The BCRP conservation easement is unique in that it is the outcome of citizens coming together to initiate the protection of a beloved park and working with the County to place a voluntary conservation easement on the property. This stands in contrast to the majority of other conservation easements on public properties in the region that came about because they were required by a funder, often Great Outdoors Colorado (e.g. Red Rock Canyon Open Space, Stratton Open Space, etc.). It is a remarkable accomplishment that the community successfully acted as a catalyst in BCRP’s guaranteed protection. BCRP can serve as a template for how our community can permanently protect other parks and open spaces that are not currently guaranteed protection from development. The importance of safeguarding these treasured community assets is precisely why Palmer Land Trust decided to take on the responsibility of holding the BCRP easement.

Land trusts operate in a highly-regulated field, and are legally required  to uphold certain standards of practice. A conservation easement is a binding contract between a landowner and a qualified conservation organization that protects land with specific conservation values. Conservation easements are perpetual, meaning that their terms will apply forever, regardless of changes in ownership or other factors. They provide a base level of protection for a property by prohibiting development and safeguarding the property’s value to the community as a preserved, natural area. Palmer Land Trust holds more than 120 conservation easements spanning 77,000 acres throughout the region. Fifteen of these are public properties located in El Paso and Teller Counties.

On public properties, Palmer Land Trust requires the landowner (El Paso County in the case of BCRP) to develop a master plan or management plan to guide day-to-day management of the property. In order to ensure that the public has a seat at the table, these plans go through a public process. The master or management plan distills the basic terms of the conservation easement into more specific, on-the-ground management measures, and can offer enhanced protections by outlining how the park will be used and managed. Master or management plans are built to evolve and adapt to changing community needs and park uses while the conservation easement ensures the overall protection of conservation values. Palmer Land Trust reviews master and management plans for consistency with the conservation easement, but the landowner and the public are responsible for directing the outcome of the plan and determining what those on-the-ground management measures will be.

There has been some recent concern over the County giving a special use permit to The Broadmoor allowing it to run equestrian rides in the park. While The Broadmoor has halted current plans, PLT continues to receive questions about why this type of commercial use is allowed under the easement. As explained earlier, the BCRP easement was the outcome of an extensive public process. During this process, the community discussion revealed how much the public values BCRP as a community resource where the community can not only hike, bike, and ride horses, but also hold concerts in the park, nonprofit fundraising events, and running races. Because an outright prohibition of all commercial uses (i.e., uses in which money is exchanged, whether for a fundraiser or an entry to a running race) in the conservation easement would prohibit these kinds of events, the community discussion concluded that such a prohibition was not in the best interest of the community. Accordingly, the easement on BCRP was written to allow a greater degree of flexibility regarding the use of the park. The draft terms of the conservation easement, including the commercial use provision, were reviewed by the community and approved by the Bear Creek Conservation Easement Committee, El Paso County Parks Board, and the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners.

Our open spaces in Colorado Springs are highly valued and much-loved public assets. Pikes Peak region citizens invariably list them as a top reason why they live here. Given the increasing population growth, pressures on our parks and open spaces will continue to increase. Collectively as a community we will continue to face difficult land management and protection decisions. Palmer Land Trust is committed to preserving these cherished spaces and to continuing to work collaboratively with all of the parties involved to steward these areas and to facilitate solutions to the challenges that confront us. We look forward to our continued work with the community and partners such as the Friends of Bear Creek and El Paso County, to sustain and preserve what we all agree are invaluable community resources. We welcome the opportunity to discuss these tough questions openly and civilly with all stakeholders in order to facilitate mutually agreeable solutions to these dilemmas. Palmer Land Trust remains committed to ensuring the successful protection and stewardship of our land so that it may be enjoyed by both current and future generations.

Sincerely,

The Palmer Land Trust Board of Trustees