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“Get outside” is basically Colorado’s unofficial motto. It’s why people live here. It’s why they book plane tickets here. Our 22 million acres of public lands are a point of pride for many. But questions about who exactly gets to enjoy all of that space linger: Who can afford to visit those wild spaces, and who can’t? Where can you go to escape the crowds and recreate responsibly? Are trails and rivers truly accessible for people of all abilities? Those are some of the concerns Governor Jared Polis says he’s addressing with his latest outdoors- and environment-focused policies. Here, we chatted with the state’s Democratic leader about those priorities, including his push to expand the state parks system and efforts to increase the use of electric vehicles across Colorado.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: In the past two years, you’ve added two new state parks to our already extensive roster—Fishers Peak and Sweetwater Lake. Why is growing our state parks system an area of focus for your administration?
Governor Jared Polis: In 2019, we had 14.8 million visitors to our state parks, and in 2020 that increased to 18.3 million, so the demand is going up. I really prioritized two things: Opening additional state parks with some of our most iconic areas—Fishers Peak and Sweetwater Lake, and more are being planned—and expanding parking and campsites and yurts and new boat docks and other improvements at existing state parks so people can have an even better experience.
Sweetwater Lake is a first-of-its-kind partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. It’s not state land—it’s USFS land, with the agreement for us to operate a state park and be able to put in the improvements and offer that recreational opportunity. As far as we know, it’s the first state park on USFS land in the country, and it’s a model that we’re very excited to do more with.
When you announce a state park, people can’t just lace up for a hike there the next day. So when will they really be able to experience these spaces?
Fishers Peak is already open, but a lot of improvements continue. It being open is a big deal, especially for residents of Trinidad who, for decades, would look at this iconic peak above where they live and not be allowed access. Of course, we continue to work on trails and other amenities, and there’ll be improvements over the next couple of years. Sweetwater Lake will be open by this summer as a state park; it will be open, with camping available, by this summer, with more improvements along the way. We move quick. When people tell me it’ll take five years, I say get it done in one, and we do our best to get it open soon so people can enjoy it.
How does creating more state parks play into your conservation goals?
Conservation is another key goal of our Colorado park system. Fishers Peak is one of our largest state parks, and it also is adjacent to protected lands in New Mexico—wildlife protection areas—so it creates tens of thousands of acres of protected habitat for many different species that are threatened. Sweetwater Lake, frankly, risked development. If we hadn’t worked with Eagle Valley Land Trust and others to put it in permanent stewardship as a state park, it likely would have been developed as maybe a golf course or luxury housing. So we were able to maintain the area not only for its iconic beauty and recreational fun, but also for conservation.
Last year the state legislature approved a lower-cost state parks pass tied to vehicle registration (though individuals can opt-out). Was that about improving accessibility?
First, yes, more parks, more campsites, more locations to have fun. And then secondly, more accessibility. And that means costs. $84 a year [the current price of an annual state parks pass] is a lot of money, and we were able to reduce that to $29. It also means access for people with disabilities. We now have three state parks that have free, heavy-terrain wheelchair rentals; these are wheelchairs with treads where you can go on pretty much any terrain and keep up with people who are on foot. A person’s normal wheelchair wouldn’t be able to do that. No matter who you are, no matter what your income level, no matter what your ability level, we want you to enjoy the great outdoors in Colorado because that’s what our state is all about.
Are there more state parks on the horizon?
Yes, absolutely. We’re doing a lot of improvements in different areas, and that includes more campsite, better amenities, new boat docks, and we are aggressively looking for iconic new locations in Colorado that can be our 44th and 45th state parks.
Your expansion of electric vehicle offerings and charging stations is also about accessibility—to our state parks and beyond. When you talk about electric vehicles, you’re not just referring to personal cars, right? You’re talking about buses and bicycles and more?
It’s all of the above. It’s about more options for people to get places at a lower cost. And that means support for e-bikes, for people who are able to use e-bikes for commuting or getting to the store. It means electric vehicle charging infrastructure across the state. We’re also working on an electric school bus program for school districts to accelerate the development of electric school buses, so districts can save that money they would have spent on gas and put it in the classroom instead. And with the added benefit of kids not having to breathe those diesel fumes. Our goal is that the vast majority of school buses will be electric within five years in our state. Right now, there are only a handful.
Your 2022-’23 budget proposal also included $12 million for electric bike (e-bike) and ride sharing rebates. How will that work?
That’s effectively to provide a lower-cost commuting alternative for lower-income Coloradans. People’s biggest expenses are usually rent and health care. But then the third biggest is automobile ownership. If you don’t need a car for your everyday activities, [with e-bikes] you can save a lot of money on insurance and on gas. We want to help support free or close to free e-bikes for people who are ready to make that switch.
Do you anticipate those rebates will encourage more people to ride bikes in general?
It will, but, separately, we’re also gearing our infrastructure investment around bikes and alternatives, including transit. So as we look at the federal infrastructure investment as well as our state bipartisan infrastructure package, it includes pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, bus rapid transit access, as well as significant improvements for people that continue to drive their own vehicles. So really all of the above in a way that empowers people to make the best decision for them and reduce their costs.
What’s the timeline for all of this? You mentioned converting buses within the next five years. What about these other initiatives?
Close to 14 percent of vehicles sold in our state [last month were] electric—that’s increasing rapidly. We expect that by 2030, there will be close to a million electric vehicles on the road in Colorado. And that’s just the continuing attractiveness from a cost perspective, from a pleasure perspective, from a safety perspective, really all the criteria, the benefits of electric vehicles. And we want to make fast-charging convenient across the state. That’s why we entered a historic partnership with Rivian to provide charging stations in all of our state parks. And we’re also, as part of our infrastructure package, investing in fast-charging along important corridors.
So, build the infrastructure and they will come?
For electric vehicles to be usable in all parts of our state, in all different scenarios that gas cars are used, we need to have even better charging infrastructure. Just as we have gas stations off of many exits, we also have to increase the availability of fast-charging. (For the overnight charging, many people do that at home.) While the range of many of these vehicles is 200 to 300 miles, people will still need fast-charging infrastructure, especially for interstate visitation.
The state started the process of electrifying all 26 of its Scenic Byways last year. Seven are completed. What’s the goal or timeline for finishing the rest?
Most of them will be done within the next 12 to 18 months. There’s some that have siting issues about where it’ll be and where it’ll be convenient to people. So it’s really just a matter of getting not just availability, but also convenience, meaning somewhere where you can pull over off the road, usually on an exit, and not be in people’s way. I’m optimistic that over the next two years, that’ll be available at nearly all of our scenic byways and state parks.
Wherever Coloradans go, we want to make sure they know they have the opportunity, especially if they are a couple hundred miles from home, that they’re able to charge quickly and get where they want to go at a lower cost and greater convenience.
You’re making a lot of investments in this sector. What’s your big picture goal?
We’re a leader on clean air, and we want to continue that. We’re a forward-looking, innovative state, and electric vehicles are taking off everywhere, but we want Colorado consumers to be among the first to be able to save money and not have a gas bill and reduce their costs and increase their convenience. And that’s really why we’re leaning into making them as convenient as possible for those who choose to to drive EVs.
From an environmental perspective, the more the better. Every time an electric vehicle replaces a gas vehicle, there’s an improvement in air quality. The transportation sector is the largest contributor to our ozone and air quality issues.