Wade Shelton is driving along a gravel road that’s so bumpy his voice shakes as he talks, though the turbulence doesn’t slow his words. He’s besotted with this land in southern Colorado: 19,200 acres of old-growth oak forest, volcanic cliffs, and grasslands. Shelton, senior project manager at the Colorado office of Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit that helps preserve public lands, has dedicated the past six years to turning this private property into a public park that will serve Colorado’s growing number of recreationists while simultaneously conserving its unique habitat. Privately owned or under corporate control for most of modern history, Fishers Peak hasn’t had to withstand many footsteps. At 9,633 feet, it’s not the state’s most impressive tabletop mountain, but no formation rises higher to its east in the entire country. From its lava-formed summit, the mesa—which towers above the southeastern Colorado town of Trinidad—gives way to untouched wilds thrumming with flora and fauna that have largely been left to exist away from the impacts of human exploration.

Shelton has bushwhacked through New Mexico locust to scramble up its steep, rocky slope just once. In 2014, he stood on that peak, looking down and envisioning hikers and bikers and birders plying yet-to-be-built trails. He pictured schoolchildren, wide-eyed as the native wildlife they’d read about in class appeared before them. It was such a clear image. Less lucid, however, was how he and others might procure the tens of millions of dollars needed to turn the vision of a new and rugged Colorado state park into a reality.

Trinidad residents had long known the property as Crazy French Ranch. The land that encompasses Fishers Peak was named for the couple who purchased it in the 1980s after locals called the husband, Marc Jung, a “crazy Frenchman” for buying what was considered unproductive agricultural land. Now the denizens of Trinidad wanted to do something they once might have considered outrageous: buy a 4,000-acre parcel of the ranch.

Although Fishers Peak has been a sort of symbol for Trinidad and its 8,000 citizens, it was one that had remained beyond reach. “When you’re in the town, you can see this peak looming above from pretty much anywhere,” says Trinidad local Tim Crisler, who has been involved in the state park effort since the early days. “There’s a connection that all of us who live here have to the mountain. [But] it’s always been off-limits.” Creating easy access to the property would be not only a point of local pride, but potentially also a much-needed windfall for an area that has frequently suffered the booms and busts of a resource-based economy. Over the years, Trinidad has relied on industries like coal mining, natural gas, and marijuana as economic drivers. It recently repositioned itself as an arts hub; it was designated a Colorado Creative District in 2013 and will house the first work/live affordable apartments for creatives developed by Space to Create, a state initiative to drive economic development through the arts in rural areas. But Mayor Phil Rico and other local leaders understood that recreation could help to further diversify and solidify the economy and draw more visitors, residents, and businesses to the compact town near the Colorado–New Mexico border.

Trinidad’s economy should profit from the new state park. Photo by Cameron Davidson

This Gang of 14, as they nicknamed themselves, thought buying even a small segment of the land could help launch a new era for Trinidad. They approached Evelyne Jung, the property owner, who said she’d be open to subdividing the 39,000-acre ranch. (Marc died in 1997.) Next, they needed fundraising help. In fall 2017, they called TPL’s Shelton and Matt Moorhead, the conservation business and partnership development adviser at the Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global environmental nonprofit with an office in Colorado.

Like Shelton, Moorhead was captivated by Crazy French Ranch. The pair, who’d built a friendship on their matching passions for conservation and World War II history, had been discussing the land for years, ever since the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published 2014 real estate articles noting that Crazy French had cut its asking price from $79 million to $59 million. (“Buying a ranch is the stuff of childhood cowboy fantasy,” Julie Satow wrote in the Times.) The price tag was still too rich for the nonprofits, but Trinidad’s interest changed the equation: TPL and TNC, which aren’t in the business of owning land, now had a public partner who could step into that role, making the nonprofits’ mission easier. “That community desire to have Fishers Peak be a public park,” Shelton says, “that’s what finally kicked the door open.”

Still, Shelton and Moorhead had grander visions; they urged Trinidad officials to think bigger than 4,000 acres. Fishers Peak’s accessibility, right off I-25, combined with the site’s pristine condition and contiguous connection to nearby wildlife areas felt destined for something significant—like becoming a state park. Procuring the 30-square-mile property (the other half had already been sold) with additional funding help from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) and others and bringing on Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) as the land manager could gift Coloradans a new public recreation area, guarantee conservation for the property’s animals and plants, and transform Trinidad from a pass-through town to an outdoor recreation destination.

That was the hope, anyway. In practice, a collaborative effort of this magnitude—involving a locally led vision propped up by a public-private mashup of the city, the state, and a trifecta of local and national conservation- and community-focused groups—hadn’t been attempted before. Every stakeholder was integral for the purchase and the planning to move forward. There were myriad complexities and uncertainties—any one of which could’ve scuttled the deal—yet the historic partnership worked. “I’ve never seen a project catch fire as fast as this did,” Moorhead says. “What makes this whole thing so compelling is the vision, the scale.”

State parks take an average of about five years to open. Typically, a master plan should be completed, and all of the infrastructure needs to be in place, before the public is granted access. Fishers Peak State Park’s short, maiden trails opened to the public this past fall, just a year after Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order decreeing that Fishers Peak would become Colorado’s 42nd state park by January 2021—the fastest opening in Centennial State history.

