Betting on conservation

Great Outdoors Colorado celebrates 20 years

Along the Coal Creek Trail in Boulder County
Photo by John Fielder

Twenty years of wishful thinking by lottery ticket buyers all over the state has made all the rest of us winners when it comes to living in Colorado. For the last two decades, revenue from the Colorado Lottery has been used to build parks and trails, create open space and protect wildlife habitat. This month, Great Outdoors Colorado, which was created in 1992 when Colorado voters directed lottery revenues to go toward those projects — rather than the federal buildings, including prisons, they’d been paying for before then — is celebrating that anniversary.

“Effectively all lottery goes to protecting natural heritage,” says renowned landscape photographer John Fielder, one of the founders and a former member of the governor-appointed board for Great Outdoors Colorado. “It’s had a massive impact on recreation and outdoors in Colorado.”

Between 1994 and 2011, GOCO awarded $715 million for almost 3,500 projects throughout the state. They’ve built or restored nearly 720 miles of trails, protected 837,000 acres of open space and created or enhanced 1,172 parks and outdoor recreation areas, in addition to running the Colorado Youth Corps Association to give young people experience in the outdoors, enhancing wildlife habitat and conducting the state’s first inventory of open space.

Projects in Boulder County alone have received $15.4 million.

When Larimer County hired a crew to spend two weeks removing the invasive Siberian elm trees from River Bluffs Open Space outside Windsor, the $19,450 grant to pay for the Larimer County Conservation Corp, one of the nine youth corps in the state employing and training people ages 14 to 24, came from Great Outdoors Colorado. Most of the $1.82 million purchase of the land that is now the River Bluffs Open Space itself, in fact, came from GOCO.

The Ouray Ice Park, the 24-acre park beloved of ice-climbers around the world, is now solely owned by the City of Ouray after a $193,000 grant from GOCO was awarded to the city.

The list goes on.

“What GOCO really does is it provides recreational and outdoor opportunities for people in any place, whether out in the country or in the middle of the city, and opportunities right out their back door, whether it’s big county open spaces or just swing sets and playgrounds and ball fields, which lottery invests in more than they do ranches and open space,” Fielder says.

But not everything GOCO pays for comes down to a kayak play park or a trail for the public.

“GOCO not only invests in recreation for people, but also in protecting habitat for wildlife, and one of the values of ranches is wildlife habitat. Migratory creatures like elk and deer pretty much live in those ranch meadows in the winter, and we count on that land being open and available for that purpose,” Fielder says. “Lottery invests in wildlife habitat — effectively, biodiversity — and lottery tries to connect private lands with public lands to have a bigger space for wildlife habitat and that works.”

When the initial campaign to create GOCO was being launched by former Gov. Roy Romer and then-Director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources Ken Salazar in 1990, the group that assembled to explore that project and gather public support for it included Fielder. Fielder traveled the state with his photographs, talking to people about the benefits of conserving this land. The measure passed with 58 percent.

As the 20th anniversary approached, Fielder reached out to GOCO and offered to once again travel the state on their behalf, this time to photograph places GOCO has invested in, such as city and county open spaces, wildlife habitat, state parks and wildlife areas, trails, community parks, ball fields, playgrounds and private ranches.

He’s spent the last 18 months traversing the state, driving 35,000 miles across all 64 counties, photographing places that received GOCO grants and putting together two books to celebrate the 20th anniversary. The guidebook, John Fielder’s Guide to Colorado’s Great Outdoors: Lottery-Funded Parks, Trails, Wildlife Areas & Open Spaces, covers over 500 recreation spots in all 64 counties in Colorado, and the photobook, Colorado’s Great Outdoors: Celebrating 20 Years of Lottery-Funded Lands takes viewers across the state to visit these lands, including some of the ranches that received funding for permanent conservation easements on their land.

Because those ranches are privately owned and not publicly accessible, the photos in Fielder’s book are among the first opportunities for the public to see those lands. He describes the scenes as a bucolic blend of wilderness and human flourishes, with snowcapped mountains looming behind ranches that have been held in the same families for years.

Now, Fielder is traveling again, making 20 stops from Pagosa to Greeley between mid-October and mid-December, to show people the photographs he took and to talk about the benefits the Colorado Lottery has brought to Colorado’s great outdoors. Those stops include two events in Longmont, a reception for an exhibit of his photos at the Muse Gallery and a presentation of the photos with the Longmont Symphony Orchestra’s Nov. 10 performance of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

“One of the problems and why I did this project and why I’m on tour right now is because people don’t remember those green signs [that mark GOCO-funded projects] and therefore don’t know the full extent of how lottery has affected their outdoor lives,” Fielder says.

His events partner with local organizations to contribute to their fundraising, and the event with the Longmont Symphony Orchestra will benefit the Council for the Arts, the Nature Conservancy and the Longmont Symphony.

But Fielder contends that the real benefits for investments this big in Colorado outdoors come back in the form of benefits for residents across the state by the way of better jobs and better health.

“It’s pretty clear that people that go outdoors and recreate are healthier physically and mentally than people who do not and that means lower health care costs for Colorado, which in part justifies the investment that we make in Great Outdoors Colorado, but it’s even bigger than that,” says Fielder, who has a degree in accounting but is a self taught naturalist. “These days, when I talk to people, I’d love to think that if I say ‘Hey it’s our moral obligation to protect 4 billion years of the evolution of life on Earth’ and hope that people vote and act in ways that do that, but we all know people, when they go to the polls, they vote for their pocketbook — and me too. So I talk to people about economy and ecology at the same time, and say things like protecting blue sky, clear air, clean water, parks, trails, ranches is ensuring that we have as sustainable ecology and sustainable economy for the long term.”

Nature’s Symphony Exhibition: 7-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9 at Muse Gallery, 356 Main St., Longmont.

Nature’s Symphony with Longmont Symphony Orchestra: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10 at the Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, 600 E. Mt. View Ave., Longmont. 303-772-5796.