How Population Growth, Sprawl, and Density Are Devouring Open Space and Colorado’s Quality of Life


Rejecting Olympic Gold to Save Open Space

In 1970, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 1976 Olympic Games to the largest city in Colorado – Denver.  As a 2015 article in The Guardian acknowledged:

“The Games were positioned as the perfect celebration of both the United States’ bicentennial and Colorado’s centennial anniversaries. And where better to host a Winter Games than in the majestic Rocky Mountains?”

But those 1976 Winter Games were eventually held in Innsbruck, Austria, not Denver, Colorado. Why?  Because a coterie of Colorado environmentalists, led by a spirited young state lawmaker named Richard D. Lamm, convinced a majority of Denver residents and Coloradans to do something that had never happened before in modern Olympic history:  to say, in effect, “Thanks, but No Thanks,” or more precisely, to reject spending public funds to host an Olympic Games after having already been awarded the Games.  This rejection, “was a major victory for ecologists who feared vast areas of mountain landscape would be ruined for generations by the Olympics,” according to United Press International.

Half a century ago, the values and priorities represented in this explicit rejection of “progress” in favor of protecting a beloved and besieged landscape by a critical mass of Coloradans made environmental history. Its reverberations were felt throughout the country.  The senior author of this report heard about it as a schoolboy in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  For the first time, on environmental grounds, a majority of skeptical, engaged citizens had successfully rebelled against the schemes of their “betters” and powerful business interests and turned down a prestigious event and related development that would have earned them worldwide envy and acclaim.  Coloradans had taken to heart the lyrics of Colorado transplant John Denver in his 1972 mega-hit song “Rocky Mountain High”:

"Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
While they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land"

-- John Denver

With the rejection of the 1976 Winter Olympic Games, Colorado’s cherished Rocky Mountains were seemingly saved from the scourge of overexploitation and development.  Or were they?  Was it instead perhaps just a reprieve?

Colorado, like California, Another “Paradise Lost?”

In 1970, when the IOC awarded it the Olympics, Colorado’s population was 2.21 million. Half a century later, in 2021, the population had more than doubled to 5.81 million, an increase of 3.4 million new residents or 2.63 times greater than the 1970 population (163%).

Those new multitudes of state residents triggered the development of hundreds of thousands of acres of Colorado’s coveted open space to accommodate their diverse urban demands and necessities, according to the National Resources Inventory (NRI) of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, formerly the Soil Conservation Service or SCS).  Since 1982 (and up through 2017 so far, the most recent NRI), as is described more fully in our Findings, the NRI has tabulated or inventoried the acreage of different types of land use on non-federal lands in the United States, such as cropland, rangeland, pastureland, forestland, other rural land, and developed land.

The area of developed land in Colorado grew from 1.2 million acres (1,875 square miles) in 1982 to 2 million acres in 2017 (3,085 square miles), an increase of about 800,000 acres (1,210 square miles) or 66 percent.  The picturesque Front Range of the Colorado Rockies – where the mountain ramparts jut skyward dramatically from the plains – has been particularly hard hit with urban sprawl.  Jefferson, Boulder, and Larimer counties, for example, where the cities of Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins, respectively, are located, lost 61,300; 33,800; and 42,900 acres of open space.  Even worse was El Paso County, where booming Colorado Springs sits; it lost 112,000 acres of open space, the most of any county in the state.  That’s 175 square miles of open space obliterated in just 35 years.

In the Colorado of the 2020s, there appears to be a brash bipartisan consensus among a new generation of movers and shakers and growth-at-all-costs boosters in the state not only that growth is good but that more growth is even better. The current generation of Colorado politicians and “influencers” has decisively rejected the earlier 1970s ethos, exemplified by Governor Dick Lamm, that acknowledged, accepted, and even embraced limits to growth and a “small is beautiful” philosophy.  Population growth and the prosperity that allegedly accompanies it are paramount, and if urban and residential densities need to swell, or the urban periphery needs to expand outward ad nauseam to accommodate that growth, then so be it.  This is an acceptable price to pay, and so prominent Coloradans cheer the state’s rapid population and economic growth and development as both a source, and a reflection, of vitality, power, prosperity, and pride.  

Colorado Population Growth from 1900 to 2020 and Projected to 2050

Source: U.S. Census Bureau (Census counts) and Colorado State Demography Office.

