By Jennie Lay As Great Outdoors Colorado turns 20, photographer and life-long conservation crusader John Fielder shows us how everyone wins.
Renowned landscape and wildlife photographer John Fielder marvels at the cohesive role the Yampa River plays among disparate interests in Northwest Colorado. It bonds everyone from ranchers to recreationists – and even Steamboat Springs and Craig. The river basin’s environmental health has been “conspicuous in preserving the culture of this valley,” he says. “It has set a standard and an example for other river basins around the state, if not the West.”
A substantial portion of the financial resources behind the preservation and expansion of public lands along the Yampa River comes from an unusual source: proceeds from the sale of lottery tickets.
In Colorado, the act of purchasing a lottery ticket is sweetened by the knowledge that even when you don’t hit the jackpot, the long-term payoff is huge for the state’s open spaces, parks and wildlife. Proceeds go to Great Outdoors Colorado, the quasi-governmental trust that is dedicated to preserving, protecting and enhancing the state’s parks, wildlife, trails, rivers and open space.
Fielder was a member of the citizens’ committee that put the GOCO initiative on the 1992 ballot, famously spending a year carting his photographs around the state to showcase all the recreation, wildlife and open space that Colorado Lottery funds would stand to protect – and ensuring the measure would pass.
Since its inception, GOCO has committed more than $715 million from lottery tickets for nearly 3,500 projects around the state, including $56 million last year. Routt County projects alone have been the recipient of $35,710,422 of GOCO funds over the past two decades, which helped protect 29,675 acres of public and private open landscapes, extend the Yampa River Core Trail, acquire high priority wildlife habitat, build trails on Howelsen Hill, create a master plan for Emerald Mountain, establish ice rinks and skateboard parks, expand park facilities and so much more.
Last June the lottery GOCO awarded the Yampa Valley Land Trust and the City of Steamboat Springs $2.4 million toward acquiring a conservation easement on 500 acres about 10 miles south of Steamboat that is surrounded by private and public lands. The easement includes 1.5 miles of Yampa River frontage, providing significant wildlife habitat and opportunities for public access. The easement would allow for both a trail along the river and across the property, linking Stagecoach State Park to Sarvis Creek State Wildlife Area, and also allow for fishing access. The grant also makes access improvements to a piece of riverfront public land known as the Fournier Open Space, next to the SnoBowl, and the Yampa River through town.
Now, as GOCO turns 20, Fielder is making sure none of Colorado’s five million residents takes the vast array of projects, or their funding source, for granted. Colorado is the only state in the nation that commits virtually all of its lottery profits to protecting its natural heritage. GOCO, he says, needed help celebrating its own success.
Over 18 months, Fielder traversed 35,000 miles through Colorado’s 64 counties to visit the lottery-funded projects that have made a mark on nearly every city and town and the rural expanses in between. He marveled at how many GOCO signs he saw at trailheads from the Front Range to the Yampa River. “The extent of GOCO’s influence is everywhere to be seen,” he says.
Fielder compiled his explorations into two new books honoring 20 years of GOCO accomplishments and investments – one a coffee-table collection of photography and the other a field guide.
“GOCO is not political and not self-promoting. I wanted to remind people and show them graphically what we’ve done,” Fielder says. He constantly worries about threats to the program as the economy continues to suffer and the state legislature searches harder for funding sources for everything from veterans to education. “I could see that GOCO was always looking over its shoulder.”
Fielder’s large format picture book, “Colorado’s Great Outdoors, Celebrating 20 Years of Lottery-Funded Lands,” showcases 150 new photographs capturing some of the state’s most spectacular landscapes that have been protected with the help of lottery dollars. Images from the northwest region highlight everything from the Colorado State Forest in Jackson County to The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch in Hayden and Cedar Mountain Trail in Moffat County. The pages are brimming with vistas of working ranches, wildlife habitat and stunning river corridors.
The traveling companion, “John Fielder’s Guide to Colorado’s Great Outdoors,” is a guide to the state’s lottery-funded outdoor resources, including more than 500 parks, trails, wildlife areas and open spaces, plus ball fields, skate parks and playgrounds. The field guide also includes more than 400 of Fielder’s photographs, maps, driving directions and web sites for more information. Along with your “Gazetteer,” it’s a prime resource for a road trip.
Fielder divided the state into eight regions; Routt County falls in with five other Northwest Colorado counties extending east to Larimer and south to Rio Blanco and Grand counties. Logistically, Fielder says this is the hardest project he’s ever done. The most scenic spots made the cut – and many of those were along the Yampa River.
Over his three decades as a photographer, Fielder has made it his mission to keep Colorado’s open landscapes, whether they are working ranches or wilderness, ever-present in the public consciousness. He has long carried the torch for land protection as the ultimate way to promote bio-diversity, and GOCO has helped do that by leveraging the purchases of natural areas and conservation easements on farms and ranches with wildlife values. Open and natural spaces are “what cooks our economy,” he says, upping the ante for protecting the state’s mountain valleys and urban edges.
“The thing that’s impressive is the consolidation of so many funding sources,” Fielder says. Notably, GOCO never fully funds a project, but requires each park or trail or conservation easement to acquire matching dollars from other sources. This has given Colorado recreation and conservation a leg up in competing for all varieties of funding sources from federal farm and ranch protection programs to foundations. “It has been a catalyst for all those open space projects. GOCO saw a way to close the deals and get them done,” he says.