To learn about change on Colorado's Front Range, about the flood of concrete and commerce washing over the high plains, find an old-timer.
Ask 69-year-old El Paso County rancher and politician Loren Whittemore and he'll likely adjust his cowboy hat, squint into the distance and tell you it can't be stopped.
"It's an erosion of a life I knew," he said.
Whittemore's been traveling the same dusty 50-mile road from eastern El Paso County to Colorado Springs his entire life. In the 1940s, his rancher parents, Roy and Lorene, would strap him into the back of their Buick and set out on Highway 94 for the city.
Back then, Interstate 25, splitting through Colorado Springs, didn't exist. Union Boulevard marked the eastern boundary of a 9-square-mile city -- compared to today's 190 square miles.
Whittemore recalls a few barns, a filling station and a few houses on the edge of town. Otherwise it was lonely prairie stretching out to the east as far as the eye could see, rugged Pikes Peak rising in the west.
Today's Front Range bears little resemblance to the one of Whittemore's youth. An asphalt wave has tumbled across the range -- linking its cities in one long, glowing, buzzing urban empire, visible from outer space.
It came slow at first. But now it threatens to blanket all trees and meadows in its path, slurping up scarce water resources and further sucking dry an already parched region.
40 acres and a cow
Most mornings, Whittemore wakes up in his modest one-story pink house on his massive 6,000-acre ranch near Rush and climbs into his white Cadillac sedan. Driving to his job as chief of staff for Congressman Joel Hefley in the Colorado Springs office, he passes mile after mile of open prairie that has been chopped into less-than-40-acre lots called "ranchettes."
"Where the heck did all these people come from?" Whittemore asked.
They certainly didn't come to ranch. After all, he says, it takes 35 acres to support just one cow on the high plains.
They've come, he acknowledges, to buy a piece of the West. And as an old-school free market Republican, Whittemore not only supports their right to do so, but as an El Paso County commissioner from 1985 to 1997, he helped foster that growth by embracing new development. The Wild West that newcomers bought into is a disappearing quantity around here, and the former commish cites fast-growing Falcon, 10 miles outside of Colorado Springs, as a classic example.
"This is all new, slowly marching forward," he said, looking out on the wall of subdivisions, strip malls, suburban streets, big-box stores and minivans.
The takeover has barely begun. Last year, for example, Colorado Springs annexed Banning-Lewis Ranch, 23,000 acres of rolling plains, which, over the next few decades, will be filled with 50,000 new homes and increase the city's size by a quarter. Closer to Whittemore's ranch, developers have envisioned an entirely new city called Santa Fe Springs.
A reality check, Whittemore now says, is in order. "We need to have safeguards. Much of the growth outside [the city] has been on ground water and there's not been enough planning for future water needs."
Indeed, experts disagree on how much growth can be sustained by relying on the increasingly tapped Denver Aquifer that lies below much of the Front Range. But if the wells suddenly dry up, all those ranchettes could quickly become a "rural ghetto," a slag heap of dehydrated dreams.
"The tragedy is that if people don't have long-range planning," he said, "owning a piece of the West is going to become a dream shattered."
The squatters next door
Whittemore is a walking testament that long-range growth planning is easier said than done.
Until 1999, the vast prairie landscape of eastern El Paso County was not zoned. As a result, growth ran unfettered. Long-established homesteaders found themselves living next door to massive tire graveyards; ranchers were alarmed when squatters moved onto the land next door with not even a septic tank in sight. The county's effort to impose a semblance of order, and separate the residential from the commercial via zoning laws, was met with hostility.
"They wanted to burn my ranch down and hang me," Whittemore said of opponents.
And not much has changed about feisty attitudes out east.
Two weeks ago, an estimated 800 people swarmed the state capitol in Denver in opposition of a 210-mile toll road connecting Fort Collins to Pueblo. The proposed highway -- which supporters maintain would help alleviate growing congestion along I-25 -- would slice through El Paso County about 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. It also would have given the developer the ability to seize property along the highway's route from reluctant landowners.
Opponents, who have nicknamed the highway the "Super Slab," went ballistic. Brandishing signs with messages such as "stay off my land," they filled the committee hearing room, as well as an overflow area and the lawn outside. An overwhelmed Senate Transportation Committee killed the bill.
The recent legislative action doesn't entirely kill the project, but even if the Super Slab's future is up in the air, one thing isn't: The big city is coming to the eastern plains -- no matter how loudly anyone complains.
Rising out of the desert
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 3.5 million people live on the urban corridor skirting the Colorado Rockies. That's more than the state's entire population in 1990. Another 2 million people are expected to move or be born here by 2030.
Along with greater Phoenix and greater Las Vegas, the Fort Collins-to-Pueblo strip is a nucleus of growth in a region seeing three times the rate of population expansion as the rest of the nation.
But more so than the desert-city strips to the southwest, the Pikes Peak region has taken the lead in sprawl.
Patrick Holmes, a Colorado College graduate who coordinates the school's annual State of The Rockies report and symposium, says that when it comes to growth in the Rockies, "this is the epicenter."
