I was at a City Council meeting last year when the Open Space Mountain Parks Department (OSMP) presented its plan to require permits for anyone wanting to go "off-trail" in a Habitat Conservation Area (HCA) on city open space. I recall our mayor asking an OSMP employee whether it would be okay to go a few yards off trail to have lunch. The answer was a polite "no," which appeared to take the mayor slightly aback.
If you read Monday’s Camera article about the off-trail permit system carefully you would have seen the box entitled "HOW IT WORKS," and under the definition of "What’s off-trail?" would have read the following quote: "Going off-trail for lunch, to find a quiet spot, or to reach an overlook is considered off-trail." There. It is official. Relatively innocent behavior will put you in violation of the law on the 40% of Boulder open space that is now in HCAs.
As an avid hiker who has spent thousands of hours on open space over the past 31 years, I’m happy to stay on trails. They pretty much get me to where I want to go, with fewer wood ticks, scratches, and chances of a fall. Frankly, I almost never see anyone bush-wacking–our terrain is rugged enough. But I suppose if you’ve always wanted to see what lies in the hundreds of acres between the bottom of Long Canyon and the W. Ridge of the Green Mountain trail, you’ll now have to convince someone at OSMP you’re neither an eco-terrorist nor developer.
But kidding aside, this is an important issue and NOT because it infringes on our "freedom to go where we please." Rather, it beautifully illustrates what is at the heart of the "protection verus recreation" debate in this town. Several influential Boulder citizen groups, as well as many employees of OSMP, believe that the natural world is very fragile, and when you walk on open space you degrade it. Even if it is only one person going 15 yards off trail to get the perfect camera angle, or sit on that nice rock that happens to be in the sun, protected from the winter wind and ideally suited to your contemplation of nature’s beauty. Your impact is unacceptable to them, and outweighs any benefit you derive.
Will you really get a ticket if you’re "caught?" I suppose that depends on the circumstances–your attitude, your reason for being there, and the kindness of the ranger. But it is important for you to be aware of this issue for three primary reasons: First, because you bought and paid for this land; second, because you need to treat this land with respect; and third, because your seemingly innocent conduct is now against the law.