Located about seven miles north of Woodland Park, the Manitou Experimental Forest Station was established in 1936 for the US Forest Service to study resource management in ponderosa pine lands. Along with the Fraser Experimental Forest, it is one of two experimental forests in Colorado. The station’s stone administrative complex, constructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) between 1937 and 1939, features excellent craftsmanship and is considered some of the WPA’s finest work in Colorado.
Before the establishment of the experimental forest, the valley then known as Bergen Park was first settled by whites in the 1860s. It was logged extensively over the next four decades, with the timber going to mine props, railroad ties, building lumber, and fuel. By 1900 no large stands of pine suitable for commercial logging were left in the area. The valley was also used for livestock grazing, which reached its peak in the 1880s. Logging, ranching, and farming all declined in the early twentieth century, until by the 1930s only a little ranching remained.
Meanwhile, tourism had attempted to take hold. In 1872 William A. Bell began to buy land in Bergen Park. Soon he had accumulated more than 10,000 acres, changed the name to Manitou Park to attract people from Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, and built a resort hotel. In 1887 Bell’s first hotel burned down and was replaced with a new one, which also burned down in 1899.
In 1905 Colorado Springs founder and Bell associate William Jackson Palmer acquired an interest in Bell’s Manitou Park land, which Bell and Palmer donated the next year to Colorado College for a forestry school. The college immediately built yet another hotel at the site, but it proved unsuccessful and ultimately burned down in 1925.
In 1912 Colorado College sold 3,200 acres of its forest property. This parcel was foreclosed in 1932 and acquired by the Resettlement Administration (later part of the Farm Security Administration), which turned the land over to the US Forest Service. In 1934 Colorado College closed its forestry school and reached an agreement with the Forest Service to manage its remaining forest property as a demonstration forest.
The US Forest Service began its first forest experiment station in 1908. The Forest Service’s research program expanded and grew increasingly organized over the next few decades, with the establishment of the Bureau of Research in 1915 and a system of regional research headquarters after 1928. In 1935 the Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station was established in Fort Collins to oversee Forest Service research in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming east of the Continental Divide.
In 1936 the Forest Service designated its new property of more than 16,500 acres in Manitou Park as the Manitou Experimental Forest. The official establishment report was completed in 1938. In the meantime, the Forest Service drew up plans for an administrative complex with three main buildings and several smaller garages and storage facilities. Over the next two years the WPA constructed the complex using local red sandstone from Missouri Gulch. The main buildings—an office, a six-room residence for the director, and a dormitory-style lodge for workers—combined elements of Tudor, Rustic, and Richardsonian Romanesque styles, with coarse stone exteriors, steeply pitched roofs, and segmental arches in doors and windows. The administrative complex has been maintained well, with few alterations over the years.
Covering about twenty-six square miles of ponderosa pine lands, the experimental forest surrounding the administrative complex spans valleys, plateaus, and mountains in the South Platte River watershed, which supplies water for the cities of the Front Range and the farms of the eastern plains. As a result, much of the station’s research has focused on watershed management, including watershed protection, flood curtailment, and erosion control, as well as tests of range rehabilitation and cattle management. More recently the station has also studied water quality, ponderosa pine regeneration, and owl habitat. Important researchers and directors have included W. M. Johnson, L. D. Love, and P. O. Currie.
Farmers and ranchers visit the experimental forest to learn about irrigation and grazing practices that they can apply on their own property. In addition, the experimental forest has long been a popular site for camping, fishing, and hunting.