In his report, issued this week, Holmes found that two of the three most sprawling cities in the Rockies are in our back yard. In first place is Pueblo; Colorado Springs comes in third.
Holmes determined this by comparing urban density, expansion estimates and calculating the number of people divided by the number of ranchettes to come up with a numerical score.
Only the second-place city -- Albuquerque, N.M. -- scores in the same range as Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Each of the big three rated at least 70 percent more sprawling than other major cities, including Tucson, Ariz. ; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Denver.
In praise of sprawl
While growth is consistent along the strip -- most counties saw between a 25 percent and 40 percent spike in population from 1990 to 2000 -- efforts to deal with it vary significantly.
Compared to investments in regional planning made in metropolitan Denver, El Paso and Pueblo counties have a long way to go.
"Things are much more jumbled as you move south [along the Front Range]," said Holmes.
By contrast, Denver has adopted "Vision 2030," a regional plan that places a literal boundary on growth, and has fostered light rail public transportation.
Developers in El Paso County -- which has no similar regional development plan, despite the fact that its population is expected to surpass Denver's in 2011 -- revel in far fewer constraints when it comes to sprawl-enabling freedom.
Local home builders air their grumbles about the hurdles they face in getting their projects approved; however it is well documented that local government agencies have long gone out of their way to push through development projects. (In 2002, for example, a high-ranking city administrator chastised city planners and instructed them to greenlight development projects). Between 2000 and 2003, El Paso County experienced a 10 percent housing increase when 20,400 new single-family homes were authorized.
Holmes and others also note the attitude propagated by the local daily newspaper, whose editorials offer ongoing criticism of "anti-development snobs" and praise sprawl as the place where "hardworking people don't have to be wealthy to claim a piece of the American Dream."
Things are equally bad in Pueblo, he said, where the original city is increasingly abandoned for new developments in Pueblo West, a new city burgeoning 5 miles outside the old town limits.
The problem with unbridled freedom, embraced by the multitudes who arrived on the Front Range to buy a piece of the West, is that it tends to destroy the very thing that everyone moved here for in the first place -- beautiful mountain vistas and a feeling of closeness to the great outdoors. Too much concrete and those same people will flee -- creating economic chaos in their wake.
Unbridled sprawl takes another toll, as witnessed in Douglas County to our north, which marked a 192 percent increase in population from 1990 to 2000 and a 50 percent decrease in the average size of its farms and ranches. Booming rural or "exurban" growth -- seen in mile after mile of ranchettes -- is a big money loser for local governments.
A 2003 Colorado State University study found that providing police, fire, sanitation and other services to ranchettes requires $1.15 in spending for every $1 in taxes collected. That's compared to 35 cents for each dollar collected to service farms and ranches.
"It would be foolish to say we're not going to ultimately deteriorate the glue to our economy," Holmes said.
Protecting Fort Pueblo
When it comes to the pros and cons of building a massive urban corridor, Spenser Havlick has plenty to talk about.
Mention megalopolis and his ears perk up.
The University of Colorado architecture and planning professor has traveled the world studying them -- including a trip to Athens, Greece, not far from the original Megalopolis.
In 1961, renowned French geographer and Oxford scholar Jean Gottman coined the term "megalopolis" to refer to the merger of cities into an urban strip, and it became the title for his influential book published that year about the urbanization of America's northeastern seaboard.
Havlick has accompanied students to the most populous urban areas in the world, from Tokyo to Osaka, Japan, home to more than 56 million people tucked along the southern coast of an island smaller than California.
He knows all about the development of America's first megalopolises.
A vast monolith of steel, highway and rail coalesced around New York City in the early 20th century and now links Boston and Washington, D.C. Planners call it "BosWash." Then there's "ChiPitts" between Chicago and Pittsburgh. Or how about "SanSan," bridging San Francisco and San Diego?
With gangbuster growth on the Front Range, it may only be a matter of time before those same planners are referring to the entire range as "Fort Pueblo." This has already begun happening, as many people already refer to the combination of Fort Collins, Greeley and Loveland as "Fort Greeland."
So far, growth on the Front Range has been spurred by the convenience of Interstate 25 and the region's unique attractions, making it the place where the best of the mountains overspill onto the best of the prairie.
Resurrection of the old rail line between the cities for high-speed commuting, Havlick predicts, will be the next step in building the mega city. "Within the next 10 or 15 years, that rail line will begin to be the main artery of transportation along the Front Range."
Demand will only increase, he said, because of the growing number of people wanting to commute from one Front Range city to another. This will spur further growth, just as the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or B.A.R.T., caused population to "mushroom" in the San Francisco area.
The rise of a Front Range megalopolis does not need to destroy what we love best about Colorado, he said. Still, "What's going to crucify it is excessive unplanned growth, traffic and pollution."
And if those problems become too great, as they have throughout history in urban centers such as Constantinople, Peking or Rome, the result is decline.
"Once a great urban area can no longer function delivering the goods, services and quality of life for the majority," he said, "you're going to have a migration away."
If the exodus begins despite geographic restrictions, Havlick warns, high quality of life cities tucked into the Rockies such as Missoula, Mont., "need to look over their shoulder because they're next."
