Mapping the Future of Urban Sprawl

I'm going to show you a bunch of maps," David Theobald tells the undergraduates packed into the small lecture hall. "Don't get caught up writing down the numbers. I want you to get a couple of key points."

As a rule, maps and the numbers behind them are a matter of some consequence to Theobald, a geography professor at Colorado State University — the way a Bible matters to a preacher or an oxygen tank to an astronaut. His courses tend to be highly technical forays into the spatial analysis of public lands and entire ecosystems. Today, though, he's pinch-hitting for a colleague who teaches a class on parks and protected areas, and he doesn't want to cause a stampede for the door with a gruesome display of mathematics.

His lecture may be titled "Protected Areas From a Conservation Landscape Perspective," but there's nothing tweedy about Theobald or his approach to the subject. Wearing huaraches, white pants, a busy yellow shirt and a winning smile, he jumps into his PowerPoint presentation with zest. The first image is of the students' regular professor, Peter Newman, holding a sign endorsing their visitor: "He knows his stuff." That's followed by a picture of Newman holding a second sign: "You in the back pipe down."

After the laughter, those in the back pipe down, and Theobald proceeds to demonstrate that he does indeed know his stuff. On the big screen, he shows how geographic information system (GIS) tools — basically, a computerized approach to combining geographic features with other data — led to better protection of bird habitat in Hawaii. He talks about different ways of analyzing "wild" or "developed" areas and points out that calling popular recreation destinations like Rocky Mountain National Park "protected" may be misleading.

"One year I rode my bike over Trail Ridge Road on the Fourth of July," he recalls. "It was stupid. I sucked fumes all the way."

He hands out atlases and challenges the students to find local parks. Many of the maps, he adds, are incorrect, outdated or incomplete — yet we make policy decisions on bad information all the time. His frustration with antiquated data led to the CoMAP project (short for Colorado Ownership Management and Protection), an ambitious effort to inventory and map open space across the state, funded by Great Outdoors Colorado and other agencies. He asks how many of them have seen the enormous map in the hall outside Pete Newman's office — a 45-square-foot, high-resolution display that highlights the nearly 30 million acres of the state that have some degree of federal, state, local or private protection against development.

The students stare at him blankly. Theobald is nonplussed. "Doesn't anybody know where your professor's office is?" he asks.

No hands go up. Nobody seems to have a clue. Theobald shrugs. It's early in the semester. But still.

"Look around," he says. "Get to know your environment."

Theobald has spent much of his 43 years getting to know his environment. Aside from a master's degree earned in California, much of his studying and teaching has been in Colorado, including field work across the state for a variety of research projects. Along the way, he's figured out new approaches to charting the state's rapid population growth and development patterns and the impact they have on wildlife and the land itself.

His projects stretch from fine-grain, parcel-by-parcel studies of buildout effects in a single county to large-scale calculations of shifting land use across the West. He's chronicled the upside of conservation easements and the downside of sprawl. Much of his work revolves around what's known in ecology circles as "the wildland-urban interface," those flash points where new subdivisions creep into formerly natural areas. In particular, he's known for his expertise in the relentless march of exurbia — formerly rural areas that have been carved up into residential parcels of 35 acres or less.

Theobald considers the spread of exurbia to be one of the greatest threats to the state's natural resources. Low-density development not only takes more land to house fewer people, he points out, but it produces disproportionate traffic, pollution and other problems. In places such as Douglas and Elbert counties, ranches are turned into ranchettes, increasing commute times and fragmenting wildlife habitat. In the mountains, pricey new McMansions introduce more human activity to wildfire zones and increase demand for more roads and services. Colorado's wide-open spaces are now being devoured at a pace three times the national average, and Theobald expects the amount of land devoted to exurban development to double in the next two decades.

Increasingly sophisticated computer programs have allowed researchers to document changes in the natural environment of the West like never before; they've also opened the door to modeling future scenarios, projecting what the land will look like in a generation or two by crunching critical data about population shifts, zoning laws, watersheds, wildlife migration corridors, and so on. "We've gotten pretty good at depicting the demise of habitat and telling that story," Theobald says. "Now the question is, 'What should we do? What are our options?' That's where a lot of GIS work is going."

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."

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."

The computer programs didn't simply allow geographers to crunch more data; they also allowed them to overlay details about human activity into studies of the landscape, and eventually to design models showing how those activities altered the land over time. Theobald viewed this as a major leap forward. Traditionally, he explains, ecology was about studying "square-meter plots in remote areas," unsullied by man's influence, in order to conduct pure science. Now researchers had a way of dealing with an increasingly complex set of variables while charting change on a larger scale.

"We'd basically ignored everything in our back yard," he says. "It hasn't been until the last ten or fifteen years that we've started thinking about changes in the environment in a more integrated way."

After completing his master's at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Theobald returned to CU in the early 1990s for his Ph.D. Travis, his doctorate adviser, remembers him as "one of the best students to ever come through this department." He was immersed in deeply technical GIS problems — his master's thesis dealt with "Delineation of Hydromorphology on TIN-based Surfaces" — but he'd also worked on land-use issues for Larimer County and was seeking to be something more than a GIS nerd.

"One day he stuck his head in my door and said he wanted to talk about other things," Travis recalls. "How the tool could help us see the world differently. He wanted to test some ideas about how landscapes in the West were changing."

