Purchased in 1999 for about $6 million and opened for limited hunting in 2002, Lone Mesa State Park has yet to open to the general public, but that is still the intent, officials report.
Park manager Scot Elder said the long process is "pretty typical" for new state parks as they wait their turn for development and go through an extensive planning process.
"The goal is to develop Lone Mesa into a state park accessible to the public for recreational opportunities," Elder said.
Inventories of flora and fauna, roads and trails, waterways, cultural resources, and recreation potential are all being conducted at the 11,760-acre park, located 20 miles north of Dolores.
In the meantime, a special game permit is offered during hunting season for the area. For every six yearly hunting seasons, fifteen or so lucky hunters are granted the permits for hunting game, including for deer, elk, and bear. The draw is from a lottery and includes an additional fee of between $100 and $300. Each year approximately 122 game permits are issued, out of 300-400 applicants per year.
"It is a unique, high-quality hunting experience because there are fewer hunters than in other areas and it's a nice game refuge," Elder said. "We have seen rapid increase in participation and interest."
A park stewardship plan has just been completed, he said, one of the key documents needed before the park can begin the development process. The plan details cultural and natural resources.
"It basically says 'Here is what's cool about the place,'" Elder said.
Recreation will primarily be nonmotorized, but there may be limited motorized use in the lower elevation areas for snowmobiling and/or ATV trails.
State parks are funded primarily by user fees it generates. Operations are also often paid for from Great Outdoors Colorado state lottery funds and the Land Water Conservation Fund, which distributes a portion of revenues collected from the off-shore oil and gas industry.
"We want to provide an experience worth paying for because you cannot sustain a park that is not visited," Elder said. "It is not funded from taxes or the state budget. Depending on fees, it operates more as a business model.
In late 2006, Colorado State Parks received an allocation of planning dollars from GOCO to initiate Lone Mesa's contracted development planning effort. Associated with this process will be a series of open houses and public forums designed to solicit the community vision for the park.
Patt Dorsey, co-manager for the CPW Southwest region, affirmed that "it is still our intent to open Lone Mesa to the public," but funding still needs to be addressed.
"Money has not been set aside yet for the main recreation master plan," Dorsey said.
Lone Mesa is currently a blank slate in terms of visitor services, with no bathrooms, developed trails, designated parking, informational signage or a visitor's center.
"You want to have a certain amount of facilities in place before you open, and you can't afford them all at once so there is a phase in process," Dorsey said. "A land swap enabled us to offer a main access direct from the Norwood road so it will be more convenient than just the access at Salter Y.
Establishing state parks in more rural areas have economic challenges as well, one reason for the longer wait.
"Because we are dependent on user fees, there is a business decision to open parks on the Front Range where there are 4 million people who could be using that park," Dorsey said.
Historically, opening new state parks takes time, but it varies. Staunton State Park, near Evergreen, recently opened to the public, 27 years after the land was donated in 1986. Land for Cheyenne Mountain State Park, near Colorado Springs, was acquired in 2000 and the park opened in 2006.
State parks are popular because they generally provide a safer hiking experience because rangers are present, parking lots are monitored, there are sign-in sheets, more rescue services, and, in general, they add an element of control to the outdoor experience.
Elder says Lone Mesa's pristine ecology and diversity puts it in the "Crown Jewel" category of state parks, and he urges patience because it will be worth the wait once it opens to the general public.
"Besides the unique hunting opportunity, the current conceptual development plan includes trails, picnic areas, wildlife viewing areas, and eventually, possibly cabins or yurts that can be reserved for overnight stays," he said. "Its sheer size, diverse wildlife and biomes make it very special."
At its south end, the park is dominated by open sagebrush shrubland through which Plateau Creek quietly meanders. Along the creek and atop nearby benches, outcroppings of Mancos shale spring up. These "shale barrens" offer unique habitat for a variety of hearty species, including the extremely rare Colorado native Physaria pulvinata, or "cushion bladderpod," and the Astragalus bisulcatus, or "fabacease".
While it will be "pay to play" visitors will likely enjoy a more primitive outdoor experience at Lone Mesa, situated in a remote area away from the often crowded trails and attractions of nearby national forests and national parks.
"I don't think it will ever be developed as much as other state parks will, with paved roads and huge shower houses, but that is OK," Dorsey said. "Colorado wants different recreational opportunities and Lone Mesa will fill a unique niche that has the natural beauty, but offers a few amenities to make the visit more comfortable for families."
In the future, Lone Mesa may have a major water feature added to it as well.
Plateau Creek flows through the area, eventually emptying into McPhee Reservoir. The Dolores Water Conservancy District envisions a 21,000 acre-foot reservoir at the site that would back up into the park. The additional stored water would be used specifically to augment chronically low fish flows on the Dolores River below McPhee dam. It would also provide a recreational benefit for Lone Mesa, although Plateau Creek Reservoir is more of an idea at this point.
"It's a $30 million project, so the question is putting together that type of investment," said DWCD manager Mike Preston. "It would be a nice complement to the state park and we stay in contact with managers about its potential."