Douglas County's Backcountry Wilderness Area thrives

Conservation efforts, community programs make land a benefit to Highlands Ranch

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In Highlands Ranch, the more than 8,200 acres of open land known as the Backcountry Wilderness Area (BWA) is a special resource that is being preserved as open, natural space.

In the 1980s, before housing construction reshaped Highlands Ranch, early visionaries wanted to make sure wildlife and grasslands were kept in place. As Mission Viejo worked out a land agreement with Shea Homes, part of the deal was to conserve 13 square miles of land between Castle Pines and Highlands Ranch.

As part of the original agreement, once Shea Homes reached 90% buildout, the land was officially donated to the Highlands Ranch Community Association in 2010.

Mark Giebel, director of the BWA, said the amount of thought that went into protecting this land is “incredible.” As modern-day Highlands Ranch celebrates its 40-year anniversary, Geibel said this land is a big piece to celebrate.

“It's super important to have this kind of land agreement in place, especially as development continues,” Giebel said. “It is going to be clear how important this land deal was in the next few decades. This property is a gem because of where it is located and its size.”

Sitting on top of one of the many dirt trails in the BWA, grasslands can be seen for miles, serving as a home for animals such as elk, mule deer, bears, mountain lions, eagles, coyotes, porcupines and birds to roam freely without the threat of human-caused destruction.

“This is land that can never be developed,” said Lindsey McKissick, outreach coordinator for the BWA. “It is taken so seriously that on occasion, new levels of protection are even added to the management plan.”

For many years, and to some degree today, McKissick said the BWA feels like a well-kept secret. Many residents still have no idea about the trail system throughout the property, or that through special planning, the land will continue to thrive thanks to the efforts of a small but dedicated staff. The BWA has seven full-time staff and some dedicated volunteers.

“To this day, so many homeowners have no idea this exists in their big back yard,” McKissick said. “It is really tough to appreciate something you can't really see or touch.”

To help the community become more educated about BWA, McKissick said a carefully planned effort continues to bring the public into the area to learn about native grasslands, the importance of open space and wildlife in the region.

In 2017, the BWA started hosting summer camps to educate area youths on the importance of the conservation project. In the first year, McKisskick said about 30 kids attended. This year, more than 1,300 kids participated in the camps where they travel the dirt trails, learn in outdoor classrooms and build forts.

BWA also allows hiking, horseback riding and hunting opportunities. For those just wanting to learn more about the land, BWA offers educational tours.

McKissick said through more community outreach, BWA hopes to raise awareness and encourage residents to continue supporting the conservation efforts.

“If every household donated $20 each year, we would have so much extra to go toward fire mitigation and conservation efforts.” McKissick said.

Because the land must be kept as open space, a lot of work goes into protecting it each year. McKissick said fire mitigation is a top priority as the BWA works closely with the South Metro Fire District to prevent a major wildfire.

On a regular basis, South Metro Fire Rescue trains on the trails of the BWA, making sure firefighters know where each trail is located, giving them an advantage if a call comes in reporting smoke.

“This high level of knowledge helps firefighters get to where they need to go without having them just out here running around in the woods,” McKissick said. “They know the trails, the roads and the spots where they need to be through extensive training.”

Einar Jensen, the risk reduction specialist for South Metro Fire, said the BWA has a great program and has done a great job coordinating with fire crews to protect the important piece of land.

Jensen said South Metro Fire works with BWA staff to create an evacuation plan in case the public is onsite during a fire.

Fire crews also work with BWA to conduct tree and weed mitigation, along with removing trees surrounding power lines, Jensen said.

For further fire mitigation, McKissick said, BWA has an agreement with a local rancher to allow cattle to graze, keeping weeds and grass cut short.

McKissick said the job of protecting wildlife is taken seriously. During tours, extra efforts are made to avoid disturbing animals, especially in the spring when mother elk are having baby calves.

To really gain a sense of what kind of wildlife is in the area, BWA has posted water stations throughout the property. There is no natural running water in the area, McKissick said, making these water stations pivotal for the animals.

Over the years, McKissick said, the water stations have provided valuable information about local wildlife, and on occasion, great social-media entertainment such as a video of a baby bear cub that went viral.

Learn more about the BWA in Highlands Ranch by visiting the website at hrcaonline.org/about-us/who-we-are/backcountry-wilderness-area.

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