By Published: Nov. 6, 2023

The stoke is high in Cañon City, Colorado, which has developed 62 miles of new, purpose-built hiking and mountain biking trails within the last decade. Residents hit the trails during lunch, after work and on weekends, and travelers visit the area for outdoor recreation-themed vacations.

Moutnain Bike on a trail in Canon CityAs Rick Harrmann, the city’s economic development manager, said: “We love the trails, and we know visitors do too.”

But actually quantifying their value to the community — and showing city council a return on their investment — is a much harder task.

Fortunately, three CU Boulder graduate students in the university’s Master’s of the Environment (MENV) program are up to the challenge. Nathan Boyer-Rechlin (MEnv’24), Joshua Corning (MEnv’24) and Eric Howard (MEnv’24) are partnering with Cañon City trail advocacy nonprofit Fremont Adventure Recreation to help determine the socioeconomic impact of trails in Cañon City. 

Since building new trails requires time, money and labor, the nonprofit — and the city more broadly — will use the students’ findings to help inform future decisions.

“A socioeconomic impact report hasn’t been done in this area — especially in regards to the value of recreation amenities,” said Ashlee Sack, Fremont Adventure Recreation’s coordinator. “In the wake of COVID-19 and the nationwide emphasis on work-life balance, as well as in the interest of attracting and retaining residents in our rural community, we’d like to be able to address trends, issues and opportunities in this arena.”

The three students are undertaking the ambitious project as their master’s capstone, an applied professional project that takes the place of a traditional master’s thesis. As MENV students prepare to pursue a wide variety of careers related to the environment, the capstone gives them hands-on experience with real partners and problems. 

Even if they don’t end up working in an area that’s specifically related to their capstone, the project gives them experience with everything from financial planning to community engagement.

Throughout their work, the students have found a common lesson. 

“There is so much pivoting,” said Boyer-Rechlin, a 31-year-old who came to the program after working in conservation ecology. “It’s constant learning and adapting as we encounter new challenges. It’s messy, and you have to be ready to adjust.”

FAR in Canon CityMeanwhile, organizations that partner with CU Boulder’s capstone projects get the benefit of working with highly motivated students who, acting as external consultants, can provide innovative solutions to their challenges. 

“Harnessing the experience and education of the master’s students is a natural fit for our community as we navigate this first round of data collection and analysis,” said Sack. 

Each year, MENV students undertake roughly 30 capstone projects in partnership with Colorado-based nonprofits, government agencies and companies. This year, for example, some students are working with the footwear company Crocs while others are working with Growing Gardens, a nonprofit focused on local food systems. 

This diversity of projects is also reflected in the MENV students’ career aspirations. Some will pursue roles in renewable energy, while others may specialize in urban resilience. No matter what field they choose to enter, they’re poised to make a difference in Colorado and beyond.

“The breadth of what you can do with a master’s in the environment these days is as broad as the environmental problems that we’re facing,” said Boyer-Rechlin.