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The Good the Bad and the Ugly 

A Colorado Earth Day Roundup

Nature never did betray

The heart that loved her.

William Wordsworth, 1770-1850

The world is brimming with prose celebrating the wild. But it wasn't until April 22, 1970 that, thanks to the efforts of one man, a movement was born to thrust the environment into the national psyche.

Eight years after he planted the germ of the idea for Earth Day, as he put it, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin finally saw it flower. In an essay recounting the first celebration, Nelson wrote:

"The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air and they did so with spectacular exuberance.

"Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself."

Last July, Nelson died at 89. His legacy is incontrovertible. This Earth Day, we examine the good, the bad and the ugly of the past year; what we have done right by the environment, what we've done poorly, and what we need to ponder to improve Colorado and the Pikes Peak region.

The Good

TOPS wins, Bruce loses

Thanks to the Colorado Supreme Court, Colorado Springs can move forward with plans to build parks, improve trail systems, and acquire open space. The city's Trails and Open Space Coalition tax initially was passed in 1997, and three years ago voters overwhelmingly approved an extension to enable the city to buy open space through 2025.

County commissioner and anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce sued to halt the extension, claiming the ballot had not been properly written and was in violation of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. After the suit spent three years in the court system, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city in February.

Using TOPS-generated funds, the city so far has built 23 new parks ($7.3 million), completed 40 trail projects, including the opening of more than 20 miles of urban trails ($8 million), and preserved eight parcels of open space totaling 4,013 acres ($36 million). The second phase of TOPS funding is expected to generate $200 million.

Live wild wolf sighting

On Feb. 16, an officer with the Colorado Division of Wildlife videotaped a lone wolf strolling across a snowy landscape 10 miles south of the Wyoming border, near Walden. While the DOW stopped short of actually identifying the animal, its black coat, body shape and tail left conservationists cheering the apparent return of the wolf. It may have migrated from Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in 1994.

Two years ago, a young female wolf with a radio tag from Yellowstone was found dead, likely hit by a car, along Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs. Before that, no wild wolves had been seen in Colorado in 69 years.

FREX earns loyalty

The Front Range Express' 15 buses transport commuters between Fountain, Colorado Springs, Castle Rock and Denver. FREX reports its annual ridership at 118,389 one-way trips, or approximately 232 round trips every weekday.

The bulk of the riders are between 34 and 54, with an annual family income of more than $80,000. They split 50-50, male and female, and roughly half the riders use FREX five days a week. The cost is $6 for a one-way ticket, and discounts are available for multi-ticket purchases.

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FREX, which has been running for a year and a half, has funding until next January. Whether it receives future funding will be up to its public stakeholders. Schedules and more information can be found at FrontRangeExpress.com, or by calling 719/636-FREX (3739).

Mountain Metro expands service

In November 2004, voters in Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Green Mountain Falls and El Paso County approved a 1 percent sales tax to improve a public transit system that, at least in fast-growing Colorado Springs, had not seen a new bus route added since the 1970s. The expanded regional service, which includes Sunday bus operations, launched Nov. 3. For info, call 385-RIDE (7433).

Spreading the zoo doo

Elephants poop. A lot. Try 200 to 250 pounds a day. This year, Venetucci Farm agreed to take the doo from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo's two African elephants, compost it and use it for fertilizer to grow what everyone hopes will be really big pumpkins. The folks at the farm have agreed to give the zoo a bunch of pumpkins to carve into jack-o-lanterns at its annual "Boo at the Zoo" celebration for children. "So it will come full circle," says Sean Anglum, the zoo's director of public relations. "We'll see if the pumpkins grow trunks or something."

Fort Carson gets aggressive

With a landmass larger than Colorado Springs, Fort Carson U.S. Army base already is huge. Recently, the Army decided to add another 4,377 military and civilian workers to Fort Carson; the influx will bring its population to 24,000, the largest since the Vietnam War.

"The big dog has just gotten bigger," community activist Ann Oatman-Gardner notes. Gardner is part of a task force of community activists and representatives from surrounding city and county government agencies that is working with the base. The task force is assisting Fort Carson in its aggressive efforts to become completely self-sustaining by 2025, in everything from environment to transportation to infrastructure.