It was the governor who helped fast-track the park into public ownership and speed up the bureaucratic process. TPL and TNC went under contract for the ranch in December 2018 and officially closed on the land a year later for an appraised value of $25.45 million; the funds were a compilation of grant money from GOCO, CPW habitat stamp dollars, additional capital from the city of Trinidad, and private donations. The public took ownership on April 2, 2020, when the property was transferred from the nonprofit duo to CPW. Then, in June, Polis signed the bill designating Fishers Peak as Colorado’s newest state park. Despite coronavirus-related cuts to the State Parks Improvement Appropriation bill, which slashed general funds for the park from $4 million to $1 million, the phased opening is still inching forward. “I’m impatient, and I like Coloradans to be able to have their fun,” says Polis, who cut the ribbon on 250 acres of the park in October. “Our state parks are crowded, and many people can’t get into them on summer weekends and holidays. This will be one of our largest state parks—a great opportunity for people to be socially distant in the great outdoors.”

A black bear cub, only about the size of a football, is running along a backcountry trail in an attempt to keep up with its mom. Chris Pague smiles to himself, not just because the scene is so adorable, but also because it shows just how alive the and surrounding Fishers Peak is. Pague is the lead senior conservation ecologist for TNC; it’s his job to inventory precisely what is living in and moving through the forest, including counting one of the state’s healthiest elk herds and capturing wildlife photos to help market the park to the public.

It is also part of Pague’s job to help Fishers Peak’s residents thrive alongside recreationists. With 3,000 feet of elevation change, the land within the park is an ecological wonder and provides terrain for a diverse array of animals and plants. Nestled close to three other protected natural areas—the James M. John and Lake Dorothey state wildlife areas in Colorado and Sugarite Canyon State Park in New Mexico—the rugged landscape is a corridor for wildlife, connecting prairie grasslands to the Rocky Mountains. Since beginning their research, Pague and the rest of the rapid ecological assessment group (comprised of volunteers and representatives from a variety of state and nongovernmental organizations) have inventoried more than 100 species of birds, four endemic butterfly species, the federally endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, and the hog-nosed skunk, which rarely has been seen in Colorado since the 1940s.

Often, conservation groups enter the conversation after recreationists, not simultaneously, as is happening at Fishers Peak State Park. “A lot of times, recreation management means going in and looking at something that’s already been degraded either by social trails or some sort of public use that has gone out of control—something that’s been loved to death,” says Crystal Dreiling, CPW’s park manager for the Trinidad Lake State Park/Fishers Peak State Park complex. Fishers Peak is different. It’s an expansive, intact parcel of land only lightly touched by man. The previous owners built some roads but only allowed limited hunting, so the high-elevation prairie and its old-growth oak and pine forests—some of the trees are more than 250 years old—have grown unopposed in many areas. “This is a property that has not been loved to death,” Dreiling says. “It’s been pretty well protected, and it’s important to us that we put recreation on this property in a wise way, in a thoughtful way. It’s an important ball that we’re not going to drop, that balance of conservation and recreation.”

In practice, that means a trail won’t be built just because it accesses the prettiest views; instead, the project partners are, for example, assessing where wildlife corridors are located and what sorts of impacts motorized vehicles could have so the public can enjoy the land inside Colorado’s second-largest state park without worrying too much about the environmental consequences. The park’s full playbook is still being drawn up, so not all of these questions have been answered, but efforts to bridge the sometimes conflicting ambitions of recreation and preservation could set a new standard for future projects—here and across the country.

The phased opening of Fishers Peak State Park began this past fall with two hiking trails and a lottery for limited elk and deer hunting permits. As these activities unfolded, the project partners began monitoring the impacts and will adjust access in real time in ways that best serve the public and the park’s inhabitants.

Eventually, recreationists will be able to explore the land through other potential activities, such as mountain biking, rock climbing, snowshoeing, and educational programming. Parking areas and a visitors center, as well as other infrastructure, are still being plotted out as CPW finalizes the master plan with community input, a collaboration that hasn’t happened in such a robust manner in the past. “We want to make sure that [the landscape and wildlife are] protected as best as we possibly can. It’s very important to me and the community,” Rico says. “This [state park] is a beginning.”

Locals have been largely supportive of the project, with hundreds of citizens attending public meetings to provide input and discuss how to address things park visitors might need, including more lodging, restaurants, and parking in town. “If we’ve got the right kind of activities and balance of conservation so people are seeing elk and mule deer, and people of all abilities can get out there,” Shelton says, “it’ll be the economic draw, the economic catalyst [Trinidad needs].”

If it all comes together as envisioned, the park’s longtime residents should have little trouble adjusting to their new neighbors. Golden eagles, elk, deer, skunks, mice, and even tiny bear cubs should still feel mostly undisturbed in this enchanting landscape. People won’t dramatically alter their paths, interrupt their hunting patterns, or corrupt the nature they rely on. Which seems only fair since humans will be the newcomers to this untamed space.

This article was originally published in 5280 December 2020.
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.