Eagle County honors inaugural Colorado Public Lands Day with events, hike | VailDaily.com

Eagle County honors inaugural Colorado Public Lands Day with events, hike

Get ready to … snowshoe?

This week’s snowstorm derailed plans for Gov. John Hickenlooper to come to Vail to sign a proclamation recognizing the first Public Lands Day in Colorado. He won’t be here.

There are other events set for Saturday, though.

• At 10 a.m., State Sen. Kerry Donovan and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne will host a meet-and-greet session at West Side Cafe in West Vail. The public is invited. There may be hiking — or snowshoeing — at some point.

• At 5:30 p.m., photographer John Fielder will host a reception and book-signing at the Colorado Mountain College Edwards campus. Conservation groups will be on hand with information about their work.

• At 7 p.m., Fielder will present “Celebrating Eagle County Public Lands,” followed by a conversation about public lands.

EAGLE COUNTY — The idea of land held in public trust, for the public's use, originated in this country. Now, Colorado is about to celebrate that tradition.

Residents, state agencies and conservation groups have geared up to celebrate the state's first Public Lands Day on Saturday. The celebration is official, thanks to a bill passed in 2016 designating the third Saturday in May as Colorado Public Lands Day.

There's a federal Public Lands Day, but Colorado has the first state-level holiday.

Celebrations include free admission to state parks, stewardship projects around the state and, locally, a pair of events including a hike — or perhaps a snowshoe trip — into new proposed federal wilderness north of Vail, as well as a reception and exhibition by renowned Colorado nature photographer John Fielder.

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat whose district includes millions of acres of mostly federal public land, introduced the bill creating the new state holiday and is eager to see how it develops.

The idea of public land "is one of our most small-d democratic ideas," Donovan said. "It's an idea unique to America, that public lands here belong to me as much as they do to someone in Tallahassee, Florida. You just don't see that in other parts of the world."

Given the sheer size of the American West, the idea of public land may not have originated here, but that's where it has the biggest impact — and public awareness.

Public land's impact

In Colorado alone, about 35 percent of the state's land area is held by the state or federal government. Public lands — from skiing to motorsports to ranching and mining — are responsible for about 125,000 jobs.

That impact has created a lot of attention for Public Lands Day, and especially for the first year it's celebrated. Donovan said she's aware of around 130 events around the state.

"It feels very Colorado," Donovan said. "There's everything from trail work to hikes to events at breweries. I can't picture anything more Colorado than that."

The National Forest Foundation has long helped the U.S. Forest Service with projects around the nation. But the group has begun its newer efforts in Colorado, and in the 2 million-acre White River National Forest, of which Eagle County is a part. In fact, the foundation has designated this national forest as a "Treasured Landscape."

That's appropriate, since more people visit the White River National Forest than any other forest or national park in the nation.

Officials estimate that nearly 13 million people visited the forest in 2012. That's more than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite national parks combined. About half of those visitors came to ski areas. The rest camped, hiked, rode ATVs or otherwise enjoyed the area.

From enjoyment to stewardship

Throughout the past decade, the foundation has partnered with Vail Resorts and other ski-area operators on the Ski Conservation Fund. That fund asks guests to donate $1 of their room nights, ski days or other activities to the fund. Since its inception, the fund has contributed $5 million to public-private partnerships on U.S. Forest Service property.

"The Forest Service has an incredibly complex task," National Forest Foundation Project Manager Emily Olson said. "We feel proud that we can join forward-thinking businesses like Vail Resorts and others."

Olson said the conservation fund — along with volunteer efforts including Eagle County's Adopt a Trail program — indicates something beyond enjoying public lands. Putting money and time into preservation and improvement shows a growing realization that public land needs to be protected and, at times, repaired.

The foundation is working with the Forest Service on a plan to restore the Eagle River through Camp Hale.

When that outpost was created for the 10th Mountain Division, the Army Corps of Engineers straightened the Eagle River through the Pando Valley. But rivers need to meander to stay healthy. That project is still in the planning stages, though.

As that work continues, Olson said the foundation and its many partners are excited about the state's newest holiday.

"I really hope it will encourage people across Colorado to consider the value of their public lands," Olson said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com or @scottnmiller.