Longform

Mapping the Future of Urban Sprawl

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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."

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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