Mapping the Future of Urban Sprawl

Dave Theobald fights sprawl by charting it, one ranchette at a time.

Geographers, planning experts, biologists and others at universities across the country are now seeking to map the future of the West while debating the best ways to protect its natural treasures from ruin. More than most of them, perhaps, Theobald has brought his views and research to the public sphere, trying to engage bureaucrats, conservation groups and development interests in the discussion. He's worked with the U.S. Forest Service, the EPA and other federal agencies, prepared an analysis of growth scenarios for Ouray County leaders, and taken his concerns about biodiversity to public forums around the state.

"He takes a lot of grief," says University of Colorado geography professor Bill Travis, who served as advisor on Theobald's doctorate and has worked with him on several projects since. "The academic life is a lot more comfortable. If you engage, you will run into the tensions society feels over development. If you're the messenger — and Dave often is — you will be the focus of that ire and concern. But being driven by the results is an important part of what it means to be an academic. The difference with Dave is, he's still willing to go to the land-use meetings and present the results."

Rick Knight, a professor of wildlife conservation at CSU who's known Theobald since his graduate-student days and has taught courses with him, describes him as one of several dynamic young instructors in the university's Warner College of Natural Resources who are "meta-disciplinarians" — that is, they bring a range of experiences and interests to their work and can't be pigeonholed as simply geographers or biologists. But Theobald's willingness to bring his skills to land-use debates truly sets him apart, Knight says, both in and outside of the classroom. "He comes across as highly relevant, someone who knows from firsthand experience whereof he speaks," he explains. "Higher education doesn't reward that kind of behavior, but he genuinely wants to walk the talk. He wants to see if his research has a sense of legitimacy when it's presented to the public."

Dave Theobald has seen Colorado's future — and it's not pretty.
Anthony Camera
Dave Theobald has seen Colorado's future — and it's not pretty.
Theobald oversaw the creation of CoMAP, which charts protected areas across the state, including parks, private conservation efforts and federal lands.
Theobald oversaw the creation of CoMAP, which charts protected areas across the state, including parks, private conservation efforts and federal lands.

Knight regards Theobald as one of a select pantheon of Colorado scholars, such as CU's Patricia Limerick and Charles Wilkinson, whose work can influence public policy. "I wish we had more people like him," he says. "I have told people that I think Dave is the single most important lever in conservation that works today in Colorado. He's easily in the top five in having an impact on sustainable land uses."

Most scientific disciplines are "value-laden," Theobald says, and being passionate about the changes facing the landscape is deeply connected to his work. "I believe that biodiversity is very important, and that I have to provide a voice for resources and creatures that are threatened," he says. "But I have a responsibility to do that work in a careful manner.

"It's very important to do the work properly. But it's also important to engage the stakeholders — the landowners, the planners, the developers, the Sierra Club, the citizens. That's where science has done a pitifully poor job. We need to come up with collaborative solutions. Science is there to provide options. Where values are involved, science is just part of the process."


Growing up in Greenwood Village in the 1970s, Dave Theobald never had a strong sense of being connected to the land around him. But one of his most vivid memories is of walking to school through open fields. He walked a mile and a half each way, every day, from second grade through his senior year at Cherry Creek High School. When he was small, the fields were full of the song of meadowlarks in the spring. By the end of his junior year, the birds were gone; new subdivisions had arrived, and his neighborhood was no longer on the fringe of something wild.

"If I hadn't been doing the same thing for ten years, I probably wouldn't have noticed that change," he says. "We're not very good at gradual change. We're wired to respond to immediate problems."

The son of a systems analyst who worked at Gates Rubber Company, Theobald often felt bored living in the suburbs — what he now calls "a highly modified human landscape," without the simple charms of the country or the high culture of a more urbanized area. A big event when he was thirteen was the opening of a 7-Eleven within a mile of his house. Most Americans, he says, live in that same kind of no-man's land, cut off from the natural world that surrounds them.

Yet he was interested in the visual arts and in how natural systems worked — seasons, the stars, how mountains were formed and other mysteries. In high school he filled out an aptitude test. The results suggested he should be a cartographer. At the University of Colorado, he started out studying environmental design, but the test was right: He took some geography classes and soon switched his major.

The concept of computer-based geographic information systems was just starting to infiltrate the university when Theobald arrived at CU. He signed up for a GIS class and was soon doing programming tasks for the professor. The new technology appealed to him instantly. "It's like a telescope or a microscope or a genetic sequencer for DNA research," Theobald says. "It enables you to think about big, broad landscapes in new ways."

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