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Boulder's open space program connects trails, volunteers, and the arts

Local photographers, artists, painters, and writers lead nature-based arts programs in Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks.

By Susan L. Pence

Map of ColoradoCitizen oriented and created, the City of Boulder's Open Space & Mountain Parks (OSMP) is a model public lands program. During the last 100 years, visionary citizens and wise lawmakers have contributed to the preservation of over 45,000 acres of mountain and valley trails, prairie ecosystems, riparian habitats, and greenways in a historically and scientifically important region. As of 2008, over 200 million dollars have been spent on land acquisitions and, annually, thousands of volunteer hours are logged in support of OSMP's mission. This report examines the history of Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks, its current volunteer and educational offerings, as well as the relationship that OSMP has built with local artists teaching/participating in the popular art programming, free and open to the public.

photo of people on trail
Hikers on a OSMP and the Arts program

Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks

In 1898, citizens of the young town of Boulder, Colorado, understood the value in preserving land for the enjoyment of generations to come. Their vision of protecting lands along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains is alive and well today in Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks (OSMP), with over 45,000 acres of wildlife habitat, geologic formations, tall grass prairies, greenways, natural water resources, trails, and unparalleled views.

Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks is now a vibrant department of the City of Boulder, and is staffed by approximately 90 to 115 employees in full-time, part-time, and seasonal positions. A diverse OSMP workforce includes administrators, trail crews, planners, professionals from a variety of scientific disciplines, real-estate experts, rangers, maintenance personnel, computer specialists, sign-makers and graphic artists, and volunteers.

Photo: The Sun under construction  
Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks land

Boulder voters, by approving a historic sales tax measure in 1967, had set events in motion that were to result in the formation of an Open Space Department, and a 1971 charter amendment that allowed the City Council to begin acquiring more open space lands through popularly approved bond issues. The Parks and Recreation Department managed the procured open spaces until 2001 when the city of Boulder Mountain Parks Division— under the Department of Parks and Recreation— and the Open Space/Real Estate Department merged to form one new department to manage the city’s wild recreational lands. That department is now Open Space and Mountain Parks, and it retains the real estate division.

The merger allowed the new department to provide a more consistent range of visitor opportunities, and bring the 6,555 acres of Mountain Parks lands— including Boulder’s signature Flatirons— under the strict protections of the Open Space Charter. The Charter outlines specifically how open spaces are to be preserved and utilized. The Open Space and Mountain Parks Mission states, "The Open Space and Mountain Parks Department preserves and protects the natural environment and land resources that characterize Boulder. We foster appreciation and use that sustain the natural values of the land for current and future generations" (City of Boulder OSMP, 2008).

photo of walkers on paved trail
 

Today, OSMP is thriving with fervent public support of its programs. As of 2008, over 200 million dollars have been spent on land acquisitions and, annually, thousands of volunteer hours are logged in support of OSMP's mission. Educators and community groups are able to obtain free individual attention from naturalists. "Natural Selections," an ongoing series of nature-based programs, is also free for the public to participate in guided educational hikes, reflective conversations, or history lessons at beautiful Chautauqua, to name a few. Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks is a testament to the power of citizens to make a difference in local planning and development, and in the strength of the human spirit when connected to the natural world.

OSMP VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES: An Overview

A call to action sounds and resonates throughout Boulder: "OSMP is currently recruiting for Volunteer Naturalists and Raptor Monitors!" Raptor Monitors is one of many volunteer opportunities, and looks for avid qualified birders "to observe courtship, nest development and fledging of Front Range birds of prey." Other OSMP volunteer programs include:

  • Bat Monitor Program – auditory and visual bat counts at dusk, June through September
  • Frog Monitor Program – visual counts of native frog species at select pond and river habitats
  • Hayfield Monitor Program – dawn or dusk grassland surveys to monitor nesting birds of concern
  • Herbarium Program –plant specimens gathered and added to collection; rare plants and weeds monitored
  • Hosts Program – friendly greeters offer information at community events, trailheads, and facilities
  • Stewardship Program – shared work/project opportunities for individuals, families, businesses, and organizations
  • Trail Guide Program – hardy volunteers travel and monitor OSMP trails, and provide information
  • Volunteer Naturalists – provide interpretive nature hikes with a focus on children’s learning

Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks also offers opportunities for individual volunteers to assist with administrative duties and research in resource conservation, education and outreach, planning, and volunteer services. Mandated Community Service Stewards are able to work off their community service time by helping staff at OSMP. In addition, the Boulder City Council appoints volunteers as policy and land acquisition advisors. With such diverse volunteer programs, there’s likely to be something for everyone. Diverse opportunities at every level of operations are a brilliant way to ensure the future of Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks.

