Part four of a four-part series
In 1975, the only property Boulder County Parks and Open Space managed was Bald Mountain Scenic Area. In those days, there was not much to do to manage our natural resources. Fast forward 40 years and today we own and manage over 65,000 acres and natural resource management has changed considerably. We always knew that buying land is the natural first step in protecting it, but managing the land is a responsibility the department will have for as far into the future as we can imagine.
One of the first three Parks and Open Space employees was a natural resource manager. The county hired Randy Coombs in 1973 to be the first county forester. His job at the time was to inspect trees for insects and disease. As the department grew, he wore many hats in addition to his forestry hard hat. He was a ranger writing tickets for dogs off leash, a Walker Ranch cultural history interpreter dressing up like a pioneer from the 1880s, and a caretaker for our first plains property, Rock Creek Farm. The department slowly added staff to take on each specific duty, allowing Randy to focus 100 percent of his time managing the forests on Boulder County’s mountain properties, like Heil Valley Ranch. He retired after working for the county for 38 years.
Our first large-scale forest management project took place in the 1970s as the native mountain pine beetle population exploded in the county. In conjunction with federal and state forest services, infested trees along Magnolia Road were thinned across public and private lands. Many of us remember the more recent outbreak of the same native pest and the impact it had on the forests around Nederland. In 40 years, these insects have had two complete epidemic cycles.
We also introduced prescribed fire into our ecosystem along agricultural ditches, on grasslands, and in forests. We continue this practice today with the help of the Sheriff’s Office Fire Management Officer and his staff. Recently we completed an 84-acre burn at Hall Ranch. We now collaborate with local, state, and federal fire specialists to return fire to our fire-dependent ecosystems.
Resource Management grew to include rangers and park interpreters in the 1980s. In the 1990s, weed, wildlife, and plant ecology specialists joined the team. By 1999, there were seven people working in the Resource Management Division.
Parks and Open Space began restoring grasslands as soon as we had enough property on the plains. Our agricultural resources staff started converting marginal and degraded farmland to native prairie in the late 1990s. This program continues today, and we are in the process of converting over 2,200 acres back to native plant species. This will invite the return of local wildlife such as the lark bunting, burrowing owl and northern harrier.
Creek restoration came next, with a 13 year effort on the Brewbaker property in 2000 and multiple projects along Rock Creek on Carolyn Holmberg Preserve. These projects take planning, funding, technical experts and many volunteers. We use bioengineering to help stabilize the shorelines, plant native willows and other shrubs, and control weeds. Finally, we sit under the shade of the trees to mark their success! Our recently-launched Lower Boulder Creek Project, a $5 million project funded and co-managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was first identified in 1998 and the earth started moving on the project this fall. Like most things in nature, man-made projects often take time, patience, and tenacity to see changes occur.
We were glad to have learned about creek restoration when the September 2013 flood hit. All streams in the county were impacted, but the worst was easily the St. Vrain River. One hundred and twenty years of ditch diversion, stream channelization, and gravel pit mining in the floodplain significantly altered the river. During the 500-year rain event, the river breached its banks and beloved “gravel-ponds-turned-wildlife-habitat” like Pella Crossing crumbled under the force of Mother Nature. For the past two years, and probably for at least the next ten, we will be working to restore Boulder County creeks to more natural systems that will again provide habitat for endangered native fish like the Johnny darter, plants like the Ute’s ladies tresses, and federally threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse.
Wildlife habitat protection has long been a reason for preserving open space. As early as 1992, we were mapping prairie dog colonies and creating deer exclosures to protect important plants. Today, wildlife staff continues protecting Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, burrowing owls and Abert’s squirrels by working with plant ecology, forestry, and agricultural staff to implement critical habitat restoration. They partner with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to radio-collar and monitor elk and mountain lions. And most importantly, they harness the energy of over 100 volunteers to help monitor waterfowl, breeding birds, and raptors.
Invasive Plant Management
Weeds came to Colorado long before our department was created, but when we purchase new properties, they invariably come with weeds. In the 2000s, we embarked on a project to remove 95 percent of the noxious (invasive weed) Russian olive trees growing on Boulder County’s Parks and Open Space land. Primarily along riparian corridors and ditches, these water-loving trees don’t provide suitable habitat for our native birds. By removing the Russian olive trees, we save valuable water for agriculture and promote native wildlife. We also open the area to allow native willows, hackberry and cottonwoods to regain their place along our streams. We accomplished our goal in 2012, but as any gardener knows, weeds may be gone one year but return the next. We continue to monitor Russian olives on open space property and remove them from properties we acquire.
Rangers are important staff and protect the natural resources on parks and open space. It used to be that everyone in our department could write a ticket, but now we have expanded our group to 12 trained rangers, including five resident rangers and Sheriff’s Office deputies. Those smiling faces assure that our natural resources will be protected for the next 40 years and more.
Education and Outreach
No natural resource can be protected without the work of our education and outreach staff. Our education staff works with volunteer naturalists to conduct interpretive programs. Our volunteer coordinators lead volunteer work projects or natural resource monitoring programs on our properties. This brings the challenges and rewards of restoration to life for people in our community. Speaking of bringing things to life, volunteers and staff continue to interpret our cultural resources. They dress in 1880s costumes (the same ones that Randy Coombs used to wear) for our living history events at the historic Walker Ranch Homestead. They also demonstrate life on the farm during the turn of the last century through Critter Days and other events at the Agricultural Heritage Center.
Today the Resource Management Division employs over 40 full-time staff, with an influx of seasonal staff every spring. We are fortunate to have community support for our natural resource management projects on county open space. Our diverse wildlife and plants enhance the quality of life we enjoy here in Boulder County. Our mission remains unchanged and we will continue to protect and restore life for current and future generations.
Note: This is the third in a four-part series about the department’s 40th anniversary.