A problem any city would love to have

Boulderites have poured money into protecting open space — now they want to use it

  • Hiking below the Flatirons in Chautauqua Park. A new Visitor Master Plan aims to curb overuse of open space in Boulder County.

    Cliff Grassmick

BOULDER, Colorado — On a sunny Friday afternoon, the parking lot at one of this city’s open-space parks is filled with mountain bikers, bird-watchers, and rock climbers. Whatever their chosen pursuits, Boulderites enjoy their easy access to the city’s "emerald necklace": Over 43,000 acres of plains and mountains, most of them no more than a 15-minute drive from the prosperous downtown.

Since 1967, Boulder’s 94,000 citizens have voted to tax themselves to buy properties ranging from working ranches to world-famous climbing spots. On Nov. 2, voters in Boulder County approved another tax, which will bring in about $84 million for open-space protection. Statewide, Coloradans approved a quarter of a billion dollars in new sales and property taxes for open space, and Westwide, voters ushered in $431.5 million to buy land and conservation easements.

But purchasing land is just the first step. It takes additional money to manage that land, and to develop and maintain trails. Trickier still is getting people to agree on how to balance using the land with preserving it.

According to Dave Kuntz, project manager for the Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks Department, Boulder County originally bought open land to stop sprawl. "I don’t know if anyone foresaw just how much the demand for recreation would increase," he says. "Now we’re seeing the joys and dilemmas of that."

In Boulder’s open space — visited by about 3.5 million people each year — user-created trails abound and parking is jammed. And conflicts between different types of users are getting more frequent and more severe. "The plight of public lands is reflected in microcosm here," says Kuntz. "We save them from mining and logging and grazing, then end up fighting over what we ought to be doing with them."

It’s not easy being green

Boulder’s commitment to protecting open space has had a variety of unintended consequences. By limiting the amount of land that can be used for housing, and safeguarding access to the outdoors, the county has only pushed property values upward. Many of Boulder’s workers can’t afford to live in town, and now commute to Boulder from a growing ring of Denver suburbs such as Arvada, and the nearby towns of Niwot, Longmont and Louisville (HCN, 9/5/94).

Now, Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Department is trying to do something about the problem of overuse. It began developing a long-term plan in 1999, and this April, it released its draft Visitor Master Plan, created by 12 representatives of community groups, from equestrians to trail runners to naturalists.

Historically, environmentalists and recreationists have worked together to defeat development on public lands. But here, where the threat is overuse rather than oil drilling or mining, former allies found themselves facing off over the plan, says Eric Vogelsberg, president of the Boulder Area Trails Coalition and a representative on the forum: "Everybody was an environmentalist already, but the more recreation-oriented people were in the strange position of fighting with the more extreme environmental people, who see any human impact as undesirable."

In the end, both sides made sacrifices in their recommendations: Recreationists agreed that certain sensitive lands should not ever have trails, and environmentalists conceded that people should be able to travel off-trail on those lands without having to obtain permits.

The plan calls for categorizing open-space lands as either resource/recreation, natural, agricultural or habitat conservation. Each category would allow a different mix of nonmotorized activities, such as mountain biking and hiking. The plan also aims to reduce user-created trails by 60 percent, add miles of new trails and linkages, and improve visitor safety. All this will require money, of course — an estimated $9 million over the next six years alone. To raise that money, the plan suggests measures from charging a fee for nonresidents to using lottery dollars.

But the controversy over the future of Boulder’s open lands is far from over. According to Kuntz, in September the Open Space Board of Trustees accepted 90 percent of the forum’s recommendations. But it rejected two critical provisions, choosing instead to allow off-trail access in sensitive areas and forbidding activities only if it can be proved that those activities hurt wildlife or ecosystems. "And some forum members feel that those two provisions were 80 percent of the significance (of the plan)," he said. The Open Space Board of Trustees and Boulder City Council will meet in December to further study those two issues. The final plan is slated for release in late January.

The author writes from Fort Collins, Colorado.

The plan can be viewed at www3.ci.boulder.co.us/openspace/plan.htm.

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