If you think it’s bad now, the worst is still to come. In a news report two weeks ago, the Colorado state demographer stated again that 2.4 million more people will move to Colorado by 2050, the vast majority of them to metro Denver and the Front Range. Around 100,000 people have been moving to Colorado every year since the end of the recession in 2009, and that pace is expected to remain the same over the next decades.
This explosion of new population has already caused a backlash of “growth control” measures on local ballots, including one passed by the City of Lakewood voters in July. Others may be forthcoming, including a potential eight-county Front Range measure on the November 2019 ballot. Our roads and highways are already parking lots, the air is sometimes unbreathable and unhealthy, and our open space and trails are already packed to the gills. Just this week, another news report said Colorado’s “natural landscapes are being devoured by development.”
These extreme negative impacts are causing voters to completely lose faith in elected officials and governments. This backlash is almost certain to gain strength as people take their frustration directly to the ballot box with citizen initiatives.
While trying to control population growth is one way to protect the natural world and our sense of place – including the air, water, and landscapes surrounding us – another way is to build a wall. Not a wall of cement, steel or barbed wire, but a wall of nature.
Several cities along the Front Range have already done this, with Boulder and Fort Collins leading the pack by passing open space taxes that have bought tens of thousands of acres of land over the last few decades. These taxes were passed by initiatives put on the ballot by local citizens who were trying to permanently protect land from development as well as create natural areas for people to enjoy and wildlife to live. Open space lands also create “community separators” to allow communities to keep some sense of place amidst the increasing mass of sprawl.
Counties in Colorado, including Boulder, Larimer, Jefferson, and Adams, are also front-runners in buying and protecting land with dedicated open space taxes. Great Outdoors Colorado does a decent job, using lottery funds to buy land statewide. There’s also a broad coalition of private “land trusts” that buy land outright and/or help landowners secure “conservation easements” that protect land from future development. We’re also lucky to have so much public land in Colorado owned by the federal and state governments, some of which is strongly protected from development.
But all of that is not enough. The increasing influx of people will swamp it all. Absolutely everything that is not permanently, legally protected will become developed in the coming decades.
To address this coming environmental destruction, we need to enact four measures as soon as possible:
First, we need to accelerate the land conservation effort in Colorado with even more local, regional and statewide taxes to buy and protect land. Wherever you live, if you’re thinking about putting an initiative on the ballot, do everything you can to get it done as soon as possible. It’s so bad that even citizens in the right-leaning City of Greeley are considering an open space tax, and I hope they get it done.
Second, we need to worry much less – and spend much less money – on how these protected lands are managed, and instead spend the money to just buy more land. For example, both Boulder and Fort Collins spend one-third to one-half of their open space tax money on managing the land they already own, rather than buying more land. We’re just simply running out of time and space – let’s buy it all now and worry about managing it later.
Third, we need to expand land protection to include protecting all of the pieces that make a landscape ecologically healthy, including the amount of water in rivers. Stopping new dams and diversions, and legally forcing water to stay in rivers, should be on the list of how we hope to protect the natural world around us. Rivers and streams in Colorado are ribbons of life that are already severely degraded and deeply threatened by growth and development.
Finally, we need to be much more aggressive – using citizen initiatives – to protect the air we breathe across the Front Range. Polluters need to be forced by citizens to stop polluting. These polluters are not limited to fossil fuels and smokestacks, but include high-tech companies emitting a vast array of air- and climate-poisoning toxins and gases.
Growth control measures, like in Lakewood, are extremely controversial and will be bitterly fought, especially at the regional and state level. Alternatively, taxes and ballot initiatives that protect nature and open spaces are less controversial and are generally supported by Colorado taxpayers, both Republican and Democrat.
Colorado is a diverse, inclusive state with a new and much-needed focus on cultural inclusivity that protects the rights of all of its citizens. We now need to also focus on biological inclusivity that protects the landscapes, rivers, air, and non-human species with which we share this beautiful state.
A wall of nature – across our landscapes, on our rivers, and in the air above us – is needed to protect the future health and well-being of all Coloradans and the Colorado we all love.
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