The State of Native Plant Legislation in Colorado

| Advocacy, Colorado Native Plants

By Deb Lebow Aal and Danna Liebert

In this year’s Member Survey you, our members, asked how we determine whether we are making progress with changing landscapes, “one yard at a time” (that’s the Wild Ones’ tagline). We think it’s a good question. Rather than relying on anecdotes from native plant landscapers (whose phones are ringing off the hook), Wild Ones Front Range Chapter (WOFR) board members are working to identify metrics to measure success in our region. And we’ve just created a WOFR Advocacy Committee for those who’d like to help with this and other policy issues (more on that in next month’s newsletter). As we begin this exploration of our impact, we want to share some preliminary metrics that have us thinking we’re making headway.

What is progress?  On one hand, it seems like there are articles weekly, if not daily, in major news publications, on the need to landscape with native plants. And yet, you can walk around your neighborhood and still see one Kentucky bluegrass lawn after another, or talk to people who tell you they want to xeriscape their yard (what we think of as “ZERO-scape”). The thing about change is that it can feel like there has been no progress until you reach a tipping point, and then all of a sudden, it’s happening everywhere. To people who haven’t been working for years to promote the change, it will seem like the transformation came out of nowhere. This is what we hear from people who study revolutions, and it comes to mind when it feels like we are not making quick enough progress on the native plant front. So here’s our short list, a baseline of sorts, of local progress (perhaps a mix of progress and missed opportunities), for reflection and encouragement as we forge ahead.

Signs that the native plant revolution is underway on the Front Range:

  • Our WOFR chapter has grown steadily and dramatically to nearly 350 members and over 1,800 more newsletter subscribers, indicating more interest in native plant landscaping.

  • Native plant sales at nurseries have increased significantly. Resource Central sold out early on the three Colorado native plant options for “Garden in a Box” offered this year. Harlequin’s Gardens in Boulder was almost completely out of native plants when a few of us went in July.
Flowers in a box
Flowers and grasses in the native plant Garden in a Box offered by Resource Central in 2022.
  • In West Washington Park, we have a neighborhood initiative to redo hell strips (the area between the sidewalk and the street, usually a dead zone of weeds or just turf), transforming them into native plant “heaven strips.”1 We planted 10 of these this year, and have a waiting list of 30 for this spring. The interest was beyond our ability to keep up. This showed us the power of one motivated person, our friend Avi, who simply put up some flyers asking if anyone wanted help to transform their hell strips.

What about legislation? We see progress with the State, and Colorado municipalities, codifying changes aimed at reducing turf grass and in some cases encouraging xeric planting in anticipation of the water shortages we are bound to face2 (note these are NOT native plant incentive programs). This is probably not a comprehensive list of all the legislation in the state, but it’s a start. 

  • Colorado passed a statewide turf replacement bill in 2022, which is scheduled to have turf replacements in place by July of 2023 and will have wide implications.
  • Many Colorado municipalities already have turf replacement programs in place or programs that ban new turf grass. Boulder, Castle Rock, Fort Collins, Highlands Ranch (and Centennial Water and Sanitation District), Lafayette, Louisville, Thornton, and Westminster have turf replacement programs. Noticeably missing is Denver, although the state-wide program will include Denver, of course.
  • Fort Collins’ turf replacement program gives additional rebates for turf replaced with 80 percent or more native plants.
  • Aurora recently banned turf grass for new developments and banned new golf courses.
  • Castle Rock is banning traditional grass turf in front yards of new homes and offering developers steep fee discounts for water saving “Coloradoscaping” yards. We do love the term “Coloradoscaping” and hope it catches on. 
  • Arvada is more than doubling homebuilders’ water and sewer connection fees to $54,000 and sharply raising utility rates. However, the city so far hasn’t wanted to implement a turf ban, which is hard to understand given impending water issues, and criticism that these connection fees will just result in more expensive housing.   

While this is all great news, nowhere in any of this legislation other than Fort Collins (from what we’ve read so far) is there encouragement to plant native Colorado plants. This is a problem and clearly more needs to be done to address it. We have to broaden the understanding of the difference between xeric and native plantings, and we need more incentives for people to want to plant native plants, not just xeric plants. In addition, we must have access to more native plant options at more nurseries.

Picture of yard without turf
Photo source: Western Resource Advocates, “Financing the Future: How to Pay for Turf Replacement in Colorado”

Although we are seeing both bottom-up and top-down progress, the pace of “one yard at a time” seems too slow when there is still so much more room for advocacy. We need to continue to talk up native plant landscapes, and help our neighbors and communities understand their importance. Again, stay tuned for more information we’ll be sharing soon on advocating to your city councils and state representatives in a new upcoming section of our newsletter focused on advocacy.

  1. Check out“Plant An Oasis” to see what we’re doing about hell strips in West Washington Park. ↩︎
  2. These municipal programs can be incredibly successful – Las Vegas’ “Cash for Grass” program has reduced residential drinking water use (yes, using water that meets drinking water standards to hydrate outdoor landscapes – a whole different topic for discussion) by a remarkable 19-21 percent. ↩︎

Curious to learn more about transforming your garden into a habitat with Colorado native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees? Check out our native gardening toolkit, register for an upcoming event, subscribe to our newsletter, and/or become a member – if you’re not one already!