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Denver City Council Approves Land Swap
On April 1, 2013, Denver City Council voted 10-3 to approve the land swap that will destroy nine acres that were formerly part of the designated Hentzell Park Natural Area. Heroically voting against the proposal were Council members Ortega, Robb and Sheppard. The primary justification for the majority vote was that this would save Denver money in creating a comprehensive domestic violence center and Pre-K and/or elementary school with athletic fields.
Neighbors who object to the land swap vowed to circulate a petition asking for a vote of the people to deny the transfer of the land to DPS.
Although Council members voting for the proposal spoke of the importance of the needs for a domestic violence center and a new school, they were unwilling to make satisfying these needs enough of a priority to make Denver pay the full cost required to accomplish their goal. Instead they chose to sacrifice an unrelated 9 acres of designated natural area. They rejected the idea that the longer term costs of accumulating more parkland as Denver grew vertically rather than horizontally might not provide a real savings. Many Council members did not seem to clearly understand that a designated natural area, of which Denver has fewer than 160 acres, has a unique value and is different from general open space.
According to what was said by City and DPS officials at the meeting, the land swap came about because DPS asked a Denver City land manager if there were a parcel that was large enough for a school site with athletic fields in the far Southeast area that was available for sale. The land manager correctly believed designated natural areas could be sold without a public vote, and suggested the Hentzell 9 acres and an adjacent 2.5 acres parking lot for the sight, allegedly without explaining it was a designated natural area. Representatives from DPS said their officials did not know until last summer that this was a designated natural area. City Council member Lehmann, in whose district this land is located, had indicated in past months that even after its designation as a natural area, she had originally hoped this land would be developed as a recreation center. When the proposal was made for a school there, she worked to have a combined school/recreation center complex. Finally she accepted others’ view that there was not enough land for that.
Despite much talk about the opportunities for school children in the new school for nature education on what is left of the Hentzell Park Natural Area, there is no requirement that this will happen or even a clear plan to ensure future school staff will be informed of this suggestion.
It is clear that if Denver designated natural areas are to have any chance to survive, their repurposing must require a vote of the people. Although the remaining Hentzell Park Natural Area is now within a designated park, the natural area could still be turned into a recreation center, more athletic fields or any other park use with little input from the majority of Denver citizens.
Denver Post, Sunday April 7, 2013,
Barnes-Gelt: April Fools’ Joke: land swap
Denver Direct, March 29, 2013
Former Councilwoman Donohue’s letter re: Hentzell Park
Evaluation of Land in Henzel Park Natural Area by Environmental Consultant:
March 8, 2013
Denver City Council,
On February 19, I spent approximately 2 hours touring Hentzell Park with local Denver parks and prairie advocates Bob Stocker, Nancy Stocker, and Kathleen Wells. We walked through the entire southwest portion of the park, including the restored prairie and prairie dog colony in the southern extent of the park, the Cherry Creek riparian corridor, and much of the restored prairie area between Cherry Creek and the subdivision to the west. The purpose of the tour was to investigate the natural attributes of this park and assess its value as a prairie conservation area.
While areas of the park have been invaded by non-native grasses, including Crested Wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum), Smooth Brome (Bromopsis inermis), and Cheatgrass (Anisantha tectorum), I was pleased to discover a good representation of native grasses throughout the park, including Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), Buffalo-Grass (Buchloë dactyloides), Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula),Sand Dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus), Three-Awn (Aristida sp.), Needle-and-Thread (Hesperostipa comata), Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), Prairie Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), and Sand Bluestem (Andropogon hallii). In many areas of the park, native grasses or cultivars of Blue Grama and Buffalo-Grass appear to cover 50% or more of the ground area. We found significant patches of native grasses throughout the park, including a portion of the park that has been proposed for de-designation as a natural area.
Though our visit occurred during midwinter, we nevertheless observed a good number of native prairie forbs and shrubs, including Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), Pasture Sage (Artemisia ludoviciana), False Tarragon (Oligosporus dracunculus), Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus), Prickly Pear (Opuntia sp.), Plains Evening-Star (Nuttallia nuda), and Tall Evening-Primrose (Oenothera villosa).
This sand prairie remnant, encompassing 30 or more acres, is one of the largest I’ve seen in an urban area. In comparison, the celebrated Curtis Prairie at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, advertised as the world’s oldest restored prairie, encompasses about 60 acres. Iowa’ s Sioux City Prairie, touted as the “largest known prairie preserve within an urban environment,” encompasses 150 acres. The much-publicized and visited prairie remnants at the University of Iowa encompass only about 7 acres.
In addition to its size and diversity of native grasses, Hentzell Park lies along a major riparian corridor linking other prairie remnants to the south and east with natural areas throughout Denver. I was surprised and very pleased to see that the stretch of Cherry Creek running through the park remains in a relatively natural state, with wide meanders, sandbars, and sand banks supporting native cottonwoods, willows, and a variety of native tallgrasses. Beaver sign was apparent along the creek, and we saw Kingfishers, a variety of native songbirds, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk. The ecological mosaic created by this relatively natural stream corridor and the adjacent sand prairie and prairie dog colony provides unique and invaluable wildlife habitat within the confines of a large city.
Citizens of Denver should be proud of this remarkable prairie preserve located so close to the urban center. With continued restoration–especially planting of native bunch grasses and forbs–this park could eventually become one of the finest urban prairie preserves in all of North America.
Stephen R. Jones, Environmental Consultant
Author/co-author: Peterson Field Guide to the North American Prairie, The Last Prairie, The Shortgrass Prairie, Colorado Nature Almanac, Butterflies of the Colorado Front Range