In 1951 an idealistic Boulder mother named Arlene Wolfe (MBusEd’68) had an epiphany in a Paris park years before the term “open space” would become ingrained in the local Boulder vernacular.
She’d been traveling for months with her husband, CU fine arts professor Lynn Wolfe (MFA’48), who was on leave to study sculpture in France when she found herself envying the vast swaths of public land surrounding European cities.
“She found it easy to locate a public park where our 4-year-old daughter could play — something that was hard to find back in Boulder — and she was greatly impressed with the greenbelts around the cities there,” recalls Lynn Wolfe, 92. “She wondered, ‘Could something like this work in Boulder?’ ”
Several years later, the Wolfes spread a map across their dining room table and floated the idea to three other couples at their Chautauqua area home, planting a seed for what would ultimately become arguably the most successful open space program in the United States. At a pivotal time in Boulder’s history — with its population booming and a local government stacked with pro-growth forces — they joined a small but tireless group of university activists to forge a different, first-of-its kind course for the city.
Today, with the citizens group PLAN-Boulder County (formerly PLAN-Boulder) celebrating its 50th anniversary and the Open Space and Mountain Parks program boasting 45,000 acres and 5.3 million annual visitors, pioneers of the movement can’t help but look back and wonder: How did we pull it off?
“I have concluded we just were very, very lucky,” says former CU math professor Robert “Bob” McKelvey, 80, who helped spearhead the late 1950s open space movement. “We hit the town precisely at the right time — when they were ready for something like this.”
A pivotal era
To those who moved to Boulder in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the town was nothing short of idyllic, boasting the culture and intellect of a university without the crowds and traffic of a big city.
“I told my wife, ‘It’s a funny little cow town. I don’t think we’ll be here long,’” recalls Lynn Wolfe, an accomplished painter and sculptor with a sharp wit and vivid memory that defies his years. He ended up teaching at CU for 37 years, stealing away with his family for overseas trips whenever possible.
“Arlene was remarkably intelligent, interested in all sorts of causes and she loved to travel,” he recalls of his late wife who also taught at CU.
In 1950 Ohio native Al Bartlett arrived fresh from a doctoral program in nuclear physics at Harvard University to take a position in the physics department. The move from big city to bucolic Western town was quite an adventure.
“It was sort of a provincial, frontier kind of town,” he recalls. “There wasn’t even a turnpike.”
But all that was poised to change. Hordes of veterans flocked to CU to attend school on the G.I. Bill after World War II. The Bureau of Standards moved to town, bringing jobs. And in 1952, the Boulder-Denver turnpike opened, sparking a meteoric rise in population. Boulder grew from 13,000 in 1940 to 32,000 by 1957. Nationwide, a housing boom was taking place and the Federal Highway Act, signed in 1956, marked the beginning of the interstate highway system. It didn’t take long for development to reach Boulder’s open fields. Shopping centers followed.
And some residents began to worry.
“They were building as fast as they could,” recalls Bartlett who, at the time, felt somewhat powerless to slow the tide. “The developers were working closely with the city government. They got what they wanted.”
By the time McKelvey arrived in 1956, the population was bulging at a 6 percent annual clip, and bulldozers were encroaching on the once pristine foothills. Then came rumblings that a developer wanted to build a luxury hotel on top of Enchanted Mesa where McKelvey loved to walk his dog. And the city wanted to start pumping water to higher elevations — a sure invitation to development. Those lured to town by its rare beauty found each other on campus, and in 1959, a revolution began to brew.
“I remember bumping into Bob McKelvey on his bike on campus one day,” Bartlett recalls. “He said, ‘We’ve got to do something about all these homes being built up on the hill.’ I remember saying to myself, ‘What in the world can we do?’ ”
For McKelvey, youthful optimism prevailed.
“I was ignorant. I was in my mid-20s and I didn’t know how the world worked yet,” he says.
Campus leads open space effort
The two reserved a room in the physics building, drawing a dozen people to brainstorm. Soon, they were hiking the foothills, clipboards in hand, sketching out a north-to-south line near 5,750 feet above which, according to their proposal, no city water could be piped. In mid-May 1959, 100 volunteers from campus and beyond hit the streets to solicit signatures for a ballot initiative to create the so-called “Blue Line.”
Then came the campaign, a low-budget, grass roots endeavor even by ’50s-era standards.
“Our total expenditure was $500 and half of that went to the attorney,” quips Bartlett, who despite initial skepticism was quickly caught up in the campaign excitement. The CU faculty played a pivotal role, with anthropology professor John Greenway sketching a mountain scene for the campaign postcards, engineering professor Kurt Gerstle handing out literature on downtown street corners and dozens of others gathering in living rooms after school to hand-address postcards, lick stamps and draft letters.
On July 21, 1959, their work paid off, with 76 percent of Boulder voters approving the historic Blue Line Charter Amendment. But their celebration was short-lived.
“We knew the Blue Line was just a stopgap measure,” McKelvey recalls. “If we truly wanted to preserve the land we had to buy it.”
Well aware that the Blue Line protected only the foothills, and that the growing Front Range was encroaching, Bartlett, McKelvey, the Wolfes and others went on to found PLAN-Boulder in September 1959. Its mission was to “combat urban sprawl by keeping attractive green areas open within the city as well as the surrounding countryside,” as stated in its inaugural newsletter.
Its first objective: to convince Boulder voters to pass a $105,000 bond issue to purchase Enchanted Mesa, west of Table Mesa. That was accomplished in 1962. The next step was to create a permanent source of funding for land acquisition.
Residents become trendsetters
In 1967 Boulder voters passed a four-tenths of a cent sales tax, becoming the first in the nation to approve a tax to buy and maintain open space. To date, roughly $200 million has been spent on land, and Boulder has become a national model.
“We had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get a fully funded open space program, so we dropped every single nonessential activity and campaigned day and night,” Bartlett recalls. “It was a very special time. Had it happened today, we would have much more vigorous opposition.”
Decades later, memories have faded and recollections differ slightly on what happened when and who is to be credited for the history-making open space program. But those still here to enjoy it point to one common hero — a culture of idealism and unique farsightedness on the CU campus.
Today Bartlett remains a powerful national voice speaking out against unchecked growth, and McKelvey, who lives in Missoula, Mont., writes scientific research articles, most that deal with the conservation of biological resources.
Meanwhile, Wolfe, who lost his wife in 1997, continues to support open land and public greenways in honor of his wife. The Wolfes have donated $614,000 to create Wolfe Garden Walk — a landscaped path with a bronze wolf sculpture that will wind through the CU campus after he dies.“Not bad for a frugal schoolteacher,” he jokes.
As he stands on his Boulder deck, looking out across a sea of open land inspired by a long-ago trip to Europe and a wife with a vision, he couldn’t be more proud.
“She definitely left her footprint,” he says.
In addition to CU emeritus professors Lynn Wolfe (MFA’48) of fine arts and Al Bartlett of physics pictured in this story on Boulder’s Bobolink Trail, many additional CU-related people helped champion the need to preserve Boulder’s open space in the 1950s and 1960s. Others included Coloradan columnist Paul Danish (Hist’65), then of the President’s office; Ralph Ellsworth, Norlin librarian; Mary Maslin, wife of biology professor Paul Maslin; Gayle Waldrop, dean of the journalism school; Ed Weibel, mechanical engineering professor and his wife Gladys Weibel; Ruth Wright (Law’72); and Ann Zubrow, wife of economics professor Reuben Zubrow.