Colorado lawmakers inclined to legalize hiking the Manitou incline

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While the clock ticks away on last-minute negotiations to avoid plunging the nation's economy over the dreaded fiscal cliff, the U.S. Senate did take steps late last night to provide a path up the side of a mountain -- and in the process transform thousands of Colorado scofflaws into legal hikers. All it took was some long-overdue action on a bill to clear the legal muddle surrounding the wildly popular Manitou Incline trail west of Colorado Springs.

Formerly the roadbed of a cable car line that took tourists 8,600 feet up the eastern flank of Rocky Mountain, a peak below Pikes Peak, the Incline became a destination of its own after the tramway was shut down in 1990. The railroad ties left behind to prevent erosion became a "stairway to hell" for enthusiasts who enjoyed climbing (or running) a mile-long ascent that reaches grades as steep as 68 percent.

But the area has complicated ownership; the City of Colorado Springs owns part of the property, the U.S. Forest Service owns another segment, and the rest belongs to the Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway Company, which has been more than a little exercised by the workout fiends clogging the company's parking lots in fair or foul weather. Despite various efforts to discourage use of the Incline, it draws an estimated 70,000 trespassers a year.

Colorado Springs and the railway have been hammering out a deal to open up the Incline for sanctioned recreational use for the past several years. The missing piece has been congressional authorization for the Forest Service to take over a stretch of the Manitou and Pikes Peak right-of-way, as required by an 1875 federal law covering such arrangements. Last July Colorado Representative Doug Lamborn pushed through a bill in the House of Representatives okaying the transfer; the Senate version, carried by Michael Bennett, just made it through the 2012 session last night. Now all that's left is a signature from the President to remove the last remaining legal cloud over access to the trail.

"This bill preserves the trail for generations to come," Bennett declared in a statement. "Now hikers can take advantage of this unique trail in a safe manner and no longer be considered trespassers."

The rest of the country may be headed for a fiscal cliff. But Colorado just keeps finding newly legal ways to get high.

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