A voice for the voiceless: ‘Forever Yours, The Land’

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Many areas in Colorado can claim a love for the land, but Colorado Springs’ identity is especially intertwined with the natural landscape surrounding the city. Our defining skyline is Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods. Our founding by Gen. William Palmer was rooted in highlighting and enhancing the natural beauty of the area and capitalizing on the natural landscape. Our identity as Olympic City USA is supported by our abundance of outdoor recreation resources.

Yet, despite such a strong cultural recognition of the value of the natural landscape, our actions sometimes say something else. In a national ranking assessing how the 100 largest cities in the country meet the need for parks, Colorado Springs scored 46th, surprisingly below peers including Plano, Texas; Aurora; and Lincoln, Neb., to name just a few. Our ranking, which recently dropped three places is predominantly informed by our relatively low acreage of parks and open space per capita, as well as its accessibility. New York City, a city not  usually recognized for its natural landscape, boasts an astounding 20 percent of its total area as parkland, and ranks ninth on the list. Comparatively, Colorado Springs has set aside 9 percent of our total area to parkland.

The same study found that our average annual per capita funding for parks is below average at $76 per resident when the average is $80. Yet the appetite for accelerating support for parks and open space has encountered hurdles in recent years, leading passionate park advocates to define park funding “wins” as “getting to average.” A goal of “getting to average” should be appalling for Olympic City USA. Many of us can remember the dramatic parks funding budget reduction in 2009 from a high of $19 million to $3 million. Today, nearly 10 years later, we have only rebounded back to $13.5 million.

There are startling projections from the state demographer’s office that estimate that Colorado Springs will surpass Denver in population by 2050. As Colorado Springs continues to grow, so do pressures on our beloved outdoor spaces. We believe that we need to do more as a community to protect and care for the natural landscape that defines our home.

Our outdoors not only defines our identity and provides the foundation of our quality of life, but it also drives our economy. Statewide, the outdoor industry in Colorado is valued at $28 billion, contributing $2 billion in state and local taxes. Locally, a report by the Trust for Public Land found that parks, trails and open spaces in the city of Colorado Springs raise the value of nearby residential properties by $502 million, and increase property tax revenues by $2.58 million. Conserving and maintaining our outdoor landscape should be a critical component of the city’s business model.

During the month of August, Palmer Land Trust partnered with our region’s vibrant and passionate arts community to raise awareness of land and conservation. Titled “Forever Yours, The Land,” the campaign married art and nature and partnered with the local creative community to celebrate conservation. By giving voice to the land itself, and bringing the land to life through inspiring pieces by 100 local artists, we invited the community to rally around conservation with the message that we can’t take the land for granted.

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Sixty venues from Manitou Springs to downtown Colorado Springs to Monument to the Powers Boulevard corridor joined the campaign by featuring local art and promoting the importance of conservation. Artists shared their talent and brought the beauty of our region to life through photography, painting, sculpture and more. Our key partners included Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs, Manitou Arts Center, Old Colorado City ArtWalk and Monument Art Hop. The goal was to celebrate the  land, and to spark conversations about the importance of land to our community.

We are grateful for our many partners who share our passion for the land, and our desire to elevate its voice to ensure that it remains a defining element of our community. We can only succeed in this if we work together. First, however, we must start by recognizing the value of these natural assets, and not taking them for granted. Learn more at celebrateland.org.

Rebecca Jewett is the executive director of Palmer Land Trust. She can be reached at rebecca@palmerlandtrust.org.