Balancing outdoor recreational needs with wildlife preservation

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Trends and options explored at PLAN Jeffco conference

By Sandy Barnes

Getting outdoors in wide-open spaces can have health benefits for people. However, converting wild, unspoiled lands into recreational venues for humans can have a questionable impact on wildlife

Finding a balance between outdoor recreational needs and wildlife protection was a focus of the PLAN Jeffco conference on Nov. 16 in Golden.

“Can wildlife survive in these areas humans tend to develop?” Dr. Mat Allredge, wildlife researcher with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, asked during his presentation. “Will all wildlife be tolerated?”

Altering the natural habitat of bears, mountain lions, elk, deer and other wildlife that live in once-pristine lands is affecting their population and predator-prey dynamics, Allredge said.

“We’re encroaching into their habitats,” he observed.

However, wildlife viewing is incredibly popular with people, said Brian Kurzel, policy and planning supervisor for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Preserving wilderness areas in the state is a high priority for Coloradans, according to a public survey to help develop a comprehensive outdoor recreation plan, Kurzel said.

“That was a surprise to us,” he remarked.

Achieving a balance between recreation and conservation is a priority in the SCORP 2014 plan, Kurzel said.

Outdoors and health

Dr. Mark Johnson, executive director of the Jefferson County Department of Health and Environment, made a strong case for people connecting with nature and getting exercise during his presentation.

“In general, health is much improved,” he said while discussing the positive effects of outdoor recreation.

“Most of the benefits are prevention,” Johnson remarked.

Walking a half-hour a day can help control blood pressure, prevent depression and improve sleep patterns, he said. Aliments such as diabetes and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder also can be mitigated through outdoor exercise, Johnson added.

“One of the best treatments for children with ADHD is being outdoors,” he said.

“Being surrounded by green is actually healthy, according to a study,” said Johnson. “Psych-social stress is a big problem in Jeffco. Seventy-five percent of primary-care visits are related to stress.”

Encouraging outdoor exercise is particularly critical for children who spend an average of six to seven hours a day looking at a screen, and only four to seven minutes a day outdoors, he said. Childhood obesity rates have doubled in recent years, along with the use of ADHD drugs for          kids, Johnson said.

The doctor recommended a half-hour of outdoor recreation for toddlers, an hour a day for children, and 30 minutes each day for adults — plus 20 minutes of more vigorous exercise a few times a week.

“Get outdoors and do something,” Johnson said.

Planning for the future

While looking at population trends in metro Denver, Grant Nulle, an economist with the state Department of Local Affairs, said that by 2040 the area is projected to see a population increase from the current 2.8 million to 4 million.

Also anticipated is an age shift from youth-dominated to an emerging number of retired people, as baby boomers in the area age, Nulle said. A growing older population might also create additional demand for outdoor recreation geared toward their needs, he said.

“Demography is a powerful social force,” Nulle remarked.

John Sovall, a biologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage program of Colorado State University, addressed the need for more research into the area of recreational impacts on wildlife. For humans, open space preservation increases property values and their quality of life. However, fragile plant and animal species, particularly in wetland areas, need additional assessment, he said.

“Outdoor recreation has been a major driver for public lands protection,” said Sarah Reed, a visiting fellow at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.

“There is going to have to be education to the public on the impact of recreation on species,” she said. “It’s a complicated balancing act.”

The conference was sponsored by the Jefferson County Open Space Division and PLAN Jeffco, a citizen organization that sponsored a ballot initiative in 1972 for a half-cent sales tax in the county to establish the open space program.

Since that time, Jeffco Open Space has acquired more than 52,000 acres and developed 28 parks within its system using sales-tax funds and other revenue sources, including grants.

For 2014, the projected sales-tax revenue for Jeffco Open Space is $37.22 million.

Contact Sandy Barnes at sandy@evergreenco.com.