On 50th anniversary, founders of Boulder’s open space program look to the future

A 1978 view of Davidson Mesa as one comes over the hill into Boulder Valley on U.S. 36. Thanks to the creation of Boulder’s Open Space, not much has changed since then.
Courtesy of City of Boulder's Open Space and Mountain Parks

On Oct. 12, 1967, City of Boulder voters made history. In approving an “open space sales tax,” Boulder became the first U.S. municipality to apply a tax specifically for the purchasing and preservation of open space. Now, 50 years later, the advocates that played vital roles in open space development look at the 45,000-acre greenbelt around the city and stress the importance of maintaining their work in the years to come.

“It’s been the most popular program we’ve ever had,” says Ruth Wright, one of the few still around to tell tales of the initial open space campaign. She remembers collaborating with the other founders — neighborly, visionary citizens who recognized the need for a greenbelt — to preserve the ecosystems in these natural areas and control urban sprawl.

“But what happens in the next 50 years?” she now wonders. “It depends on you to be vigilant.”

Development of the greenbelt and the Open Space and Mountain Parks department started through the People’s League for Action Now (PLAN), an environmental group intent on preserving Boulder’s picturesque scenery. In the early ’60s, when landowners wanted to develop Enchanted Mesa into a hotel, activists looked to the community for enough donations to meet the purchase price. This gave Boulder one of its first pieces of protected land.

By 1967, PLAN had garnered even more support, and citizens passed the sales tax allocating money for land acquisition. Hence the City’s open space program was born.

Oakleigh Thorne, another founder of the program, made a significant contribution to the sales tax campaign through his re-publishing of the Olmsted Report. Written around 1920 by Fredrick Olmsted Jr., the document advocated for a greenbelt around Boulder and provided a basis for the creation of the Open Space program.

“We should point out that this man thought of this back in 1920,” Thorne says. But it still took decades for the City to implement Olmsted’s suggestions.

“It’s important to be active and do something,” he says. “You can do all the reports, but you need to do something about it.”

Ever since, the tax has allowed the City to continue adding new pieces of land to the greenbelt. By 1973, advocates pushed for a separate department (Open Space and Mountain Parks) focused on purchasing and maintaining natural land, and voters have passed extensions on the tax periodically throughout the decades, most recently in 2013. With these funds, the City has acquired more than 400 properties, totaling the 45,000 acres it manages today. Currently, the greenbelt hosts both recreational and agricultural areas with regulations prioritizing the health of the ecosystems.

Hal Malde/1967

While the open space program thrives from the continued support of Boulder residents, it suffers challenges from population growth in and around the city. As more and more people use open space, the demand for new recreational opportunities grows.

“Things were going on pretty well, but more pressure started five years ago in the recreational community,” Wright says. “It’s been more intense recreation, and if it does damage to our precious lands… that’s the major threat that I see.”

Recent data shows that Boulder’s population grows by 10 new residents each day. As for open space, a decade-old visitation survey estimates 5.3 million people visit the 150 miles of trails each year, with the demand almost certainly increasing annually.

This makes managing visitors tricky. Where recreational areas like Chautauqua allow for many visitors, habitat conservation areas allow very little to no recreational use and require the most amount of preservation.

“We’ve had people doing what they wanted on open space for 20 years,” Wright says. “Now we’re starting to restrict it because of population pressure and now there’s friction.”

Allyn Feinberg, the current president of PLAN, says demands by the community to put more trails in these habitat conservation areas have risen.

“I can see a lot of push to put a lot of trails and access in those areas,” Feinberg says. “To some extent you have to respond to the public, and to do that may change a lot of management plans that the open space department has.”

But the anniversary serves as a way to bring the community together, despite the current management challenges, she says. It’s a “launching pad for people to start thinking about the next 50 years.”

Phillip Yates, spokesman for City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, says the future of open space depends on interpreting the plans laid out by the founders as well as incorporating current community input.

“We’re working to develop a community engagement plan,” Yates says. “We want to hear their stories so they can shape the master plan.”

The next step in developing a new plan will be shifting focus from acquiring land to land stewardship. According to Yates, maintaining the founders’ work is vital in continuing their legacy.

Wright, Thorne and others worked to establish open space with the motto: “Greenbelts are for children and their children and their children.”

It’s an idea that remains the primary goal as the open space program celebrates its 50th year.


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