'Front Range': forging an American dream under Colorado's big sky

The American dream is colliding against some of the quick-shifting realities of the 1980s. And these realities look particularly harsh in the last quarter of the 20th century in the rugged, semi-arid Rocky Mountains.

Here some 1,000 Coloradans have been laboring mightily over the last year to redefine the American dream. They have been taking part in a unique citizen-planning effort initiated by Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm.

At a breathtaking rate, Colorado's predominatly rural and pastoral economy is being transformed into a technological and energy-development based economy.

The hub of this change is an area know locally as the Frong Range. This is the part of Colorado memorialized by James Michener in "Centennial," the place where the High Plains end and the Rocky Mountains begin. It includes the cities of Denver, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo.

Since the end of Prsidnet Dwight Eisenhouwer's last term in office, the number of people living in this areas has nearly doubled.And the current population of 2.4 million is projected to swell to more than 3.7 million by the year 2000. Among the implications of this extreme rate of growth are the anticipated need for 85 percent more hosues and $1.5 billion in increased water treatment and sewage disposal.

"The past is just the prelude," Governor Lamm warned these citizens at the conference which marked the end of their first year of effort.

Eighty percent of the nation's oil shale -- considered the cheapest synfuel alternative to imported oil -- is in Colorado. In addition, the Rocky Mountain states are the site of the Overthurst Belt, the only area in the continental United States where major new discoveries of oil and gas have been made. Also, this region contains 50 to 60 percent of the nation's coal reserves and virtually all of the uranium reserves that can be mined profitably. Thus, the widespread perception here is that domestic energy development will add considerable momentum to growth in the Front Range.

This citizen planning effort, called the Front Range Project, was started by Colorado's environmentalist-governor as a last resort. For 13 years, first as a legislator and then as governor, Lamm has been fighting for growth management in the state without success. Time and time again he has run headlong into the fierce individualism which is one of the region's legacies from frontier days. This inbred conservatism and distrust of government, particularly in the area of land-use planning, has hindered Colorado's efforts to cope with its growing pains, the governor firmly belives.

"Rather than do nothing, I started this process," Governor Lamm explains.

Putting $50,000 in state funds with $160,000 from the federal Economic Development Administration, $25,000 from the National Science Foundation, and another $85,000 from an assortment of foundations, a little over a year ago Lamm assembled a staff and began inviting influential citizens to participate in a planning process.

To neutralize potential criticism that this was just another of his attempts to get support for state land-use-planning, he made John G. Welles of the Colorado School of Mines, his chief opponent in the battle over bringing the Olympic Games to Colorado, head of the project and appointed only one-third of the participants, leaving the majority to be determined at the local level.

"If it weren't for this I don't believe the project would have survived the first year," says Mr. Welles.

The first year was devoted primarily to defining the growth-related problems which need addressing. In its second year, it will attempt to identify solutions to these problems.

when this diverse group first came together, there was little agreement on what the basic problems were. Some thought urban sprawl was a problem; other didn't. Some thought transportation was a problem; others didn't. Some thought open space was a problem; others didn't. "It was quite an achievement just to agree on the problems," Mr. Welles comments.

There was surprising agreement on several basic issues as well. There was widespread distrust of the current decisionmaking process, both public and private. there was a strong consensus that more decisions must be made at the local level. And there was agreement that for local control to be meaningful, citizens must participate more fully and must be better informed.

A "visions" task force attempted to determine what type of future people here want. Polling those who turned up a series of county hearings, they found that most people would like to see a decentralized but highly technological future. Greater local control and small-is-beautiful technology appear to have a great allure. Yet, people here deem this desirable future as unlikely.

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed felt it most likely that the area would "muddle through" its problems and that Colorado would be exploited, transofrmed into a "national sacrifice area," to fill the nation's demand for energy. Thirty-nine percent foresaw economic stagnation as the most likely course of events.

Still, the Front Range Project contains germs of hope for the future. "There were a number of cases where people from substantially different backgrounds struggled and struggled with these issues and finally were able to define them in a way that they could agree," Mr. Welles reports.

Typical of these meetings of the mind was that between a prominent environmentalist, Dixy Lee Hollingsworth, and a well-known developer, George Writer, who cochaired a task force on patterns of development.

"[At the first] he was the big bad developer. I was the crazy, nit-picking environmentalist. But we learned that our views were not all that far apart," says Mrs. Hollingsworth.

As a result, the "process" has developed some momentum.What ultimate effect it will have depends on what happens in this second year, Welles believes.

Says Governor Lamm: "It is not the time to drive silver spikes, but to forge coalitions."

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