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History of Open Lands in Boulder

Over the past 50 years, the Boulder Open Space and Mountain Park system has served as a place of renewal and recreation for a growing number of visitors. It is located in the foothills and mountains to the west of Boulder, in close proximity to the Denver Metro area. Its trails and open space are highly accessible to not just to Boulder residents but to all of the Colorado Front Range.

The original vision of the Boulder Open Space movement was to preserve and protect the beautiful mountain backdrop immediately to the west of the city.   In 1959, two CU professors, Al Bartlett and Bob McKelvey, formed the Blue Line Committee, to determine and set a “blue line” elevation above which the city of Boulder could not provide water service and thereby prevent impending commercial development.

A blue line amendment to the City Charter was approved by voters in the summer of 1959. It was viewed as a temporary measure until the lands could be purchased by the City and permanently protected from development. The Blue Line committee evolved into the People’s League for Action Now - Boulder (Plan-Boulder) which began promoting the purchase of open space lands.

In 1962, citizens voted to pass a bond issue to purchase Enchanted Mesa, which was finally consummated in 1964 after court battles. Enchanted Mesa serves as the gateway linking Chautauqua and the Flatiron mountains. The City could not afford to purchase Table Mesa to the south, but managed to permanently preserve most of the land by selling it to NCAR with development restraints.

The blue line amendment and the purchase of enchanted mesa set the stage for the Boulder Open Space Program. Another key element was the purchase of Settler’s Park which served as a linchpin of several Open Space properties. The City could not afford to purchase it outright when the time came, but conservationist Oakleigh Thorne purchased it with his own money and saved it until the City could afford to purchase it.

The most notable expansion of Open Space lands came when Jim Crain was appointed as Open Space Director in 1979. Crain increased the amount of open space lands from 9,200 acres to 34,100 during his 23 year tenure. The expansion of open space lands and trails was more than matched, however, by the growing number of hikers and recreational users.

One of the biggest challenges of the next 50 years will be balancing this accessibility with overuse. The explosive growth of the Colorado Front Range in recent years has made this a daunting challenge. Ruth Wright, one of the driving forces behind the Boulder Open Space program notes that Rocky Mountain National Park has more than 6 times the land mass of OSMP and far fewer visitors. OSMP is comprised of 45,000 acres of open space land and 155 miles of trails and has more than 6 million visitors per year. In comparison, Rocky Mountain National Park has 265,000 acres and 4 million visitors per year. . Those figures underscore the magnitude of the challenge.

In 1967, Boulder became the first city in the nation to tax itself to buy and maintain open space when it passed a city sales tax for that purpose. Since then the sales tax has been increased from four-tenth of a penny to twice that amount, but much of it expires in 2018 and 2019. Current funding is no longer sufficient to manage and maintain the Open Space lands. To address this issue, Preserving the Vision intends to help the Open Space Coalition introduce and pass an additional sales tax in 2019.

A related problem is the diversion of Open Space funds into the City of Boulder General Account.   Funds specifically raised and intended for Open Space are being diverted the City’s General Account for purposes unrelated to open space issues. Jim Crain, ex-Director of Boulder Open Space, was instrumental in bringing this money manipulation and misuse of the City of Boulder into public awareness before his untimely death in December 2018.

He noted that because the money is diverted into a General City Account, there is no way to track the use of the funds. Not only is it a misuse of taxpayer monies, but there is no accountability, no way to determine how the funds are spent. Preserving the Vision intends to take the institututioinal knowledge of  Jim Crain's, and work on measures which prevent future diversion of Open Space funds into the General Fund and incorporate this measure into the City Charter to make it a permanent policy.

Beyond the funding issues, the Boulder Open Space program is challenged to manage recreational use of the trails in a balanced way. Some sections of the park require dog leashes and other sections do not. Enforcement of dog leash laws is slack to non-existent. Leash laws need to be reviewed and clarified. Another pressing issue that needs to be addressed is the use of e-bikes on Open Space trails.

Limiting access to the Open Space trails is difficult because of the porous nature of the boundaries. Parking fees are largely ineffective because the open space lands can be entered directly from Boulder streets and the NCAR parking lot. Establishing equitable fees is also a challenge. Boulder residents support Open Space trails through the city sales tax and visitors from other areas of the Front Range do not.

An unsuccessful attempt is being made to charge parking fees only to cars registered outside of Boulder County, but this is proving difficult to enforce.

There needs to be a new referendum for Open Space Taxes or some type of fee structure that would alleviate some of the long term issues related to the cash flow inequities on the OSMP system.