At the time, few researchers were studying the effects of exurban development in any systematic way. Travis was one; CSU professor Knight, who also served on Theobald's dissertation committee, was another. "There wasn't anybody doing this stuff in those days," Knight says. "It's now become mainstream — thank God. We're finally waking up to the fact that one out of every four private acres in the lower 48 is now in exurban development."

Travis urged Theobald to pursue his interest in practical, far-ranging applications of his GIS skills — and to not get bogged down in the kind of minute data-quality quibbles that seem to consume techies. Among other things, the quest led to their mutual involvement in Atlas of the New West, a 1997 collection of maps, essays, photos and charts depicting the region's ski resorts, water wars, nuclear-waste dumps and other salient features. The project drew a team of contributors from CU's Center of the American West, but Travis says it had its origins in Theobald's work on a Forest Service grant, mapping development around Crested Butte. Heading back from one trip to the area, Travis and Theobald wondered if it was possible to find a cappuccino in Buena Vista. ("The answer was yes, but the place was closed," Travis says.) Theobald mused about doing a map of espresso bars in small towns across the West, and the idea steamrolled from there.

By that point, Theobald had moved on to post-doctoral research at CSU's Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory. (Since 2001, he's been a professor in the recently rebranded Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, formerly known as the Natural Resource Recreation and Tourism Department.) But he also worked with Travis and the Center on a startling report of what the West will look like by 2040. Drawing on census data, population projections and development patterns, Theobald developed color-coded maps tracing the expansion of major cities across eleven states and the even more rapid sprawl generated by exurban growth.

The maps of Colorado's Front Range — which can be found online at www.centerwest.org/futures — show a spreading pool of red, signifying high-density development, around the Denver metro area. But more remarkable are the blotchy yellow spores, representing development of one unit for every ten to forty acres, extending along the fringes of the cities like a bad rash, as formerly rural areas get devoured by exurbia.

Predicting land use forty years from now comes with plenty of caveats, but Travis regards the report as a major advance beyond other modeling approaches that simply show "developed" and "not developed" areas in grids as large as thirty kilometers, a fuzzy picture at best. "It's the pattern of development that matters," he says.

Theobald is guarded in his assessment of the impact of such projects. On the one hand, his CoMAP work has been widely used by conservation land trusts, wildlife managers and others trying to get a better handle on the state's patchwork of open space and areas that need critical attention to make long-term conservation planning viable. His studies of how exurbia's march has increased areas of wildland-urban contact by more than 50 percent since 1970 and hugely boosted human activity in wildfire areas have certainly strengthened the argument for more severe restrictions on building in those areas.

But when asked about specific public-policy decisions arising from his work, Theobald hesitates. One of his early ventures into land-use planning and wildlife habitat involved studying ski-resort expansion in Summit County. "I think some ski lifts at Copper Mountain were moved slightly as a result," he says drily. "I wouldn't say it's been particularly encouraging. A lot of people ask for this kind of information. In my cynical moments, I think they just want to document what's there, but development finds a way to move ahead anyway. If there are wetlands that could be affected, they'll develop those wetlands and mitigate it somewhere else."

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.

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.

"It was received pretty well," Theobald says. "It helped ground the discussion. It's always hard to say that something concrete came out of it, but I think it helped lower the acrimony."

Ouray County Commissioner Dave Batchelder says that a committee is still studying Theobald's work. Some critics of the study want a degree of certainty in planning tools that just isn't feasible, he adds, but others appreciated the analysis: "People don't usually think about the number of trips a day and how that affects quality of life. For those of us who are demographics junkies, information like this is always helpful."

Regardless of how the county's current growth quandaries turn out, Batchelder appreciates Theobald's willingness to inject some objective figures into the fray. "The original mission of land-grant universities was to help local governments," he says. "Over the years, it's gone to working with large agricultural businesses, more of a corporate relationship. To Dave's credit, in this effort he has pushed for the university to fulfill its mission. That type of attitude, it seems to me, could have significant benefits for rural communities across the state."

Theobald hopes to get more involved in local planning issues even as his research leads him to a more national and even global view of the land. He's currently embarking on an EPA study that will attempt to incorporate data on land use in the western United States in a study of projected climate change stretching to the year 2100. "A lot of climate-change models are making assumptions about the surface of the land and how it will interact with the atmosphere," Theobald explains. "But they have very simplistic assumptions about land use."

Linking up GIS work to the complexities of computer-generated climate models seems to be the logical next step. But trying to crack the global-warming problem won't prevent Theobald from attempting to map ranchettes in rural Larimer County, too.

"It deepens your understanding if you can work at multiple scales," he says. "I can't possibly know how growth is occurring across the United States. But I do have a deep rooting in certain places, and I like to keep grounded in the data."

Class is almost over, and visiting lecturer Theobald is trying to squeeze a few more key points into his presentation. He wants the students to understand that the notion of a protected area has less to do with whether it's owned by public or private interests than the type of management and activities allowed on that land. He brings up an oft-cited government figure that 90,000 acres of agricultural land in Colorado are lost to urban development every year. He says it's more like 154,000 acres, but nobody is quite sure where it's all going.

As the clock runs out, students start throwing their notebooks into backpacks and eyeing the door. Theobald says there's still lots of land to inventory, that the whole process is "a huge opportunity to advance the landscape," or at least man's understanding of it.

The students applaud, then pile out, on their way to urgent appointments with other classes, friends, snacks, cell phones, iPods. But a few linger, waiting to talk to the professor about maps and places and the changes to come.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast