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|March 12-18, 2009
Little fracas on the prairie
The city struggles to balance ecosystem conservation
with residents’ growing demand for recreation
by Pamela White
One must forgive those who, upon arriving in Boulder, see only the foothills and the white-capped peaks beyond. The mountains rise so suddenly and with such grandeur out of the plains that the eye is forced to pay attention. Far subtler and more secretive is the beauty of the grasslands at their feet, small patches of what was once the western reaches of a vast and almost endless prairie.
If you want to see the prairie — if you truly wish to see it — you must spend time with it season after season, moving slowly with all of your senses attuned, sometimes on your feet, sometimes on your knees. Then it begins to reveal its secrets. Blue-green lichen on weathered stone from some ancient river. The melodic song of the meadowlark. A nest of pale eggs amid slender leaves of wild iris. The eyelash-like sweep of blue grama seed heads. The scent of the sun on warm grass. The rustling of the wind.
Too often maligned as “emptiness,” the prairie was historically viewed as a void to be crossed in covered wagons or broken by the plough. But far from being empty, the prairie teems with life. Reduced to a mere 1 to 3 percent of its original expanse, tallgrass prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet.
“What we have here is not only globally rare, but also globally unique,” says Lynne Sullivan, pointing to the patchwork of microhabitats that stretch alongside the South Boulder Creek trail. “You won’t find this combination of species anywhere else in the world.”
Sullivan, interpretive naturalist for the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks department (OSMP), has agreed to share her morning with a couple of hikers in hopes of better explaining why the city’s grasslands call for effective conservation.
Charged with balancing conservation with passive recreation and agriculture, OSMP released a draft of its Grasslands Ecosytem Management Plan for public review in October. Lauded by conservationists as a long overdue effort to inventory the city’s grasslands and investigate the threats those lands face, the lengthy document has drawn fire from a coalition of recreationists who believe that the plan is “anti-access” and exhibits an “anti-trail” bias.
Disagreement over grasslands plan is the latest chapter in a continuing tug-of-war between OSMP officials, who see certain environmental needs as crucial, and residents who ride their bikes, walk their dogs and hike on the Open Space land that their tax money purchased.
A mosaic of grass
We meet at the South Boulder Creek trailhead early in the morning. It’s more than a little chilly, a cold wind blowing down from the mountains carrying the promise of snow. We move southwest and soon find ourselves passing through a copse of cottonwoods, their bare branches showing the first hint of buds. On the other side of the trees, we stop.
Sullivan explains that the trick to understanding Boulder’s grasslands is to learn to see them. She asks us to make a slow 360-degree turn, looking for changes in the colors, textures and types of vegetation. What looks like a landscape of brown at first glance slowly transforms into shades of flaxen, orange and red punctuated by swales and rises and terraces of smooth stones.
There’s a story in this landscape. It can start as far back as 70 million years ago, when there were dinosaurs and this area was a vast inland ocean that left behind a mile-deep layer of clay far beneath our feet. Or it can start with the orogeny that brought us our current Rocky Mountains, recycling the bones of the first. Or it can start when runoff from the young mountains cut away the earth around Table Mesa and the other mesas of the Front Range, littering the valley with boulders and rocks.
These events combined to create a unique combination of features, and those features enable a unique array of plant and animal life to flourish, as Sullivan explains.
Behind us stand the cottonwoods. Out of their drip line is a thicket of sandbar coyote willow. Covering the earth is a blanket of cordgrass, its dried leaves now golden and lying against the ground in clumps. All of these species need lots of water and receive it from what looks like an old irrigation ditch.
Cordgrass gives way to reddish tufts of big and little bluestem grasses, which can tolerate dryer conditions but still need a fair amount of moisture.
“It isn’t blue in the summer, either,” Sullivan says, when challenged on the name “bluestem.” “Maybe the name greenish-reddish-purpley grass was too long.”
Mesic bluestem reluctantly gives way to xeric, or dry, tallgrass prairie and mixed grass prairie, where dried grasses mingle with barrel cactus, prickly pear, yucca, wormwood and sage.
It seems clear now: near water sources you get one “suite” of plant species, and away from water, you get another. But just when you think you see a pattern, the prairie surprises you with a patch of cordgrass nowhere near water — or maybe a tree. It’s as if some crazy genius composer decided to do away with traditional A-B-A form and scattered the notes of his symphony haphazardly.
But Sullivan says there is a method to this madness. The mile-thick layer of clay left by the inland sea captures water, which is then held in pockets not too far beneath the surface by boulders and rocks washed down from the mountains by seasonal runoff. With nowhere to go, the trapped water creates underground oases of a sort that give thirstier plants some unexpected growing places.
This means that subtle changes in altitude — a two-foot slope upward or a slight depression left by erosion — can make it easier or more difficult for plants to reach that water, creating drier or wetter spots.
Thus, the rocky terrace cut by a river back when mammoths roamed the landscape is part of the xeric tallgrass prairie, while the drainage beside it is mesic bluestem prairie, each patch of land home to a distinct set of grasses that in turn offer habitat to distinct populations of insects, ground-nesting birds and other critters. It’s not so much a grassland as many grasslands woven together — a grassland mosaic.
Add the mountain species brave enough to trickle down from the foothills, and you have a combination of flora and fauna that is utterly unique.
In the distance, a coyote noses through the grass, then pounces, perhaps catching a breakfast of pocket gopher. From a stand of cottonwoods, a great blue heron takes to the air, reminding all of us of a pterodactyl. And then in front of us on the trail we see a plastic bag of dog poop.
I wonder whether the dog’s guardian believes the Dog Poop Fairy will come along to clean up the mess. Sullivan says we’ll pick it up on our way back to the parking lot (by which time there will be two bags of poop).
Though we all but have the trail to ourselves this morning, the bag of dog poop serves as a reminder that these trails receive a lot of traffic, appealing to runners, hikers, mountain bikers and, yes, dog walkers.
According to the results of a study released on Monday, March 9, OSMP’s 130 miles of trails see a total of 4.7 million user visits per year. To put that in perspective, think of nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, which covers a much larger area — 266,000 acres vs. 45,000 acres — and receives about 3 million visitors each year.
According to the study, half of the visitors to OSMP lands came to hike and view scenery. About 30 percent of visitors brought dogs.
About 25 percent of visitors came to run or view wildlife. A little more than 10 percent were mountain bikers, while a little less than 10 percent were climbers.
The study, conducted by Dr. Jerry Vaske of Colorado State University, was peer reviewed before being released and was presented to the Open Space Board of Trustees on Wednesday, March 11.
Given how unique this landscape is and how keen human interest is in using the land, how can the city balance preservation of this rare resource with the very real need of the growing human population for recreation?
Of prairie dogs and frogs
The grasslands plan has its roots in the continuing struggle to conserve black-tailed prairie dogs and their habitat.
“They’ve dominated the discussion about grassland management for a long time,” says Mark Gershman, environmental planning supervisor for OSMP. “Part of the implementation of the prairie dog element of the Urban Wildlife Management Plan was that open space would come up with some truly ecosystem-based recommendations for prairie dog management. We were trying to explore the idea that having a large open-space system gives the city the ability to provide areas for prairie dog conservation.”
Before the city could move ahead with that, however, City Council needed to know more about the grasslands, and so in 2006 the council made completion of a grasslands management plan a priority for OSMP.
The purpose of the grasslands plan, according to Gershman, is to create a framework for management policies and acquisition priorities for preserving the ecology of grasslands and to ensure continued agricultural production.
Gershman and others in OSMP worked together to develop a sort of inventory of the different species of flora and fauna on the city’s grasslands and to generate some criteria that would help them determine how healthy a given grassland ecosystem was. Based on these criteria, they rated agricultural operations, black-tailed prairie dogs and the White Rocks Cliffs east of town as “good” or “very good,” meaning that most indicators were found to be acceptable. Mixed grass prairie, xeric tallgrass prairie, mesic bluestem prairie and wetlands were rated “fair,” which means that many indicators are outside the range of acceptable but could be improved to “good” with “a reasonable level of effort.” The plains and foothills transitional riparian areas were given a rating of “poor,” which indicates that these areas may be difficult to improve without considerable effort and expense. Overall, the city’s grasslands were given a rating of “fair.”
They also identified what they believed are threats to these ecosystems, including: incompatible trails and recreational uses; incompatible uses on surrounding land; the behavior of some dog guardians; and invasive, non-native plants and animals.
“Then we did an analysis of issues and opportunities to improve the situation, and we developed a bunch of strategies that we thought would get us from where we are to where we’d like to be, and that’s how the plan flows,” Gershman says.
Key considerations in developing those strategies were how much any given idea was likely to improve the ecosystem, whether it was truly feasible and whether the public would support it.
“Public support is a really key element of the feasibility analysis of our strategies,” he says. “It’s one of the pieces where the consideration of the plan goes beyond purely ecological considerations.”
Some of the strategies include: continuing to protect bald eagle nesting sites; having a management framework for prairie dogs and prairie dog habitat that is compatible with other conservation efforts by the end of this year; reducing invasive plant species across the grasslands to bring those areas up to a “good” rating by 2018; maintaining and increasing the number of grassland-dependent butterflies and skippers on OSMP land; increase by three the number of bullfrog-free ponds supporting leopard frogs by 2015; and reducing the road and trail density within a 200-meter buffer area around wetland and riparian areas by 50 percent within 10 years
so that it complies with a ratio of 46 meters per hectare.
Of these strategies, the last is easily the most complicated, and an amphibian known as the northern leopard frog is to blame.
Will Keeley, a wildlife ecologist who focused on the leopard frog for the grasslands plan, says that the little amphibian is facing a marked decline both on city land and across western North America.
“What we’ve found out about the northern leopard frog is that its situation is quite dire,” Keeley says. “We have our three years’ worth of monitoring on OSMP lands which shows a reduction of breeding sites by half.”
In 2006, ecologists found leopard frogs at about 15 of 32 sites surveyed on OSMP land. In 2007, the number of breeding sites had dropped to 12. Last year, OSMP researchers found evidence of breeding at only eight of those original sites. Their findings have been mirrored by those of researchers at the University of Colorado, who in the summer of 2008 found breeding at only one out of 31 historic breeding sites on the Front Range, 22 of which are on OSMP land.
Both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have designated the leopard frog as a “sensitive species,” thus allocating more funding toward research and conservation of the species. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has designated it a “species of special concern.”
Although wildlife officials can’t say exactly why the leopard frog is disappearing from the landscape, some of the factors contributing to its decline are known. Non-native bullfrogs play a big role, but lack of room to forage might also be a contributing factor. Unlike many frog species, the leopard frog leaves ponds, ditches and creeks to feed. And that’s where OSMP ecologists, working off research provided by the U.S. Forest Service, believe a 200-meter buffer of vegetation might make a difference in preserving this critter in addition to bolstering recovery efforts for the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, federally recognized as threatened.
“By definition a buffer is any area that’s free of disturbance,” Keeley says. “By us allowing some trails in this area, we’re trying to manage for it as a foraging era, not strictly a buffer area. But what we’re trying to manage for is minimizing disturbance in this area of foraging for juvenile and adult leopard frogs.”
Because leopard frogs only breed after two years, but live for only five, there’s a relatively short window of time in which they can reproduce. A successful breeding year might result in areas up to 200 meters from a wetland being filled with leopard frogs, and Keeley says it’s years like those that OSMP wants to prepare for by making that habitat as safe as possible.
“I think what we’ve always tried to do is manage and balance conservation, recreation and the other purposes that are in our charter,” he says. “What we’ve tried to do with this buffer area is say, yes, we’re going to allow a certain number of trails within this 200-meter area to preserve recreation. But also what we’re trying to do is preserve the northern leopard frog, which is declining heavily right before our very eyes.”
Gershman says the city can meet its goals for trail density simply by eliminating undesignated, or “social,” trails, meaning that no designated trails need be closed. But when OSMP chooses to address these issues in the grasslands plan, it runs up against a well-organized and articulate group of residents who say that with it the city planners have gone too far.
Time to “manage people”
Jason Vogel, an avid mountain biker and spokesman for Boulder Mountainbike Alliance (BMA), says his organization has several objections to the grasslands plan as it now reads.
“One is that this is presumably a resource-management plan, however it involves trade-offs between open space charter purposes, such as recreation vs. environmental preservation,” he says. “We don’t believe that trade-offs between charter purposes are appropriate in a resource document.”
Instead, BMA would like to see the plan offer an inventory of grasslands and an assessment of the threats to the ecosystem. When it comes to deciding between recreation and preservation, BMA wants the city to stick to the Visitor Master Plan (VMP) and the Trail Study Area (TSA) process to determine case by case whether an individual trail should be rerouted or eliminated or whether perhaps a new trail should be built. There shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to managing wetlands, he says.
“We’ve already gone through a couple of these [TSA] processes,” Vogel says. “It seems like the grasslands plan is trying to undermine that process or take it over. It’s kind of impinging upon the master plan process.”
Vogel says he agrees that wetlands should be protected, but he prefers the way Boulder County has handled the situation.
“If you look at the county’s 1999 grasslands management plan, they actually do a very good job at this,” he says. “They look at the various wetlands they have. They assess them all. They describe which ones are significant and for which reasons. For instance, a mostly dry drainage that occasionally is wet during a rainstorm has much less habitat value than a marsh or a natural pond. The city’s grasslands plan provides no guidance about the difference between those two areas. It says essentially that they are the same, and that doesn’t help us make decisions about putting trails anywhere.”
Vogel also wonders what criteria the city used to identify wetlands and is perplexed as to how the county lands can possibly contain fewer wetlands than city open space.
“They’ve identified more areas as wetlands by far than the county has identified in a very similar area,” he says.
Though there are varying definitions of a wetland at use by federal agencies, the city’s grasslands plan doesn’t explain its own criteria, he says.
“The grasslands plan would be an incredibly useful tool for people like me, who are advocating for responsible trail access, if it would let me know where the sensitive areas were and where the relatively less sensitive areas were so that I would know to steer people away from those sensitive areas to areas that don’t have as high an ecological value,” Vogel says. “But by putting everything in the same bucket and calling all wetlands ‘wetlands’ and not differentiating between them, what they’ve done is provide me with no information to help decide where’s a reasonable place for a trail and where’s unreasonable.”
In addition, Vogel believes the 200-meter buffer area is too restrictive and unjustified, he says.
“If you look at the best available science, it indicates that trails in particular have no affect on the vast majority of species of concern in wetlands areas within 50 meters,” Vogel says. “So why did we jump to 200 meters? There’s no justification for that in the entire document.”
When it comes to the goal of 46 meters of trail per hectare of land, Vogel says the measurement is too complicated to be understood by the public. The measurement works out to about seven miles of trail per square mile, but that is still difficult for most people to wrap their minds around, he says.
“They came up with this obtuse measurement that the public cannot understand to try to come up with a universal, one-size-fits-all solution to a problem that we’re not even sure exists,” he says.
Vogel doesn’t feel reassured by the city’s assertion that it’s trail-density goals can be met by closing only “social” trails.
“That to me is code for ‘no new trails,’” he says. “There are some very important regional connector trails that aren’t officially designated yet, such as the old Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) trail that would connect the city of Boulder with the town of Erie, a very important not just recreational route, but a commuter route. That goes straight through an identified wetland area. When the city says ‘as long as you stay on existing trails,’ I’m hearing the UPRR trail is not going to happen.”
BMA would also like to see a trail designated along a railroad cut up the north side of Boulder’s trail system to Heil Valley Ranch, which is part of county open space.
“That’s currently a ‘social trail,’ but it makes a lot of sense for that to be designated official and create this north-south connector so that people can go from Boulder and make it to Heil Valley Ranch without having to get in the car, burn fossil fuels and live a less sustainable lifestyle,” he says.
Then there’s the possible Boulder feeder canal trail, which would run from Boulder Reservoir to the town of Lyons paralleling the Boulder feeder canal opposite the road that’s already in place there.
