Boulder residents voted 50 years ago to impose a tax on themselves to preserve a band of open space around the city as a way to protect the natural beauty and habitat, but also to keep out the urban sprawl spiraling away from Denver at the time.

Oakleigh Thorne II said that the notion that Boulder's landscape be saved from development goes back more than a century, when Frederick Olmsted Jr. — son of Frederick Olmsted Sr., the designer of New York's Central Park — came to Boulder and wrote a report recommending a greenbelt around the city.

"His report was filed and forgotten," said Thorne, who is one of the organizers of "Boulder's Greatest Treasure," a talk on Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the creation of Boulder's ring of open space. (The event quickly filled up and no more seats are available.)

"We resurrected the report in 1967," he said.

Thorne, founder of the Thorne Nature Experience and one of the leaders of the movement to pass the tax, said when voters passed the measure in 1967, it was a continuation of several events that marked efforts to protect the open spaces around the city from development. The movement began with the passage of the "Blue Line," which prohibits development in the foothills to the west and south of Boulder.

Ruth Wright was a leader of the movement to impose the open space tax and said the effort has had an enormous impact on the visual and planning aspects of Boulder, which have made the city "such a great place to have children, play and study."


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Wright, who is an attorney and former state legislator, said Boulder was the first city in the United States to tax itself to create open space areas and was years ahead of any other communities.

"When you drive up on Davidson Mesa, whether you've been in Denver for the day or on a trip to Japan, you drive up on the mesa and you have an iconic view," she said. "You have the same view of the valley as it was in 1967. It's green. It's not filled with buildings and subdivisions."

Cheryl Boyd, right, lifts her son, Liam, 2, with the help of her sister, Alexis Boyd, while hiking at Wonderland Lake Trailhead on Wednesday in Boulder.
Cheryl Boyd, right, lifts her son, Liam, 2, with the help of her sister, Alexis Boyd, while hiking at Wonderland Lake Trailhead on Wednesday in Boulder. (Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer)

Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks manages 145 miles of trails around the city. The agency oversees more than 45,000 acres of open space land.

Organizers of Thursday's talk also plan to announce the creation of a new center at the University of Colorado that has tentatively been called the Center for Sustainable Landscapes and Communities.

"The vision is that the center will play a major, positive role in facilitating dialogue and providing information and education about the future of Boulder's city and county open space lands," according to organizers.

Thorne said the greenbelt has kept development away from Boulder, but it has had the unintended side effect of causing home prices to skyrocket and negatively impacted the diversity of the city because of the high cost of living.

"If you are selling real estate, it's great, or a billionaire who wants to buy a house," he said. "But we have certainly drove the diversity out of Boulder by making the real estate prices so high."

However, he added that the open space has protected the natural beauty of Boulder and left great spaces for hiking, bird-watching and nature photography, and Boulder County followed suit with its own protected open space areas. To that end, he said, it has been a success.

"I hope future generations will thank us for preserving this open space and keeping it as intact as possible," he said. "It's what makes Boulder such a beautiful setting. I'd like to keep it that way."

John Bear: 303-473-1355, bearj@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/johnbearwithme