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Mapping the Future of Urban Sprawl

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

These days, Theobald lives a few blocks from CSU's main campus in Fort Collins with his wife, physical therapist Pam Barker, and their thirteen-year-old son, Charlie. When he's not teaching or working on research papers — in recent years, he's been one of the most prolific publishers among Natural Resource Ecology Lab researchers — he tries to find time for mountain biking, road biking and figuring out ways to bridge the academic and public-policy aspects of his work.

It's no easy task. Historically, mapmakers have often been aligned with the forces of exploration and development. Until recent times, the only way to protect areas from exploitation was to keep them undiscovered — or at least off the grid. Even though his work is grounded in solid science and an ethic of conservation, Theobald has found his methods and motives under scrutiny from all sides.

When he and research associate Grant Wilcox set out to inventory protected lands across Colorado for the CoMAP project, they encountered surprising resistance from private landowners who'd established conservation easements. The landowners didn't want the public to flock to their property under the mistaken notion that it was now "open space." Having dealt with dozens of public agencies and private entities to assemble the data, Theobald took their concerns to heart. When he displays maps from the project in public forums and classrooms, he's careful to explain that simply because an area is "protected" doesn't mean that it's accessible.

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.

The project began with Great Outdoors Colorado funds after Theobald had been chided by a boardmember because so much of the land-ownership data they were reviewing didn't reflect recent public acquisitions. He began updating the information with a small pilot project in Larimer County in 1999; he and Wilcox released the current map last spring, almost eight years later.

"It's not rocket science," Theobald says. "It's getting the data and getting the people to collaborate."

The good news about the massive inventory Theobald and Wilcox conducted is that more than 40 percent of Colorado's 67 million acres already has some degree of protection. Much of that total, almost 25 million acres, is actually federal land, and most of that is still subject to energy exploration and other forms of development. But in recent years, state lottery money, local agencies and private trusts have managed to save hundreds of thousands of acres from development. The map allows planners "to think more strategically," Theobald says, by bringing more attention to critical areas that still need to be preserved.

Charting the West's haphazard growth patterns — and Colorado's boom in ranchettes, in particular — has persuaded Theobald that some planning strategies make a hell of a lot more sense than others. Growth is inevitable, he suggests, but it can be managed by concentrating development so that its footprint is smaller and there are larger, more intact areas for wildlife habitat and migration instead of dead pockets of open space.

Most of all, though, Theobald would like to see more collaborative planning on a regional level, through intergovernmental agreements. Boulder's much-praised, much-bashed strict growth plan was thwarted because the county couldn't control what was happening in adjoining communities, he notes; all that emphasis on open space simply made the area more desirable for condo-builders across the county line. "They had a local solution to a regional problem," he says. "They were working at the wrong scale."

Unless the state is willing to mandate tighter restrictions on the subdividing of rural land, regional planning may be the only way to curb the spread of exurbia, which brings with it the single greatest engine of sprawl and habitat destruction: new roads. Theobald looks at the commute times in Park and Elbert counties, the much-stressed four-lane highway between Glenwood Springs and Aspen, the craze for mountain homes in wildfire hot zones west of Denver and Fort Collins, and sees a phenomenon that seems impractical, unsustainable and yet unstoppable. Cheap housing, he notes, trumps rising fuel prices every time.

But the true cost of the exurban experiment, he adds, is being subsidized by all of us. City dwellers pay disproportionately for the construction and maintenance of new roads and services in exurbia. Nearly half of the Forest Service's budget is now consumed fighting fires, compared to 13 percent in 1991. And more than half of the new rural housing starts in Colorado are in severe fire zones.

"The vast majority of the wild-urban interface is actually on private land," Theobald says. "The federal government is out protecting private structures."

Translating his concerns about exurbia into action is, of course, one of Theobald's greater frustrations, but you can't fault him for trying. When Ouray County officials were presented with several different proposals that would modify their land-use plan, they turned to Theobald for an analysis of the impact the changes would have. Theobald sat down with locals, assembled a list of possible zoning scenarios and concerns about different "quality of life indicators," and prepared a buildout analysis.

The result showed how doubling the number of housing units allowed per 35-acre parcel would significantly diminish wildlife habitat and agricultural land while increasing miles driven by as much as five times; more clustered housing had fewer impacts. The analysis was done using parcel-by-parcel data, giving landowners a more tangible view of how their lives might be affected by the proposals.

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