Saturday, December 16, 2006

A New Approach to Open Space

Bill Briggs
September 4, 2004

Note: This post was written prior to the creation of this blog and as part of an earlier stage in the ongoing public debate over Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks policies. While somewhat dated, the post still raises important issues which are still relevant.

Reacting to the threat of a high-rise hotel on Enchanted Mesa overlooking Boulder in the early 1960s, a group of visionary citizens launched a campaign that resulted in the most magnificent city park in the world. Forty years later, all of us are the beneficiaries of 40,000-plus acres of spectacular prairies, mesas and mountains that have been set aside for preservation and recreation.

Most of us are grateful on a nearly daily basis for this remarkable legacy. But whether you hike, run, picnic, climb, bike, hang-glide, watch birds, or ride horses in Boulder's Open Space and Mountain Parks, the way you use these lands could change by the end of the year. The OSMP Visitor Master Plan reflects a heroic five-year effort in which the OSMP staff gathered research, conducted surveys, and worked with user groups. The staff deserves our appreciation for producing a document that is now available for public discussion.

The heart of the VMP is a plan for four different types of management areas, each with a different set of rules and allowed uses. The two most highly restricted areas (Habitat Conservation Areas and Natural Areas) would be more restricted to use as current open space; these areas would account for roughly 80 percent of OSMP lands. A third type of area (Recreation) appears to describe the current use of most existing open space and accounts for 9 percent of the land. The remaining 9 percent of the land is designated Agricultural. It takes no reading between the lines to see that the VMP is a testament to limited use and increased regulation.

Over half of the respondents to a recent survey cited recreation as the primary purpose of OSMP lands. But with an estimated 3.5 million visitors per year (more than most national parks), even the most ardent users do not want OSMP to become a free-for-all amusement park. At the same time, nearly half of the respondents to that survey ranked protecting habitat for wildlife as the top management priority for OSMP. But even the most vocal conservationists understand the impracticality of turning OSMP into a museum that visitors view from a distance. With this breadth in public opinion, the VMP cannot satisfy everyone. However, it is imperative that in its final form, the VMP strike a fair balance and accommodate the users who are the real champions of open space and have voted three times to tax themselves for the sake of open space. Here are some suggestions for giving users undiminished access to their land and a larger stake in its preservation:
  1. Implicit in the VMP is a belief that the public cannot be trusted to care for its land and must be regulated by boundaries and restrictions. Local users love the OSMP legacy, they want today's open-space experiences preserved for future residents and visitors, and they can be trusted to exercise stewardship. For example, raptor closures in the Flatirons have had a high level of compliance and show that the public can be trusted. The VMP should limit impact on the land, but not use of the land.
  2. The average cost of OSMP purchases in the last three years has increased from roughly $6,000 per acre to almost $16,000 per acre. In 2004 a 10-acre parcel was purchased for $900,000. Roughly 21 percent of this year's OSMP budget is set aside for land acquisition, while 9 percent is devoted to trail maintenance (another 49 percent goes to debt service on past purchases). The idea of stockpiling land made sense for 40 years, but now land is scarce and expensive. Funds must be shifted from acquisition to maintenance, services, education, and enforcement.
  3. A reasonable concern of OSMP staff is the proliferation of social trails and the increase in off-trail hiking. The best explanation is fairly evident: By one estimate, in the time that open space holdings have doubled, fewer than 10 miles of new trails have been built! Some existing undesignated trails need to be maintained and made official. New trails need to be built to give access to popular areas. Not surprisingly, social trails and off-trail use will decrease as a result.
  4. Any version of the VMP will require additional OSMP staff in the field, and future budgets should support a significant increase in staff. However, these jobs will be difficult with a raft of new unenforceable rules. For example, implementing the various rules of the patchwork management plan in the current VMP is bound to be impossible. Similarly, a proposed permit system will collapse under its own weight and incur unnecessary costs. And user fees should not be introduced: They will be expensive to implement and access to Boulder public lands must not be an economic entitlement.
  5. OSMP has a network of volunteers that must be expanded. Volunteer work gives open space users an additional commitment to the land. OSMP also must be open to innovative projects. Last fall, a running event on Mt. Sanitas, in which participants contributed trail work, seemed like a win-win idea. Yet, the proposal was never enthusiastically endorsed and another such event seems unlikely.

In the 1960s, Boulder launched a visionary campaign to purchase its surrounding lands. Forty years later, it faces an unprecedented challenge in balancing preservation and use of those lands. The VMP is a laudable start to meeting this challenge. However, with its seemingly arbitrary restrictions, the current plan will not be embraced by the owners and users unless it provides open, but sensible, access to the land. Once again Boulder must break trail and find creative solutions. And once again, vision, boldness and trust will be needed.

Bill Briggs teaches at the University of Colorado, Denver.

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