Leadership is not about rallying support and taking action for a cause or issue because it’s popular or easy. Leadership is about identifying a goal that is right and good and, despite it being unpopular or seemingly impossible to achieve, pursuing it.
There is no finer example of leadership than that exhibited by those good citizens—from the late Martha “Ricky” Weiser to the members of Plan Boulder County to former State Rep. Ruth Wright to the current Director of Boulder County Parks and Open Space, Ron Stewart, as well as countless others—who pushed to create the Boulder County Open Space program in 1975 and worked to pass the subsequent tax used to buy the land we all enjoy. Today, we live amidst one of the premier land preservation programs in the United States.
It wasn’t funny at the time, but I laugh today at the whiplash-inducing about face that most municipalities in Boulder County did regarding the concept. Back in the day, you would have thought that Big Bad Boulder County was putting a figurative gun to land owners’ heads and forcing them to sell to the Borg that was Open Space.
Municipalities groused that all that land the county (and the city of Boulder) was purchasing was removing valuable future development from their tax rolls. To hear Superior, Erie and Longmont talk about it at the time, the purchase of open space in the early ’90s effectively crippled those towns’ tax bases and unfairly limited their growth.
Indeed, such purchases set the county at odds with cities in the early days of the program. But overwhelming support from wise voters for subsequent extensions of the sales and use tax that made the purchases possible—not to mention the popularity of seeing vast stretches of farm land that separated the cities remain farm land—started a sea change of attitude.
Citizens taxing themselves to buy land to keep it from turning into cul-de-sac infested housing developments had caught on. Today, as Boulder County celebrates the 35th birthday of its Open Space program, it owns and/or oversees nearly 94,000 acres of open space. And it has done so with a wide variety of tools, from outright purchases to conservation easements to just buying the development rights.
Ironically, the same municipalities that decried the program at the beginning have seen their residents approve city open space taxes and have, to varying degrees, partnered with Boulder County to buy land that they have identified as valuable.
And quite possibly the biggest turnaround in attitude has been with long-time families that ended up selling their farms to Boulder County. The county leases about 25,000 acres of agricultural land that it owns to farmers; about 13,000 acres of which is irrigated. And it owns conservation easements on another 30,000 acres, according to Boulder County Parks and Open Space Director Ron Stewart.
This has enabled families that for generations have farmed in the county to extract much of the value from their land while keeping the agricultural legacy alive.
“Farmers look at Open Space as what has saved farming in the county,” Stewart says. “A lot of attitudes changed because of growth and people saw what would happen without open space.”
The other selling point supporting open space is that development doesn’t pay for itself. Not even close. Simply put, a cornfield is more valuable than a strip mall, fiscally and aesthetically.
There’s another open space tax coming up on the ballot in November and it’s worth supporting. Because when we’re all dead and gone in 100 years, the family homestead farms we drive by on our way to work will still be lush with sugar beets or barley or corn or alfalfa. And that—not a strip mall or cookie-cutter housing development—is a legacy worth leaving for our great-great-grandkids.