OSMP VOLUNTEER NATURALIST PROGRAM

Photo: The Sun under construction  
 

Volunteer Naturalist recruitment and training is taken seriously at Open Space and Mountain Parks! When asked who the best candidates might be, Deb Matlock from OSMP Education and Outreach explained:

"Newly retired people with flexible schedules who have worked with kids before, and people who are self-employed make good candidates. We have elementary school hikes Monday through Friday during the day, so I and another interviewer will act like kids during the interview to see how the candidates respond. These are intense interviews, over an hour long, with two different scenarios, questions, and an overlay of training. Occasionally, there might be a wildcard just out of college who says, 'I just want to learn more, more, more'— that’s a red flag because we’re asking them to do the teaching."

The training program for Volunteer Naturalists takes place annually from the first week of February through April on Tuesdays from 9am to 3:30pm. There is no fee for the candidates selected to participate and, in return for their naturalist training, volunteers make a minimum commitment to lead 7 hikes within the first year. Recruitment flyers typically include information such as: We are looking for people who have experience working with children. You'll help students connect with the land and explore their role as stewards of wild places. We provide 65 hours of core training focused on interpretive techniques, local ecosystems, flora & fauna, geology, history, and safety issues. In return volunteer naturalists make a minimum commitment to develop and lead 7 hikes within the first year. The 1.5 to 2 hour hikes take place during the week, during working hours.

Applications are available online and contain more details of what OSMP is looking for in a Volunteer Naturalist. Qualifications include excellent communication and public speaking skills, interest in children K-12, interest in natural and cultural history, fitness and mobility for two-hour hikes, and being able to pass a background check.

OSMP EDUCATION AND OUTREACH: Interview with Deb Matlock

photo of people on trail
Deb Matlock, Interpretive Naturalist (left)

Some of the City's dedicated workers are also educators. Deb Matlock, an interpretive naturalist working in Education and Outreach for OSMP, is such a person. We met last spring after an internet search of Colorado environmental education led me to her programs. My introductory letter was promptly responded to, and I had found a like-minded colleague in nature-based arts education. Deb is a passionate and gifted naturalist with a background in fine arts/dance who followed her true calling into the wild places. She works with the "Volunteer Naturalist Program," one of several OSMP volunteer programs, and created the “OSMP and the Arts Program.” I interviewed Deb again in September after participating in the Fall Nature Journaling hike led by OSMP volunteer naturalist/artist Damaris Methner. As always, Deb was more than generous with her time and provided much of the information for this report.

After our three-hour, naturalist-led art hike, Deb and I returned to the OSMP offices and sat down for a visit. I asked Deb how OSMP determines what educational programs to develop and her answers were multi-faceted with a couple of surprises:

  • Staff interest— sometimes people have "pet" projects because of their interest in art or geology or astronomy and so on.
  • Community need— for example mountain lion and bear education as we have many of both in the area and they sometimes come down into neighborhoods. OSMP works with homeowners’ associations and with DOW (Division of Wildlife) to educate the public on wildlife issues.
  • New initiatives— like the dog tag program.
  • Areas most used— like Chautauqua and the Flatirons.
  • Newcomer’s groups— we offer a kind of OSMP 101 for new residents, usually a 2-3 hour program.
  • Requested hikes— you can go to our website at www.bouldercolorado.gov/requestahike. Schoolteachers and scout troops do this.

OSMP AND THE ARTS

Photo of group at table  
Group working together on art projects

Boulder's urban and natural trail environments are linking people with place in aesthetic, creative, and multi-sensory ways. OSMP and the Arts is not a typical community service or outreach program. It is a collection of field workshops, and facilitators must know workshop-teaching techniques. Usually, four local artists are contracted with each year and paid a $500 stipend at the end of their service. There was a time when artists in the program were paid by experience and Deb feels this may have been a better way to do things.