Power sawdust

Colorado Springs Utilities is turning sawdust into power at its Martin Drake Power Plant, just southwest of downtown. As described in its March customer newsletter, the utility is collecting wood waste, including chipped pallets, scrap lumber and construction leftovers, and mixing it with coal.

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The plant is currently burning 10 tons of sawdust per day about 1 percent of its fuel and the wood burns cleanly, producing little ash. The utility pays only the cost of hauling the wood from local businesses to the plant.

Don't feed the birds

This year, state Sen. Deanna Hanna introduced a bill to criminalize feeding birds, squirrels and other wild animals in Colorado.

At first, the proposal would have outlawed feeding all wild birds and animals, and set a $1,000 fine for people who allowed the critters to be housed on residential properties. The bill was amended, making it a misdemeanor to feed wild animals which still included squirrels. It was further amended to allow birdhouses for songbirds but birders then noted that hummingbirds, flickers and jays are just three bird types that don't qualify in that category. Eventually, the bill was killed in committee.

"She just didn't realize the financial effect that wildlife and bird-watching and bird-feeding has on this state," says Frank Dodge, a local birdfeed manufacturer, who notes that one of every three Americans over age 16 engages in some form of birding activity. "It's a billion-dollar impact just in Colorado."

In an unrelated development, Hanna, a Democrat from Jefferson County, resigned her seat last month after a letter surfaced in which she demanded $1,400 in "reparations" from a realtors group that had endorsed her opponent in the last election.

Gale Norton leaves

When President George W. Bush put former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton in charge of his Department of the Interior, pundits were quick to predict she would turn out to be nothing more than James Watt in a skirt.

The reference, to her former bombastic, energy- development-and-big-business-loving boss in the Reagan administration, did not translate exactly. Norton was a quiet soldier until she resigned last month. But, as the Paonia-based High Country News recently noted, the Bush administration has done its best to dismantle President Bill Clinton's "reborn" Interior.

In the past five years, it has junked Clinton's designation of nearly 60 million acres as permanently roadless; opened, or proposed to open, wilderness areas for oil and gas exploration (Norton has pushed hard for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge); tried to reverse a ban on snowmobiling in Yellowstone; and put former energy-company execs in key agency positions.

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One benefit, as HCN notes, is that diverse conservation-minded Westerners have banded together as a result of the assaults.

The Bad

Kempthorne: Gale Norton in pants

It looks like Idaho Gov. Dick Kempthorne will easily be confirmed as Bush's next secretary of the interior. The Center for Responsive Politics recently reported that his longtime supporters suggest he will likely "hew to the policies of his predecessor." When Kempthorne was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, he accepted more than $507,000 in contributions from people and companies representing agricultural big business, timber, wood, paper, energy and natural resources all industries he will regulate while heading the Interior.

Taking away the shade

Since March of last year, Colorado Springs has removed roughly 450 trees from city parks, and an additional 360 trees that once lined the streets. "Our poor trees are having a hard go of it, living in this almost-desert location," says city forester Jim McGannon. Multi-year winter droughts are as much to blame for the tree-brittling devastation as the dry summer months. Disease, along with occasional violent cloudbursts that bring destructive hail and fierce winds, also factor in. The city, which spends roughly $3 per capita on trees every year, is replanting but being more selective, picking drought-tolerant trees and putting fewer in concentrated areas to ensure they have more room to grow.

Vanishing farms

An Environment Colorado study has found that Colorado is losing the equivalent of five family farms a week. Development has swallowed a total of 1.26 million acres of agricultural land since 1997.

"Increased rural large-lot development and weakening agricultural economies contribute to the rapid loss of agricultural land, now nearly 690 acres per day, threatening the future of rural Colorado, our statewide economy, and key natural resources," according to the report.

El Paso and Pueblo counties lost 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively, of total agricultural land, almost 200,000 acres combined. Eagle County, home of mega-resort Vail in the central Rockies, has lost 46 percent of its agricultural land in the past 15 years.

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Colorado now ranks third in the nation, behind Texas and New Mexico, in overall agricultural land lost in the past five years. The study can be read in full at environmentcolorado.org.