State Sprawl

The consequences for open space and natural habitats, and for Coloradans who love open space and natural habitats, are profoundly negative.  The downside of growth is experienced every weekend by motorists caught in the traffic gridlock headed west from Denver on I-70 into the mountains during the summer’s hiking and camping season, the autumn’s golden aspen season, and the winter ski/snowboard season.  They were experienced by the nearly 1,000 homeowners who lost their homes and possessions in the Marshall Fire that swept through Louisville, Superior, and other sprawling areas of unincorporated Boulder County in late December 2021.  And they are experienced by all Front Range residents who must breathe the region’s increasingly polluted and unhealthy air.  In April 2022, an article in The Denver Post noted that:

“As the Front Range population grows, so does the number of gasoline-powered cars and trucks on the road. Those vehicles are the No. 1 source of nitrous oxide emissions, which is a major contributor to the region’s ozone problem.”

Unbearable traffic congestion in the sprawling Denver metro region and elsewhere along the Front Range contributes not only to smog, blighted views of the Rockies, blighted lungs (and other negative health effects from air pollution), and blighted a quality of life, but to frustration, wasted time and a lost sense of freedom.  It is one of the reasons why, in a historic reversal of a longstanding demographic trend, in the past year, more people may have begun to move out of Colorado into other states than from those states into Colorado.  In April 2022, KDVR reported that:

“More data is coming in that suggests Colorado’s decade-long population eruption has ended…. independent researchers found more people moving out of Colorado than in over the year…. HireAHelper, an online moving service, analyzed over 90,000 moves that took place over 2021. In Colorado, 15% more people moved out of the state than into it over the year.” 

KDVR listed a number of possible explanations, all based in economic rationales, for why Colorado residents may be departing the state en masse, which sound very much like the reasons Californians have been giving since their mass departure from that state beginning in the 1990s: unaffordable housing, rising cost of living overall, rising violent and property crime (e.g., car theft). The mass exodus from California, 13 million strong between just 1990 and 2015, sent droves of former Californians fleeing to all other states in the West (including Colorado) and beyond. (And yet California’s population still grew by millions, on net, because of international migration into the state.) A similar process and reversal of historic population trends may be repeating itself in Colorado, albeit on a smaller scale. 

One frustrated reader named Shawna, reacting to KDVR’s suggested reasons for people picking up and leaving Colorado, had this to say:

“You didn’t even mention other reasons to leave: traffic, traffic, traffic. Crowds, trashed natural areas, destroyed parks and once pristine open spaces. Far fewer open spaces, development (and ugly development). Homeless people who have nowhere to live. Selfish people who want what they want now, no matter what. Bad drivers (no, not native drivers). I could go on. This is why lots of people are or will be leaving.”

And so we feel compelled to ask, as many in recent decades have asked in the case of California – also once a place which symbolized the American Dream fulfilled – is Colorado on the verge of becoming just another “paradise lost?”

This study does not to purport to answer or even address that larger, complex question in any depth, but it does focus closely on one important aspect of it: vanishing open space in the Centennial State.  It quantifies the disappearance of open space in Colorado in recent decades and explores the connection between that loss and the rapid population growth which has engulfed the state for many decades, until just recently, when a tipping point may have been reached.  How much of Colorado’s sprawling development and startling loss of open space is due to the increase in the number of state residents and how much to changes in the amount of urban or developed land each of those residents, old and new, uses or consumes on average?  

This overarching question represents, in a microcosm, an issue which environmental scientists and environmental activists have debated for decades – vigorously and often acrimoniously.  Namely, how much environmental impact is related to population growth, and how much is related to our growing per capita consumption, especially as we grew wealthier in the 20th century and could afford to consume more “stuff”, including land?  Among ecologists and environmentalists, this is sometimes dubbed the “population versus consumption” debate, and as noted, it can be a divisive one.  In the case of Colorado’s diminishing open space, however, this report definitively answers that question. 

This Colorado study is NumbersUSA’s 14th report since 2000 on the factors that drive urban sprawl’s assault on open space.  Four of these were national-level studies while nine have focused on individual states or multi-state regions such as the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the emerging Southern Piedmont megalopolis.  But urban sprawl and habitat loss are issues of national and international scale and global implications.