Local photographers, naturalist artists, painters, and writers lead nature-based arts programs from early April through early November each year. Adults and children alike sign up for free art hikes, photographers’ presentations at the Chautauqua Community House, nature journaling workshops, and walks that explore the relationship between human music and the music of the natural world.

While the target audience for OSMP education and outreach programs is from pre-school to senior citizen, the arts program typically attracts women 40-60-years-old. Interestingly, more men will sign up for the photography workshops and presentations, and Deb muses this might be so because "guys like gadgets." Currently, there is no formal demographic research occurring for OSMP and the Arts, so some of the formative analyses for programs occurs through observation and keeping mental notes of what worked and what didn’t. Participants in OSMP arts programming are asked to fill out a brief "Arts Program Evaluation" at the end of their experience. Artists are qualitatively rated in the questionnaire, and the programs are evaluated for appropriate length of time, level of physical exertion, appropriate for level of comprehension, what was learned, what was favored, what could be improved, and whether they would attend another OSMP arts program.

According to Deb, the "whole reason for doing this is about the relationship with nature; it’s not about the art" and she stressed the need for a "delicate balance" asking the artists to examine whether "anyone is closer to the land than they were before." Some of the artists want to make it more about the art than about having reflective, enriching nature-based experiences.

photo of art piece
Creating a "mandala" to record elements of the hike (click to enlarge)

My personal experience for the Fall Journaling hike was joyful. I learned about tall grass prairies and paid close attention to the incredible palette of colors that blanket autumn fields like a thick wool tweed. Each of us was given a toolbelt and a hue specific set of colored pencils, pastels, and acrylic paint. We stopped along the trail at various points, listened to poetry about bison and ravens and raptors and grasshoppers. Then we would work on our project for a few minutes before moving on to the next stop. Damaris had given each of us a blank paper "mandala" mounted on a pizza-sized board to record (draw, paint, color) visual elements of our hike in each pie-shaped section, with the idea that, by the end of the hike, we would have each space filled in to reflect upon as we turned it ‘round and ‘round, viewing from different angles. Of course, there were some problems with this approach as we ended up with paint and pastels on our clothes and didn’t quite have enough time to finish the project by the end of the 3-hour hike.

Nevertheless, time flew by and I came away grateful for a day of friendly chatter, reflective observation, and a new understanding of the tall grass prairie and riparian ecotome. My mandala was filled with words as I wanted to record more than what I was able to capture and draw quickly; I wanted to remember what I heard, what was flying overhead, what the air felt like, the essence of each poetry reading. Words like ephemeral, biome, and wen jong adorn my mandala alongside sketches of grasses and trees. Concepts like willow carrs as "anchors" and tall grass prairies hiding a vast alive, dense, deep sod underground ecosystem are now part of my world. Last year’s prescribed burn had brought the tall grass prairie to peak beauty in September and I knew, on a deeper level, why I was there that day.

OSMP and the Arts had fulfilled at least one of its program goals and mission, as Deb Matlock put it, "to create the opportunity for OSMP visitors to experience and connect with the land in a creative, expressive, and ancient way."

References

City of Boulder OSMP (2008). Boulder’s open space & mountain parks: A history. Retrieved 11/15/2008 from http://www.ci.boulder.co.us/

City of Boulder OSMP (2008). Department information: About Boulder open space & mountain parks. Retrieved 9/22/08 from http://www.bouldercolorado.gov/

City of Boulder OSMP (2008). Natural selections: Nature hikes and programs. Retrieved 11/15/2008 from http://www.ci.boulder.co.us/

City of Boulder OSMP (2008). Volunteer for open space and mountain parks! Retrieved 11/15/2008 from http://www.ci.boulder.co.us/

Susan Pence is a sculptor, teacher, and graduate student at Colorado State University in adult education, with a focus on nature-based arts education. As an undergraduate in studio arts/sculpture at College of Santa Fe, she completed field research in Japan on traditional Japanese architecture, gardens, and pathways. Susan currently serves on the curriculum committee for CSU's School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES). Trails and trail-based arts are a passion.

Photo of field and trees
Trail bridge on the City of Boulder's Open Space and Mountain Parks land

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