Gold Camp Road arson

Following years of community debate, the U.S. Forest Service preliminarily approved partially reopening Gold Camp Road between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek if someone can come up with an estimated $700,000 to do it. The road was closed to cars in 1988, after a tunnel along the route partially collapsed. Since, it has become a haven for hikers and other enthusiasts, who don't relish the prospect of noise and dust.

In February, a month before a final Forest Service decision was expected, fire broke out, further damaging the historic tunnel and restricting hikers and bikers. Arson is suspected.

No global warming commission

At the urging of Environment Colorado, Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon hatched a plan to create a state Commission on Global Climate Change. President Bush has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol to commit to reducing global warming pollution, so many states across the country have set up their own commissions to take action to reduce global warming. (For example, eight eastern states four with Republican governors, four with Democrats have formed a consortium to address greenhouse-gas emissions.)

After months of discussion, plans for the commission were shelved. Leaders hope to revive talks for a commission next year.

Roadless areas program

Coloradans have turned out in force since November to weigh in during public meetings on the future of roadless areas, which cover more than 4 million acres of national forest lands in Colorado and 58 million acres nationwide. While these areas technically may already have roads on them, they are not currently maintained, nor are they open for development.

Environmentalists and hunters have joined together and are calling to keep the areas protected and even expanded. Representatives from the oil, gas and mining industries, as well as off-road enthusiasts, want to develop and obtain more access to the contested areas.

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While citizen involvement has been impressive, the future for roadless areas does not bode well. Shortly after taking office, President Bush scrapped Bill Clinton's order to permanently halt road-building and timber-cutting on nearly 60 million acres of roadless areas.

Republican Gov. Bill Owens will make a recommendation later this year as to what should happen in Colorado; it then will go to Bush for a final say.

Injecting biosolids into the earth

The Recycling Coalition is none too pleased with the way that Colorado Springs Utilities currently disposes of our solid sewage waste, affably referred to as "biosolids." The stuff is pumped 18 miles south to Clear Springs Ranch, near the Ray Nixon Power Plant. CSU then runs the crud through digesters for a few weeks, then stores it in big lagoons. Eventually, workers put it into tank trucks, and, using big nozzles, pump it deep into the ground.

Gary Rapp of the Recycling Coalition of Colorado Springs notes that the utility relies on geoshale to keep the unlined disposal sites from leaking into the Fountain Creek Watershed. But the utility's own master plan indicates the stuff is leaking out.

"This isn't standard operating procedure for Colorado or the nation," Rapp says. "We think they are at odds with their own environmental stewardship policies."

The Recycling Coalition has called on the utility to recycle the biosolids into fertilizer pellets, or even to burn them for power options that dozens of other cities have chosen.

The Ugly

COSMIX congestion

The $150 million Interstate 25 widening project whose name creation alone cost taxpayers $21,000 is slated for completion at the end of 2007. When it's done, the highway will have three lanes running each direction through the heart of the city. By 2017, planners anticipate another lane will be needed in each direction. Expect to encounter plenty of orange cones, concrete barriers and congestion for another year and a half.

County population explodes

El Paso County has surpassed Denver to become the most populous county in the state. The U.S. Census Bureau says that as of July 1, 2005, an estimated 565,582 people lived in El Paso County, compared to 557,917 in Denver County. Of course, Denver is well-packed and has virtually nowhere to expand, while El Paso County development could sprawl over its 2,158 square miles, which is slightly more than twice the area of the state of Rhode Island.

What's that smell?

Colorado Springs got socked with lawsuits and fines after a series of spills resulted in about 400,000 gallons of sewage being dumped into Fountain Creek. The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against Colorado Springs for violating the federal Clean Water Act, as did Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut. In Pueblo, residents long have been the unappreciative recipients of the Springs' wastewater, which has turned Fountain Creek into a muddy, foul health hazard.

"You guys are shitting all over us," Pueblo City Council President Bob Schilling told the Independent last July. Last year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment fined Colorado Springs $130,000 for the spills its largest fine ever levied for sewage spills.

On Jan. 5, Colorado Springs Utilities workers who were trying to fix a pipe unleashed another massive spill, dumping 44,400 gallons of untreated wastewater into Shooks Run and Fountain Creek. Blaming the problem both on human error and a storm drainage infrastructure that has not received funding since 1997, the utility now plans to spend $250 million in upgrades over the next 20 years.

  • A Colorado Earth Day Roundup

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