Colorado State University Scientists Devise Way to Track Colorado’s Rapidly Changing Open Spaces and Protected Areas

Citizens, natural resource managers, and politicians statewide have been asking: How can we best track Colorado’s rapidly changing open spaces and protected areas?

A group of scientists at the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at Colorado State University have been building an electronic map that answers this question, and have recently released what is likely the most accurate single map of land management in Colorado.

The goal of the COMaP project is to provide comprehensive, consistent and current information on the ownership, management, and protection of federal, state, local, and private lands in Colorado. Dave Theobald, research scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory and assistant professor with the Department of Natural Resource Recreation and Tourism at Colorado State, initiated the project based on the premise that better understanding of the mixture of ownership and management of both public and private lands is needed for improved management of Colorado’s ecosystems.

"It is striking that no single agency or organization in Colorado – federal, state, or local — is charged with keeping track of information about all types of lands, yet all land managers operate within a rich mixture of public and privately owned lands that are managed for various uses," said Theobald. "Moreover, land management changes occur rapidly and are more widespread than perhaps any other type of natural resource information."

A year ago, Theobald and colleagues Nate Peterson and Grant Wilcox at Colorado State set out, with initial funding from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Geological Survey, to fill this information gap. Working with over 100 collaborators across the state, including partners such as the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, the Division of Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy, they have compiled a comprehensive database.

The database includes information on wilderness areas, forest management zones, state parks and wildlife areas, and city and county parks and open space, as well as data from participating land trusts throughout the state.

"Our project builds on the huge efforts of our collaborators who provided us with primary data," said Theobald. "We add value to their data by bringing together the various pieces of the puzzle to form a comprehensive, consistent picture of the state. We believe that Colorado State University, as Colorado’s land grant university, should play the role of weaving together these various data. And it is much more efficient for one entity to build and maintain this dataset and share it widely."

Theobald estimates that it costs up to $100,000 to build such a dataset, but the challenge remains to maintain the dataset – anticipating revisions on a semi-annual basis.

"We certainly hope to keep COMaP not just alive, but thriving," said Theobald.

A common misunderstanding about open space is the perception that the public has the right to access lands identified on a map as "protected," including private lands with a conservation easement in place.

"Actually, restrictions occur on both public and private lands – from seasonal closures to protect nesting raptors to temporary closures to enable the development of management plans, to permanent closures to protect municipal drinking-water watersheds or for national security," said Theobald.

To address this sensitive issue, COMaP keeps track of land owners, managers and allowable land uses in addition to whether public access is allowed.

COMaP is viewable at the Division of Wildlife’s Natural Diversity Information Source Web site:, which provides information on publicly-owned lands within the context of a wide variety of other map layers, including topographic quadrangles. For more information about COMaP, please visit the Web site at: or contact Theobald at (970)491-5122 or