Pat Billig, Frances Hartogh, Sean Kendall and Larry MacDonnell: Getting the facts right on open space

As former chairs of the Open Space Board of Trustees, we have been privileged to spend five years learning from our dedicated open space staff — biologists, ecologists, rangers, trail builders, and many others — about the intricate natural world that Boulder‘s founders chose to protect, and the ongoing difficult and complex task of balancing the needs of nature with human needs and interests. Thus, it was with disappointment that we read voicing their vision of the future of our city‘s open space. Especially in the current political climate, it‘s important to understand the facts behind open space management, and to keep facts differentiated from opinions.

Open Boulder states that “responsible recreationists” did not “fare well” on the West Trail Study Area, our most popular open space in and near the Flatirons, because open space trustees and council members “viewed conservation and many forms of recreation as fundamentally incompatible.” In fact, the major outcry leading to that decision was against mountain biking, not recreation in general. It came from hikers, hikers with children, and hikers with dogs, many of whom lived near the West Trail Study Area, remembered the experience of “sharing” those trails with mountain bikers, and no longer enjoyed the southern trails used by bikers.

Mountain bikers currently can ride — more than one-third — of city of Boulder open space trail miles, and 100 miles of Boulder County Open Space trails. In the 2016 resident survey conducted for the city, 96 percent of respondents said they enjoyed hiking/walking on city open space, while 35 percent reported that they biked on city open space (compared to 60 percent “observing nature or wildlife” and 44 percent “running”). (OSMP website, 2016 Resident Survey Report).

Open Boulder would have us hurry and construct trails on newly acquired open space, rather than “continue to manage them as ‘closed‘ open space.” Actually, newly acquired properties need at least one full year — four full seasons — to be inventoried before opening to the public; otherwise, trail construction and other uses could damage delicate plants, wildlife, geological formations, and historic artifacts. And, on occasion, properties that are being actively farmed or ranched, or for which there is no viable location for access or other necessary services, may remain closed until access can be acquired — this is simply informed land management.

Did you know that our native grasslands, such as Xeric Tallgrass Prairie, have deep root systems and can absorb large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, actually helping to slow global warming? Open space biologists tell us that, in their experience, trail construction always introduces invasive plant species, which, with their shallow root systems and fast growth cycles, quickly take over and replace native species. Additionally, construction of trails through, rather than around, high-value habitat areas, causes wildlife to relocate to areas that may not be optimum for their survival. Hence it is critically important to locate trails in areas where less damage to resources will occur.

“Sustainability” is a much-used term of late, and Open Boulder is one of many groups expressing support for achieving sustainability. Hence, it is important to keep in mind that the definition of sustainability is

Open Boulder expresses dissatisfaction with opposition to a new trail that was ultimately approved in the North Trail Study Area. The trail corridor passes through a Habitat Conservation Area, the designation for places to be given the highest level of protection on open space. Opposition reflected legitimate concerns about the potential adverse effects of a major trail passing through such a sensitive area. Conservation and environmental groups opposing the trail alignment included the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Boulder County Nature Association, and Boulder‘s Native Plant Society. The ultimate approval of the trail reflects the importance the community places on recreation and the difficult challenges involved in balancing different interests.

Our time on the Open Space Board of Trustees convinced us that our open space lands are a community treasure, that the open space staff does an outstanding job of managing these special lands, that effective management has and will continue to have challenges finding the appropriate balance between our desires to recreate on them and their role in providing healthy habitat for nature, and that dialogue, not opposition, is the best way to determine that balance.