Greenbelts & Open Space 🏞

by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II


In the year 1908, that’s 114 years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. came to Boulder at the request of the Boulder City Improvement Association, a group of private citizens. His father, Frederick Senior, had done the plans for Central Park in New York City. They became the very first landscape planners! So in 1910, Frederick Junior, created a plan called “The Improvement of Boulder, Colorado.” It became known as “The Olmsted Report.” He suggested that the land on both sides of Boulder Creek be protected as a park or “greenbelt.”

In the 1920s, the City of Boulder purchased the Mountain Parks land that included the Flatirons, but unfortunately did not include the mesas in front of them. It wasn’t until 1959 that the citizens of Boulder passed the “Blue Line,” above which the city was not allowed to supply water or sewer service. This was to temporarily halt any possible upward growth that would harm the scenic backdrop of Boulder.

Then in the early 1960s, PLAN-Boulder, a citizen “watchdog” group, and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board were established. I was a member of both. We then made a joint effort to protect the mesas. The first one was Enchanted Mesa, just south of Chautauqua. Its private landowner was planning to build 200 homes and a resort hotel there. The City floated a bond issue for $105,000 (the appraised value) to buy this mesa. It passed successfully. The owner refused to sell, so it went to Condemnation Court. The judge said to pay the owner $115,000, so we had a private campaign and raised the extra $10,000 and this mesa was preserved as open space! Our bumper sticker said “ENCHANTED MESA, YES!”

The next mesa south was Table Mesa. At that time, Dr. Waler Orr Roberts, head of the High Altitude Observatory at the University of Colorado, came to us with the plan to buy about 500 acres of this mesa and establish the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). This was to be funded by the National Science Foundation. One building would be constructed designed by a world-class architect, I. M. Pei. This would also bring many well-known scientists to Boulder. Since the city did not have the funds to buy this mesa, we felt that the NCAR proposal was a good compromise to having nothing built there.


Since this land was above the Blue Line, an exception had to be voted on by the citizens of Boulder. PLAN-Boulder came out in favor and the voters passed it. NCAR was built. Then, in 1967, we had a campaign to pass a sales tax to buy greenbelts. My nonprofit organization, Thorne Ecological Institute, re-published 500 copies of the Olmsted Report that we passed out to community leaders, and our bumper sticker said “GREENBELTS, YES!”

The sales tax passed! The city then established the Open Space Department. This gave the city the ability to buy the rest of the mesa land, which included the famous Mesa Trail from Boulder to Eldorado Springs. Lots of other open space land was preserved and the sales tax was usually renewed when it was necessary. In the 1990s, Open Space and Mountain Parks were combined into one department (OSMP).

I felt that it was important for Boulder County Kids to have this history written down for both parents and the young people coming along who will hopefully always continue to protect our wonderful Boulder open spaces!

Dr. Thorne is founder and president of Thorne Nature Experience (formerly Thorne Ecologi- cal Institute), a nonprofit organization head- quartered in Boulder. For 68 years they have helped “connect youth to nature!” For infor- mation about their programs, please check their website at www.thornenature.org or email or call (303) 499-3647, ext.100.

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