Denver pioneered the idea of buying parkland in the mountains long before Boulder or Jefferson counties launched their vaunted open-space systems. The city owns 14,000 acres, most of it in Jefferson County.
Denver's relationship to its mountain park system is much more complicated than its suburban counterparts, however. Since the parks are outside the city limits, they don't have the political constituency that neighborhood parks enjoy. The mountain parks are often last in line when it comes to maintenance, and some critics wonder if Denver should own any parks at all in the mountains, when urban residents are clamoring for open space.
"I'm worried that we're providing open space for non-Denver residents at the expense of our city parks," says Denver City Council member Kathleen MacKenzie.
Denver's mountain park system was born of a combination of idealism and greed. The then-radical notion of Denver acquiring land in the mountains was first broached in 1901 by the Denver Chamber of Commerce. The proposal was based not on a desire for conservation, but as a means for drawing tourists. While it had previously been difficult to travel into the mountains except by railroad, the introduction of the automobile made the foothills of the Rockies seem close by.
In 1912, a chamber committee wrote that "mountain parks for Denver will be the first step, and perhaps the greatest step in the great movement of making our mountains available to the people. It is Denver's chance to open a gateway into the mountains, and to take the lead in making Colorado more attractive to tourists than Switzerland."
The creation of the mountain parks was also championed by Mayor Robert Speer, who saw it as a key part of his ambition to make Denver a "city beautiful." The idea was that motorists would leave Denver on a lushly landscaped parkway that would guide them to the feet of the mountains; they would then ascend Lookout Mountain and enjoy spectacular views of both Denver and the Continental Divide. "Such a park will yield untold pleasure to the people of Denver," wrote the committee pushing the plan.
When Denverites went to the polls to vote on a proposed mill levy earmarked for mountain parks in 1912, they were greeted by attractive young women dressed in white with blue sashes carrying the appeal "Vote for the Mountain Parks." The tactic must have worked, because the proposal passed easily.
Celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. was hired to design Denver's mountain park system. It was Olmstead who laid out the road up Lookout Mountain west of Golden. That road linked Lookout Mountain -- later the site of the Buffalo Bill grave and museum, another Chamber of Commerce creation -- with Red Rocks, which eventually became the city's most famous park.
Over the next few years, Genesee Park, Echo Lake, Bergen Park and several other parks were added. The system soon boasted more than seventy miles of roads and over twenty forest reserves, all supported by Denver residents through a small property-tax levy. With its own funding source, the park system thrived and Denverites often spent weekends enjoying outings into the mountains. In the 1930s, New Deal agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps put architects to work designing stone buildings for the mountain parks that are now regarded as historic landmarks.
The mill levy expired in the 1950s, and since then the mountain parks have struggled for support. While Jefferson County spends about $105 annually to maintain each acre of parkland in its 50,000-acre open-space system, Denver spends just $56 per acre. As a result, restrooms are sometimes closed, trails are eroding, and picnic areas deteriorate.
"They have seven staff people to do maintenance and we have 54," says Ken Foelske, manager of planning for Jefferson County Open Space.
Almost two million people a year visit Jeffco's parks. "When you get that kind of usage, you have wear and tear," Foelske says. "Our budget would be a lot less if we weren't so popular. We're accepting of that regional role, and that's the thing Denver has to face."
There's widespread agreement that the mountain parks need more funding, but the question of where those dollars should come from sparks controversy. "The resources are scarce," says MacKenzie. "Denver residents are paying for parks they may never use."
A 2001 study of mountain park visitors found that 82 percent of them reside in the metro area. Of those people, one-third live in Denver, one third in Jeffco, and the remaining third in other nearby counties.
Some parks supporters believe the metro area needs a six-county open-space tax similar to the tax that supports the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. "Those parks are used regionally," says Susan Baird of the Denver parks department. "We may need to look at funding from a regional perspective."
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MacKenzie would like to sell the Denver mountain parks to Jefferson County, but she says she is probably the only member of the city council who would support such a move.
Fellow councilmember Dennis Gallagher, for example, considers the very idea of selling the mountain parks an outrage.
"Denverites were able to hang onto the mountain parks during the Great Depression, and selling them now would be a betrayal," he says. "It would be like selling Sloan's Lake to Edgewater and Washington Park to Glendale."