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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.

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.

"In Boulder," Webel wrote in a letter to the Colorado Daily, "we have a grimly determined environmental lobby which seems to have a private inside track to our public land managers and to our politicians. This group considers all trails bad...As a result, recreationists and environmentalists here are at each others' throats, arguing over who gets what share of the pie. This conflict is incomprehensible to people in other parts of the country, where recreationists and environmentalists are allies in staving off clearly harmful activities such as development and extractive industries."

"We have two million visitors to open space," counters Jim Crain. "We welcome them. They're part of what makes Boulder what it is. We have 78 miles of trails."

The staff and supporters of the city's open-space department characterize its critics as selfish yuppies unwilling to give up their self-indulgent pursuits to save a fragile and threatened environment. They tend to compare the interests of such groups as BATCO, which promotes only non-motorized trails, and FIDOS, which mounts regular trail cleanups, with the depradations caused to public lands around the country by hordes of Winnebago-driving, trash-scattering tourists.

But Crain's hyper-preservationist philosophy is not the only problem critics have with his twenty-year stewardship of the open-space department. In 1997, complaints from several staff members about Crain's management style reached then-city manager Tim Honey. The complaints, along with prior management reports, revealed a hostile, bullying atmosphere.

"I've seen Jim lose his temper," says a onetime member of the department's board of trustees. "It was quite startling. The situation that triggered it shouldn't have. There was yelling, shouting. He was red in the face."

In May 1997, department employees were summoned to a meeting and questioned for two hours regarding who had complained to the city manager. Crain was present, although he did not do the questioning. The atmosphere was so tense that several people dissolved into tears, and one manager went to the bathroom to vomit.

Four days later, Honey placed Crain on paid administrative leave while he investigated staff grievances.

The Boulder City Council responded with equal swiftness. At least four councilmembers demanded explanations for Crain's suspension and threatened to fire Honey if he didn't reinstate the director. By June 3, Honey himself had been forced to resign. Six days later, Crain returned to work.

According to their charter, Boulder City Council members are forbidden to get involved in personnel matters. After a resident complained, Fort Collins city attorney Stephen Roy was brought in to investigate the situation. While he concluded that the councilmembers' behavior was not legally actionable, "I'm a little disappointed because I think [they] overstepped their bounds, even if they didn't violate the charter," he told a reporter. "I hope they learned that there are citizens in Boulder who are paying attention and watching them. I hope they will take their jobs more seriously and realize they are elected officials."

Of the complaints that led to his suspension, Crain now says, "I still don't know what those issues were. I don't think there are any problems. I'm proud of the people that work in Open Space."

Over the years, Open Space has evolved from a small program into a huge department, with a staff of 66 regular and 26 seasonal employees and an annual budget of $17 million. As the department has grown, its focus has shifted from the acquisition of land -- a process, all sides agree, in which Jim Crain is a master -- to the more problematic management of those lands.

City Manager Ron Secrist has proposed merging Crain's department with the much-smaller Mountain Parks Department (which has a staff of twenty, an annual budget of $1.8 million and control of 7,200 acres), part of the Boulder Parks and Recreation system. The merger could take one of two forms, he says: In one, Mountain Parks will be folded into Open Space; in the second, a new organization will be created that subsumes both, and the acquisition of real estate will become a separate function. In either case, a single director would be put in charge of the overall department, and the city would save a half-million dollars a year.

Since the philosophies and cultures of the two existing departments are vastly different, Mountain Parks head Anne Wichmann has already offered to step down. Crain says only, "I work for the city manager, and he makes the decision."

Boulder City Council held a special study session on the merger April 17, where councilmembers listened to dozens of speakers and then, during a straw poll, engaged in a spectacular display of waffling. Since Honey's departure, the council has shown complete indifference to whatever miseries spurred Open Space employees to take their complaints to the city manager, and the topic was studiously avoided in this session. But councilmember Lisa Morzel did refer to it indirectly: "We have the top-notch person in the country in Open Space," she said. "If people don't want to work here, then they can find other jobs."

By the time the waffling was over, the councilmembers had managed to communicate that, of Secrist's two options, they preferred having Mountain Parks folded into Open Space. Several councilmembers expressed profound distress at the idea of anyone other than Jim Crain leading the blended organization but added that they would, of course, defer to the city manager.

Secrist can hardly be unaware of his predecessor's fate. He says he's about to embark on a baseline management audit of both departments and will hire a deputy city manager to oversee all of Boulder's environmental affairs in January. He hopes to make a decision on the merger by spring.

Although many battles in the city's open-space wars seem trivial, Boulder has been shaped and defined by its love of nature and its aggressive acquisition of open space. Citizens have voted to tax themselves over and over again in order to acquire land. And town leaders and many residents readily accept the negative consequences of this hunger to control growth and preserve the environment. For example, Boulder has become an extraordinarily expensive place to live, and its nurses, teachers, bus drivers, reporters and sales clerks generally reside outside the city. Even new University of Colorado professors have trouble finding affordable homes. Traffic problems accumulate as workers stream in and out of town every day. And Boulder is rapidly forfeiting its role as an economic power in the state: Stores are losing business, and the sales-tax revenues that make up most of Boulder's budget are in danger.

Still, as the Front Range begins to look more and more like one continuous city, most Boulderites sigh in relief at their unimpeded views of the mountains and the ring of vibrant green that surrounds their city. And they applaud Crain's most recent triumph: the purchase this year of 1,500 acres in Jefferson County near the Boulder County line, where a huge development had been planned. In a recent poll commissioned by the Open Space Department, residents admitted worrying about what overcrowding could do to Boulder's precious open space.

On a recent morning, a crawdad was stranded at a bend in the Bobolink trail, left there by a torrential rain. He'd pushed his tail into the mud and was standing upright like a tiny boxer, turning this way and that, pincers waving menacingly at anyone who approached. The small, furious creature epitomized the controversy that has swirled around the city's open-space program.

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