Open spaces more valuable than you realize

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It’s the fire season … and the tourist season. Fires cost us money. Tourists bring us money. And when the fires come, the tourists don’t — which is a double hit on the economy. Fortunately, in Colorado Springs, we have a remarkable asset that can be used to fight fires and draw tourists: protected open spaces.

Case in point: Solitude Park Open Space. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s because Solitude Park isn’t a public park. It’s a private, permanently protected open space that may possibly have saved our community between a quarter to half a billion dollars during the Waldo Canyon fire.

In the aftermath of Waldo, local and national media praised Cedar Heights (the community on the west side of the Garden of the Gods that owns Solitude Park) for fire mitigation work that saved 187 homes and quite possibly prevented the fire’s spread into Manitou Springs. Most residents know this story by now. What many of them don’t know is that these fire mitigation efforts took place on Solitude Park.

Solitude Park provides a 300-acre buffer between high-density residential development and Pike National Forest. When Cedar Heights worked with Palmer Land Trust to protect this private open space with a conservation easement in 2003, it provided its residents a signature opportunity to mitigate the potential for catastrophic fire — something Mountain Shadows (where the loss of 346 homes cost more than $353 million) did not have.

Many people are dismissive about the impacts of protected open spaces on the economy. Yet here’s an example of a small, protected open space that helped our community. But that’s not all this open space has done. Solitude Park preserves views that are appreciated by nearly 2 million people who visit Garden of the Gods each year, and herein lies another economic benefit that people don’t often consider: the tourism benefit.

The Colorado Tourism Office says that unspoiled natural landscapes are the highest-ranking attribute among travelers to our state. This is not only true of travelers who recreate on our public lands, it’s true of the country’s largest, most valuable tourism segment: the touring segment. These are people who move from town to town, explore authentic places, and take in the natural and historical landscapes in between and around their destinations. These landscapes really captivate that group and set their imaginations on fire.

Would our valuable touring segment visit the Garden of the Gods if the views toward Pikes Peak were broken by subdivisions? Would they stay at The Broadmoor if it were located on Powers Boulevard? Numerous studies — produced by organizations ranging from Colorado State University to the National Geographic Society — would suggest not. Tourism benefits from natural landscapes, the moods these landscapes create and the experiences they provide.

This is why The Broadmoor is investing millions rebuilding Spencer Penrose’s historic Cloud Camp on Cheyenne Mountain and expanding around Emerald Valley Ranch. The hotel knows that creating experiences in these natural contexts will pay dividends.

Tourism supports over 16,000 jobs in Colorado Springs, and 25 percent of the city’s annual budget is supported by tax revenue from tourists. It makes a lot of sense to see how we can protect our citizens and our tourism industry by replicating open space preservation efforts of the Solitude Park variety.

This summer, Palmer Land Trust will be exploring this concept with Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services and the Colorado Springs Fire Department Wildfire Mitigation Unit.

Our city has a limited parks management budget, but we have dedicated funds from our Trails, Open Space, and Parks (TOPS) tax that could purchase conservation easements on private lands, to protect scenic areas and further trail connections — at little or no long-term cost to the city.

What if landowners interested in preserving their lands for this purpose could then take some of their proceeds from the conservation easement purchase, work with the Fire Mitigation Unit, and leverage additional state and national funding to conduct comprehensive fire mitigation work on their property?

This would be a smart use of existing funds and a great investment in our future. If this kind of arrangement could have been achieved on Flying W Ranch before it burned (Flying W spans a large part of our city’s scenic mountain backdrop with an open space buffer between Mountain Shadows and national forest) it might have been a game-changer in the fire.

Scott Campbell is executive director of Palmer Land Trust and earlier worked for the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, under Gov. Bill Owens.