“So what the city’s saying is that all these things that are conceptual aren’t going to happen,” Vogel says.
Vogel says that although he understands concerns about social trails, he thinks the city needs to start “managing people” on its open space lands, and that means developing trails that meet people’s needs for recreation, transportation and enjoyment of the outdoors, something he feels OSMP has yet to master.
“If there’s a social trail, we should manage for it,” he says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean closing it down. It might mean rerouting it.
If people are trying to get from an established trail to a nice viewpoint, you can shut it down, but people will probably just make a new trail because they want to go to that viewpoint, have lunch and look at the mountains. So the point is to manage to protect the environment by routing the trails to appropriate locations.”
Finding a balance
BMA’s objections to the grasslands plan mirror those of other outdoor groups like Boulder Trail Runners, Flatirons Climbing Council, Friends Interested in Dogs and Open Space, Boulder Area Trails Coalition and Boulder County Horse Association, all members of the Boulder Outdoor Coalition.
But one local advocacy group is pleased with the plan. Members of Friends of Boulder Open Space (FOBOS) have been frustrated by the lack of in-depth information available about the ecology of OSMP land and feel the grasslands plan is actually long overdue. It would have been better for the city to create a plan like the grasslands plan prior to establishing the Visitor Master Plan or developing the Trail Study Area process, they say.
“Our view is that before we make decisions about human uses of the lands, we ought to understand what the basic resource is, the condition of the resource and what we want in the future for the resource to do,” says Larry MacDonnell, spokesman for the group.
“Before you make additional decisions about uses of the land, the initial step is to understand the land and the resources.”
FOBOS, which formed in 2006 as a sort of counterbalance to recreation advocacy groups, would like to see a “conservation-first” approach to land management and hope to provide a voice for members of the Boulder community who share their perspective.
MacDonnell has lived in Boulder for 40 years and spent a great number of those years rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking and leading people on treks through Outward Bound. He has also served on the Open Space Board of Trustees, an experience that gave him a different perspective on recreation and land management.
“I became so aware of how powerful the voices for recreation had become and how insistent those voices were about the importance of their uses without as much consideration about the environmental side of things,” he says. “They would always say, ‘Yes, we’re environmentalists,’ but it was clear that the most important thing in their minds was the freedom to go and do what they wanted to do on open space.”
MacDonnell says that the recreation community might not understand the impact that so many users can have on the landscape and tend to think of short-term enjoyment rather than preserving land for future generations.
“We don’t need to have access to every piece of property,” he says. “We don’t need to walk next to every creek. We don’t need to climb every gully. Maybe it’s OK to have a few places that are off-limits. We can survive, and we can thrive, without having to trot on every piece of ground.”
OSMP planners have taken the mixed feedback they’ve received and are revisiting the grassland plan, hoping to come up with a second draft that the public can both understand and support.
“We’re re-examining that entire indicator of this 200-meter buffer,” Gershman says. “We had something that we thought was a real winner, and, boy, did we get it wrong. We had something that we thought would confer good conservation benefit, that wouldn’t have a lot of impact on visitors, and what we heard was that we didn’t explain that clearly.”
Gershman disagrees that there’s no room in the grassland plan for strategies that address recreational use.
“To stop at that point and not recommend strategies — what actions to take — would keep us shy of having a strategic plan for improving or maintaining the conditions of the grasslands, so we would find ourselves being short of meeting our commitment [to City Council].”
Gershman says OSMP still plans to address most issues regarding trails and recreation through the TSA process like Vogel and others hope to see. At the same time, however, the city doesn’t want to find itself waiting to complete a trail study before it can address an ecological crisis.
“You need to reserve the right to act accordingly,” Keeley says. “You can’t just wait seven years because a TSA is going to get there soon.”
Gershman says he knows some people are afraid that OSMP is looking for ways to limit public access, but that’s not the case.
“We’re not trying to keep anybody out,” he says. “We’re trying to provide access in a manner that’s consistent with the conservation of these amazing lands that we have.”
To read more about the Grasslands Ecosystem Management Plan, go to www.grasslandplan.org.
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