Girdled by a green belt
If the nightmare of mountain sprawl can't be avoided, it can at least be postponed.
There's a tricky two-word solution to the Front Range's appetite for growth that's almost synonymous with Boulder, the city where Havlick lives: open space.
"We are girdled by the green belt," Havlick said of the controversial but popular "necklace" of permanently protected land that encircles Boulder like a moat. The protected land drives up property values inside the city to such a point that many workers, including policemen, firefighters and teachers, complain they can't afford to buy a home.
Boulder began its open space program back in 1967, and for two decades local lawmakers helped it grow into one of the most ambitious preservation programs in the nation. Boulder, through an increased sales tax, has spent $165 million on open space, permanently placing 43,000 acres off limits to development.
And while developers and business interests complain that the "necklace" is strangling economic prosperity, Boulder spokeswoman Cathy Vaughan-Grabowski notes that "there's not a realtor in town that doesn't talk about open space as an amenity."
With open space, Havlick says, people are more content to stay put on the Front Range instead of sprawling farther West.
Larimer County, home of Fort Collins, followed suit, making deep investments in open space, strategically protecting 37,900 acres as buffers -- also paid for by sales taxes.
In fact, every major county on the Front Range, except for Pueblo, now has a sales-tax-for-open-space program. These programs work in concert with nonprofit organizations such as the Colorado Trust for Public Land and the Palmer Land Trust -- which works with ranchers who want to sell off development rights on their property.
Even state government has stepped up efforts in a big way. In 1992, voters approved the creation of Great Outdoors Colorado, or GOCO, which receives state lottery receipts for conservation projects. The ongoing program has helped purchase more than 350,000 acres of dedicated open space statewide, including a massive 55,400-acre chunk of ranchland in Larimer county on the Wyoming border, which will guarantee Fort Collins never blends into Cheyenne, Wyo., 40 miles to the north.
Going, going, gone
Despite strong grass-roots efforts, the open space movement suffers from a lack of collective thinking, some say.
In 1997, Colorado Springs voters authorized the city's Trails, Open Space and Parks program, or TOPS, which levies a one-tenth of a cent sales tax for land protection. The program has preserved around 4,000 acres.
"We're putting a Band-Aid on a problem we should have addressed decades ago," said Colorado Springs Vice Mayor Richard Skorman, who once worked as finance director for Colorado Trust for Public Land. He has curried support and made open space a priority on Council. "There were a lot of special places that should've been protected that are developed now."
Locally, even relatively modest conservation efforts find themselves threatened. After voters agreed two years ago to extend the TOPS program until 2025, anti-tax activist and newly elected El Paso County Commissioner Douglas Bruce successfully sued the city on a technicality, charging the program violates the state's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights law. As a result, the TOPS program will sunset in 2009; after spending $12.5 million to preserve Red Rock Canyon between Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, there's no more money available to pay for future projects.
With El Paso County sprawling the way it is, Skorman says, local open space efforts can seem pitiful to residents.
"They're heartbroken to see land over-graded and scraped away," he said.
Newcomers who arrive wide-eyed "turn around a year later and there are huge houses towering over areas that used to be pristine and attractive."
And as late as Colorado Springs is in making an effort, it's even worse in Pueblo. "They don't seem to have the political will to put something on the ballot," he said about the city's lack of an open space program.
Skorman doubts the reality, under current political climates, that a regionwide development and planning organization can be formed to coordinate open space efforts.
"I wouldn't see communities supporting that," he said.
Mushrooming to 17 million
If you want to learn about resistance to change on the Front Range, talk to Dave Gardner. In between complicated references about zoning rules and development fees, Gardner gets down to business.
Known in Colorado Springs as an anti-growth activist, Gardner actually resents the idea that buying open space and funding more public transportation will be needed for the Front Range to survive and thrive.
"I hate that," he said. "It's a really high price to pay for population growth."
Instead, Gardner maintains that developers should pay more up front for the costs associated with growth and that leaders should stop encouraging more people to move here.
If growth continues, he says, buying up a piece of the West on the Front Range may soon have about as much meaning as buying a piece of suburban Orange County, Calif., does today -- not much.
But it may turn out that looking to built-out Southern California for inspiration may not be a bad idea for the Front Range.
After mushrooming to a population of 17 million -- with a forecast of another 6 million residents by 2030 -- SoCal's sprawling region has been forced to act. Four years ago, six counties banded together to form the Southern California COMPASS program, a forum for participant governments and the public to collectively plan for the future.
Citizens who arrive at COMPASS events are given a "game" to play. The board shows a map of the region and the players are asked to fit "growth" pieces onto the map. They quickly realize that it's an impossible task and learn to trade growth pieces for smaller pieces marked "mixed use," "higher density" and "transit oriented development."
While repeating this kind of game here may seem ridiculous now, it may become a serious task.
Rancher Whittemore can tell you. Having spent more than 60 years living close to the land on the eastern plains, he's got a good idea of what this land can and cannot support.
"There's not been enough planning for [the] future," he said, specifically when it comes to providing enough water for everyone. "We can't have the same amenities they have in Pennsylvania."