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The future of public lands and gateway communities

Vanessa Mazal

“Retaining the distinctively rural characteristics of Colorado’s gateway communities, and expanding visitation and recreation on surrounding public lands, are not mutually exclusive goals,” noted city of Cortez Mayor Karen Sheek at the recent Four Corners Gateway Momentum Workshop.

As we prepare to celebrate our state’s first Public Lands Day on Saturday, it’s clear that gateway communities are forging the path for Colorado to become a successful “yes, and” state – one that doggedly persists in accommodating seemingly incompatible goals.

Many of the same rural towns and counties once reliant on traditional industries sit next door to the monuments, parks and public lands that increasingly attract visitors and new residents to our state. These rural “gateways” are the access points to exceptional outdoor assets that drive much of our state’s economic growth, and they are fast becoming the vanguard for embracing skyrocketing expansion in visitation and outdoor recreation, while preserving “Colorado” ways of life.

On May 10, the National Parks Conservation Association hosted the 2nd annual statewide Colorado Gateway Momentum Initiative Workshop. Participants at both the statewide and regional gatherings in the Grand Valley, Four Corners and San Luis Valley ranged from local business owners, elected officials and planners, to public land managers and recreational, cultural, agricultural and economic development interests.

Through critical conversations and on-going collaboration, the initiative confronts challenges at the intersection of promoting growth, protecting lands, diversifying economies and preserving community character.

While every gateway has distinct circumstances, some sentiments voiced cut across a majority of these Colorado communities, reflecting our state’s “yes, and” convictions:

Yes, most gateway communities want to welcome newcomers drawn to our state’s awe-inspiring landscapes and the diversity of recreational opportunities they provide – opportunities fueling Colorado’s $19-plus billion tourism industry. The National Park Service recently reported that national park visitation alone resulted in $485 million annually in direct visitor spending in local Colorado communities. Other studies reinforce that public lands’ protections and designations contribute to resilient rural economies, and have support from both rural and urban Coloradoans.And, rural gateway communities want to retain the established land uses, values and cultures tied to traditional industries that they fear might be incompatible with tourism and recreation growth. Traditional industries are still deeply rooted, provide important revenue and enjoy widespread local and political support. There are also legitimate concerns that, along with the monetary benefits of growth, can come congestion, increased housing prices and restricted uses on public lands.In light of these goals, many gateway communities are finding that intelligent, intentional, inclusive planning is an important tool to have in their toolkits. Advanced planning that considers diverse community interests across a range of possible future scenarios can help distribute visitation among destinations; incentivize new supportive services and amenities; safeguard affordable housing; improve infrastructure; and direct development so that natural assets and community character are both preserved.

The popular myth that rural communities don’t value public, protected lands doesn’t hold up consistently in Colorado’s gateway communities. With the first annual Public Lands Day being celebrated tomorrow, it’s important for Coloradoans to recognize our gateway communities’ leadership in defending the landscapes that define our state, and to support them in creating vibrant, distinctive communities that reflect Colorado’s brand of “yes, and.”

Vanessa Mazal is the Colorado program manager for National Parks Conservation Association. Reach her at vmazal@npca.org.

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