By Gloria Dickie
When flood waters ripped through Boulder’s open space in mid-September, lacerating the landscape, pockmarking pathways and gashing open gulches, 28-year-old Boulder resident Kyle Green* couldn’t stay away.
An avid hiker bent on getting his weekly fix, Green managed to wait exactly seven days before venturing back into the great outdoors to assess nature’s toll on his wild playground, nonplussed by public warnings, flimsy barriers and ravaged roads.
“I saw the destruction in the city, and I wanted to see what it looked like in a natural setting,” Green explained.
According to the City of Boulder’s Open Space & Mountain Parks rangers, he wasn’t alone. Between Sept. 11 and Oct. 21, 2013, rangers issued a total of 43 citations for trespassing — more than one a day. Fines ranged from $100 for walking on Bluebell Road to $325 for climbing the Third Flatiron.
Joe Reale, OSMP’s ranger supervisor, said most hikers were aware of the closure and many admitted to climbing over or pulling down barriers. Such actions have highlighted a growing divide in public opinion on trail closures, with citizens lamenting the closures at public council meetings, and others turning to the Internet to voice their opinions through Facebook groups like OPEN OSMP.
“I don’t believe all the OSMP closures were completely justified,” Robert Gibbons*, an engineer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and hiking enthusiast, said. “My stance is that open space is nature — there is inherent risk that we should all be aware of in an ever-changing landscape.”
But Green, who has since hiked the trails meandering through Bear Canyon, Bear Peak, NCAR, Mesa and Chautauqua twice, expressed concern about the safety of Boulder’s open space.
“I saw more mudslides than I’ve ever seen before,” he said. “At times the water dug so deeply into the ground that it exposed electrical wires.”
During one of his hikes through Bear Canyon, Green observed foot-deep mudslides that had overtaken the trail “every 50 feet.”
“Larger mudslides left up to four feet of mud on the trail and destroyed entire sections of trees around the creek,” he recalled. “The creek bed itself was unrecognizable.”
When the trail turned to cross the creek, Green admitted defeat.
“That entire section was washed out for 15 feet. I got across but soon realized I would be completely unable to get to the top of the mountain safely, and turned around.”
Others weren’t so lucky.
On the evening of Oct. 2, 22-year-old Joshua Selden set out from his home in Boulder to hike the Royal Arch Trail under the cover of darkness. With no flashlight in hand, no warm clothing, and no food or water, Selden soon found himself in a severely washed-out portion of the trail, loose boulders at every turn. It was then Selden plunked himself down and waited for sunrise. But as temperatures dropped in the lower montane forest, Selden began to rethink his plan. Facing exposure and hunger, he dialed 9-1-1 shortly before dawn.
Within five minutes OSMP rangers, Rocky Mountain Rescuers, the Boulder County’s Sheriff Office, AMR Ambulance Company and the Boulder Fire Department had converged on the scene. Forty minutes later, they located the lost youth and escorted him down to Bluebell Shelter. Selden’s case is currently set for arraignment on Nov. 19.
Since the incident, rangers have amped up their efforts to keep adventure junkies off of Royal Arch. Phillip Yates, a spokesperon for OSMP, confirmed rangers cut down two large, healthy trees last week to block off access— a move that drew much ire from the hiking community.
“If you are gonna go to the effort of bringing a chainsaw back there, why not go another few hundred yards up the trail and clean some up some of the dead, stripped trees?” wrote Stefan Griebel in a Facebook post Friday afternoon.
However, Reale explained that, at this time, most of the closures still in place concern the protection of natural resources.
“The bigger threat to the system is the damage caused by large numbers of visitors wandering off of trails and creating new paths through the system,” he said.
With rangers performing patrols on closed trails and trailheads, volunteers stationed in the field to inform the public of closures and information signs on all major trailheads, OSMP is doing its best to keep would-be trespassers off the land.
But for people like Green, such measures don’t make much of a difference when it comes to the question ‘to hike, or not to hike?’
“It’s kind of like going 10 miles over on the highway,” he explained. “You’re speeding, and aware of it, but it’s easy to compartmentalize away.”
*Last name changed for anonymity.