BOULDER -- Boulder County commissioners on Tuesday approved an update of 28-year-old guidelines for managing the Walker Ranch Open Space area.

The plan sets goals and policies for the future uses, protections and preservation of more than 3,600 acres of county-owned open space properties about 7.4 miles west of Boulder on Flagstaff Road.

During a public hearing on the plan, Commissioners Cindy Domenico, Elise Jones and Deb Gardner heard from users of the area's trails systems as well as wildlife preservation activists urging that some sensitive parts of the area be restricted from intensive use.

A cyclist barrels down the trail at Walker Ranch in Boulder County on Tuesday. Biking enthusiasts would like to see easier access to trails at Walker Ranch
A cyclist barrels down the trail at Walker Ranch in Boulder County on Tuesday. Biking enthusiasts would like to see easier access to trails at Walker Ranch that don't involve riding on county roads. (MARK LEFFINGWELL)

Steve Jones, president of the Boulder County Audubon Society, talked of the declining numbers of some bird species in the area and asked the commissioners' to designate a northwest quadrant of the Meyer's Gulch portion of the ranch properties as a no-off-trail hiking area.

Suzanne Webel, president of the Boulder County Horse Association, described the need for more spaces for equestrians to park their horse trailers at Walker Ranch's trailheads -- something the county staff said the updated plan contemplates.

"If we can't park there, we can't ride there," Webel said.

Mike Barrow, one of several Boulder Mountainbike Alliance members to speak at the hearing, said Walker Ranch is "a critical hub for regional trails" and that mountain biking enthusiasts would like to see "more challenging, but sustainable" trails within that open space area itself.

Mountain biking enthusiast Scott Gust said he would like to get to Walker Ranch from his south Boulder home, and from other locations, without having to ride his bike on county roads to get there. He urged commissioners "to do whatever takes" to make more regional off-road trail connections.

The Mountainbike Alliance has called for connecting Eldorado Canyon State Park to Walker Ranch with a multi-use trail and providing off-road access between the city of Boulder and Walker Ranch so that bikers can get there without using Flagstaff Road.

Boulder County, through a partnership with the city of Boulder and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, plan to hire a consultant to explore potential trail alignments to connect to Eldorado Canyon State Park.

As for connecting to possible regional trails west of Walker Ranch, the plan wouldn't put that connection through a part of Meyer's Gulch lying in the northern reaches of the overall area, land that Boulder County Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee members said in May -- and several of Tuesday night's public hearing speakers also argued -- includes important wildlife habitat and wildlife travel corridors.

More likely, it now appears, would be pursuit of a "Central Ranch Connection" to link the Walker Loop Trail west across Tom Davis Gulch and would stay north of Castle Rock before crossing Denver Water property for a short distance before linking to Boulder County Road 681.

Commissioners also supported moving as quickly as possible to provide a route -- off-road, as much as possible -- connecting the city of Boulder to Walker Ranch.

One feature of the new management plan is its proposal to develop a "nature play area" at or near the Meyer's Homestead Trailhead on the open space's east side, an area that already includes a picnic shelter and parking lot. It could be built with such materials as boulders and logs, according to Parks and Open Space Department resource planner Jesse Rounds.

The county's previous management plan for the area dates back to 1985, when the county's ownership amounted to 2,500 acres. Since that time, Boulder County purchases have added more than 1,100 additional acres to its open-space holdings in the Walker Ranch area.

The updated plan would take that additional land acquisition into account while recognizing the importance of studying the protecting the area's native ecosystems.

Rounds has said the new management plan also recognizes the possibility of promoting some recreational activities that haven't been regularly featured in past county plans for the area -- activities such as climbing, some kayaking and fishing.

Rounds said the plan also focuses on improving existing trails and enabling future connection opportunities for regional trails development. The plan includes possible realignments of portions of the 7.6-mile Walker Ranch Loop Trail, "sections of which have begun to erode dangerously," Rounds said.

"The goal of these reroutes is to simultaneously improve the trail tread and maintain the feel and character of the Walker Loop," Rounds said in an earlier memo. "In order to maintain the experience, trails staff will work closely with volunteer and user groups to construct the reroutes and will explore appropriate arenas for parallel segments that can allow for an easy and a hard option."

The plan also would close the area's original Walker Ranch Homestead, including structures that are a central feature of the Walker Ranch National Historic Landmark. Rounds said those structrures "have been painstakingly restored using an exacting set of standards set forth by the (U.S.) Department of Interior."

The Walker Ranch Homestead would continue to be open for county-organized special events and exhibits intended to give a glimpse of what life and ranching in the area was like for "the early European settlers in Boulder County," Rounds said.

Closing the homestead to public access at other times, Rounds said in his memo, is intended to protect those structures and the surrounding landscape outside of those official public events.

The plan also calls for at least seasonal closings of other parts of the overall Walker Ranch area, such as the Castle Rock outcropping on the western edge of the area, where raptors have nested in previous years.

Another section that would be closed to the public would be about 700 acres on the south side of the county open space, an area the county staff has said has become important for wildlife such as bears, raptor nesting and roosting and for riparian vegetation untouched by regular human use.

John Fryar can be reached at 303-684-5211 or jfryar@times-call.com.