Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sprawl vs. Nature at Banning Lewis Ranch

What we have here is a failure to appreciate. The prairie presents an illusion of emptiness, giving license to unwitting abuse. It looks like a waste of space, Mother Nature's vacancy sign beckoning development. Indeed, how could it have any other value besides potential for human housing, shopping, and business?

A herd of Pronghorn near Jimmy Camp Creek Park, a parcel of the annexed Banning Lewis Ranch at the eastern edge of Colorado Springs

Vastness defines the landscape and the ecosystem. It quite literally cannot exist at a smaller scale. Sprawl, and industrialized agriculture, are killing it. Subdivisions and strip malls are poor replacements for prairie dog towns. Those rodent settlements foster far more diversity than any human equivalent. A prairie cannot even be properly grazed when it has been fragmented into disconnected patches. The deer and the Pronghorn can no longer play; and the bison? Long gone, unable to roam once highways divided the range. Heck, even the railroads spelled their doom.

Some summer day take a walk through the grass. Tall, short, or non-existent, it hides the truth of abundance. You will realize the very ground is alive, a blanket of grasshoppers, crickets, leafhoppers, beetles, ants, solitary bees and wasps, and flies. Horned Larks burst from beneath your feet to alight on barbed wire fences. Meadowlarks sing from the posts. Above them kingbirds perch on power lines and bare tree branches. Higher still soar Red-tailed and Swainson's Hawks and Golden Eagles. Mountain Plovers contradict their name, nesting in the middle of the nowhere plains.

What we have here is the failure of assumptions. We assume that the definition of progress is the erection of man-made structures, opportunities for acquisition of material goods, services, and personal financial wealth. The other side of that balance sheet is environmental health, ecological integrity, and the well-being of those people who value such things. Even if you do not count yourself among those who bird, or otherwise enjoy other living organisms, you are obligated to respect the rights of those who do.

Our collective civil liberties include the pursuit of intangibles, emotions, and fulfillment that cannot be quantified or even fully explained. How does one articulate the exhilaration of seeing a Prairie Falcon blazing across the sky? How do you measure the importance of personal or scientific discovery, such as spotting a Mexican Silverspot butterfly, never before seen in Colorado, or this far north of the Mexican border? That happened in Jimmy Camp Creek Park.

Mexican Silverspot butterfly

We have choices. We can choose to have a city of muscle, bone, and heart at its core, or a city fat with haphazard housing developments and shopping centers flung into the outskirts. It may seem the logical thing to do, adhere to the annexation-and-build model that every city seems to follow. It may even feel like a necessary action. Ah, but that is how an addict thinks.

Our city and county leaders may need rehab. Perhaps they need to be sent to Portland, Oregon, or some other municipality that has learned proper land use planning, worked diligently for public and private consensus, and actually allowed annexation to pay for itself, something that rarely happens. A flexible "urban growth boundary" may be in order to accommodate not just new residential neighborhoods, but local agriculture and wildlife corridors.

There is nothing that has yet been done with the Banning Lewis Ranch property that cannot be undone, but once you build there is no turning back. No recapturing the scenic views. No tearing up the roads, no calling back the birds, the bees, the Pronghorn. We must have all stakeholders at the table before we do anything more. We have to consider all potential solutions, all values. Maybe that means adding more land to Jimmy Camp Creek Park and Corral Bluffs Open Space. Perhaps the state could take over the property as a wildlife management area. Should cattle continue to graze there? What should be the role of local farmers? How do we manage the water? We need honest, open dialogue that includes more than elected officials and real estate developers. It will go a long way toward transparency and true democracy, toward a healthy human ecosystem.


  1. Makes me want to go to Portland to see how they're doing it.

    1. It is not as easy as it once was. A lot of suburbs now abut the growth boundary; and traffic is at least as bad as Los Angeles now....but they do make a point of having transit and other services keep up with growth, up front, instead of lagging behind like it does almost everywhere else.