An Open Question

Are Boulder's Open Space Department and its director one and the same?

The Bobolink -- named for a small brown and white bird that frequents the area -- is a bucolic trail meandering alongside Boulder Creek. In the marshy water near the trail's head stand tall yellow narcissus or, later in the year, bulrushes with their hard, brown bottle-brush tops. Farther along, there are innumerable wildflowers: bouncing bets nodding in the shade, sunflowers, bright-blue chicory, the occasional silky, pale-gold cactus flower. Clusters of tart gooseberries hang over fences. In a few breathtaking places, the vegetation parts to reveal the blue-gray immensity of the mountains.

This is a much-loved spot, and evidence of human activity is everywhere. At the head of the trail is a wooden structure dispensing dog-poop bags. Pet owners cluster and chat while their mutts leap and play around them. Couples stroll hand in hand; children splash in the water. Periodically, one of the world-class runners training for the Bolder Boulder flies past like a jinni. Anne, the bird lady, who has frequented this trail for a decade or more, sits in her folding canvas chair and focuses her binoculars on the treetops while her placid yellow dog snoozes beside her.

At one point, a bicycle trail that has run parallel to the Bobolink for a mile or two converges on it suddenly, discharging rushing riders onto the narrow path -- much to the disorientation and discomfort of strollers, dog-walkers and the occasional mother leading a toddler by the hand. This ten-foot-wide concrete bicycle trail was built in 1997 over the strong objections of many Bobolink users.

Trail mix: The Bobolink is a popular Boulder stomping ground -- and frequent battlefield.
Victoria Shearer
Trail mix: The Bobolink is a popular Boulder stomping ground -- and frequent battlefield.

At intervals along the path, yellow, green and white signs have been posted. They contain sketches, nature notes and exhortations to passersby to respect and appreciate their surroundings. They serve as a continuing reminder of the City of Boulder Open Space Department, which owns this land, and of its controversial director, Jim Crain.

There are those who say Jim Crain is the most powerful man in Boulder, a man whose anger once caused a city manager to lose his job and who routinely bends the city council to his will.

In 1994, concerned that it was being "loved to death" and citing damage to valuable wetlands and adverse impacts on vegetation and wildlife, Crain's department proposed closing the Bobolink trail. When word of this leaked out, an ad hoc coalition of residents banded together to keep the trail open. Among them was geologist Suzanne Webel, a tall, rangy woman who spends most of her time outdoors.

"Their justification for closing it was that because of the trail, birds were declining along the creek," Webel says. "I asked for a copy of the data. They had divided the South Boulder Creek corridor into three sections: a high-use section, a medium-use section and a section along the creek south of the turnpike, which had no trail. They sent staff out to count birds.

"The bird counts showed no statistical difference in bird populations between high-, medium- and zero-use sections. I pointed that out. They said that the birds counted only reflect 40 percent of all the species of birds that could exist along South Boulder Creek...They had used some Audubon bird count that goes all the way to Sugarloaf and the Boulder County line -- all the birds in that huge area -- and discovered birds along the creek comprised 40 percent of the total. Therefore, they decided, the trail users were driving them away. But you're looking at birds in the mountains and in the semi-arid places that could not be expected to live along South Boulder Creek."

The coalition organized meetings, passed out fliers and petitions, made pleas to the city council and phone calls to then-mayor Leslie Durgin. In the end, the route of the trail was modified, some fencing was installed, paving material was laid down, those warning signs proliferated -- but the trail remained open.

Still, in Boulder the perception was spreading that the open-space department had become unreasonable and fanatical, intent on closing off huge portions of the 29,000 acres it owns to the public that had paid for the land. At the same time, it was refusing to create more trails, rendering existing trails inhospitable, and it seemed to be operating on the principle that any human contact at all was destructive to nature. More users began organizing. The Boulder County Horseman's Association spoke up. And in 1994, Friends Interested in Dogs and Open Space (FIDOS) formed after the department came out with a long-range management plan that said dogs would be banned on all open-space lands except where designated, and even then would have to be on leashes at all times. Intense negotiation ensued, resulting in a dog-management plan that both sides accepted.

"We're working on establishing a trusting relationship with Open Space," says FIDOS president Ed Mills, whose organization has a 1,525-member mailing list. "It's something we have not had up until now."

Citing her perception that more than half of city and county open space is closed to the public, Webel herself created BATCO (Boulder Area Trails Coalition), dedicated both to responsible stewardship and to a system of connected and accessible trails.

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