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Boulder's Open Space 🏔

by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II

The Mesa Trail was one of the areas saved by Open Space.

I’ve often been asked to talk about the history of Boulder’s Open Space as I remember it. In the early 1960s I was appointed by City Council to the very first Parks & Recreation Advisory Board, known as the “Park Board.” Our role was to advise City Council about matters that affected various parks, recreation, and associated land use.

We first determined that there was a key acre on the west edge of town that could be the connection between Eben Fine Park and the Red Rocks. The new owners of this acre were planning to build an office building on the site. After talking with them about the importance of this acre for open space, they generously offered to give up their plans and buy some other acre in town if they could just get their original money back. I was able to buy this acre from them and hold it for one year until the City could budget the funds to buy it back from me for the same price. I then had the honor of naming it “Settler’s Park,” since the first settlers of Boulder had camped at this spot. As we had imagined back then, today there is indeed a tunnel that connects Eben Fine with Settler’s and the Red Rocks.

The next project we undertook was the purchase of Enchanted Mesa, just south of Chautauqua Park. The City of Boulder Mountain Parks, which included the famous Flatirons, had been created by Act of Congress in the early 1900s, but it did not include the mesas in front of the Flatirons. So having had Enchanted Mesa appraised for $105,000, the City decided to have a citizen’s vote for a bond issue in that amount.

We had a good campaign with bumper stickers that read “Enchanted Mesa: YES!” The bond issue passed, but the owner, Kenneth Mirise, refused to sell it for that price. He had planned to build a hotel and two hundred homes on this mesa, but it was above the “Blue Line,” which had been passed in 1959 forbidding the City to supply water or sewer service above this line. So the case went to condemnation court and the judge told the City to pay Mirise $115,000. We then had a private campaign to raise the extra $10,000 and were successful. Enchanted Mesa was purchased and saved!

Then Dr. Walter Orr Roberts came to the Park Board with a proposal to build NCAR (National Center of Atmospheric Research) on Table Mesa, the next mesa south of Enchanted Mesa. This would preserve about 500 acres of open space and only one building would be built, designed by I. M. Pei, a world-class architect. But the NCAR site was above the Blue Line.

Several of us had just founded PLAN-Boulder County, a citizen’s “watchdog” group. Since the City had no funds to buy Table Mesa, we felt that Dr. Roberts’s plan was a good compromise and would save a big section of open space. So PLAN-Boulder came out in favor of a citizen’s vote to make an exception to the Blue Line and allow NCAR to be built. It passed and NCAR was built. We then decided that the next step was to pass a sales tax to buy open space. In 1910, Frederick Law Omstead Jr. had done a study of Boulder. His father had designed Central Park in New York City. He proposed the establishment of greenbelts along Boulder Creek and around the City. We republished the Olmstead report and used it in our education campaign. Our bumper sticker said “Greenbelts, YES!” The sales tax passed!

The City of Boulder Open Space Department was formed, years later to be merged with Mountain Parks. Many thousand additional acres of open space have been added since then by both the City and County of Boulder. We’re lucky to have all this land preserved as open space forever!

Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check or e-mail or call (303) 499-3647.

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