#BARKBACK: Dog fight heats up as park activists plan protest of Elk Meadow closure

The bark’s not going out of Colorado’s largest dog park without a fight.

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo
A dog at Elk Meadow dog park. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

A dog at Elk Meadow dog park. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

The bark’s not going out of Colorado’s largest dog park without a fight. Local dog-lovers plan to walk through Elk Meadow with their hounds this Saturday, April 1, in protest of the looming closure of 107 acres where dogs currently can run free.

Their hashtag of choice: #BarkBack. So far, about 30 people say they’ll gather at RTD’s Bergen Park park-and-ride lot at 2 p.m. and march their dogs through Elk Meadow. (Here’s the event page.)

If you haven’t been keeping up on local canine politics:

Jefferson County announced in January that it was considering changing or closing the Elk Meadow off-leash area near Evergreen.

The reason, according to the county, was that the impact of thousands of visitors was eroding the steep, wooded hillsides of the park and killing off native vegetation. Also, they said, dog droppings were contaminating a stream that runs through the middle of the park, while traffic and roadside parking was causing problems on Stagecoach Boulevard.

During a series of community meetings, Jefferson County Open Space announced that it would close most of the site but leave a small area open. Last Friday, the government said it would instead close the entire site for rehabilitation. County crews already had erected posts that could be used for the temporary, smaller site.

A dog at the Elk Meadow dog park. (Jeffco Open Space)

A dog at the Elk Meadow dog park. (Jeffco Open Space)

The “biggest change” came from “the dialogue that was going on at the Board of County Commissioners meeting, of both advocates for and against the dog park,” said Matt Robbins, a spokesman for Jefferson County Open Space.

Landowners near the park also have pushed to close it down, with some bringing infants to the commissioners meeting to make a point about water quality, according to Bert Rankin, who wants to keep it open. There’s no indication any well or drinking water source has been contaminated.

Still, county staff decided on the complete closure because they were unable to “really believe that we could find a consensus, that this smaller fenced-in area was going to be suitable. People had not seemed to embrace that,” Robbins said.

The way all this has played out has majorly rankled some of the people who use the park most.

“This has been a ratcheting-down effect, the proverbial boiling of a frog,” said Rankin, describing himself as an investigator and agitator for Friends of Elk Meadow Dog Park, a group with about 200 members.

A dog at the Elk Meadow dog park. (Jeffco Open Space)

A dog at the Elk Meadow dog park. (Jeffco Open Space)

The E. coli problem:

Rankin argues that the park’s problems are the result of mismanagement. He said the county never tried to control the purported poop problem, issuing no citations for owners’ bad behavior.

Robbins acknowledged that he was unaware of anyone being cited for leaving dog waste, but said a parks ranger monitors the larger Elk Meadow area.

Meanwhile, park lovers note that they have cleaned up hundreds of pounds of dog waste from the park and that E. coli levels at the park dropped significantly following a volunteer clean-up effort last summer.

Jefferson County E. coli testing results.

Jefferson County E. coli testing results.

That improvement could be related to dropping temperatures, as warmer conditions make bacteria grow faster. Still, Robbins acknowledged that the cleanup may have had a positive effect.

For his part, Rankin questions why the county didn’t make a bigger deal about the excessive E. coli levels when they were first discovered, rather than months later. Robbins said that the county reported the results immediately to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment but was unsure whether any public announcement was made.

However, that leaves the other stated issues of vegetation loss and erosion. “We’re talking about pretty shallow soil base on top of a granite bedrock,” he said. “It’s really taken a toll on the land.”

The rehabilitation of the land could take several years and more than $300,000, he said.

A dog at the Elk Meadow dog park. (Jeffco Open Space)

A dog at the Elk Meadow dog park. (Jeffco Open Space)

Moving goalposts?

Friends of Evergreen Dog Park had proposed its own management plan to keep the park open, including fees and classes and DNA tracking of dog feces.

The group also put hundreds of hours into forming a nonprofit. Rankin says they did all this at the request of the county, so that they could take over some degree of management of the park.

Robbins said that this idea of had only been discussed, and not promised. “We talked to them about some of their vision and their view — at that time, it was all pretty high level — but I know from further conversations with that group that they interpreted that as much stronger,” he said.

Any such agreement would have had to go through multiple levels of vetting and agreement by county commissioners, he said, adding that the county currently has no model to charge for admission to parks or hand off enforcement duties to non-employees, he said. “I personally wish that I could have conveyed to them a little bit more the process that it takes.”

The county is investigating other sites for a dog park, as is Friends of Evergreen Dog Park. “We have everything in place to manage a dog park, but somebody has to donate land,” Rankin said.

So, all said and done, there remains little hope that Elk Meadow will reopen to dogs. The county says it simply isn’t the right site for an off-leash area. Rankin suggests that it could have been fixed and was derailed by pressure from nearby property owners.

Either way, it was doomed, in a way, by its own popularity — and I suspect the crowds will head to the Cherry Creek dog park instead.