• Jane Shellenberger

SUBURBITAT– High Plains Environmental Center

Preserving Native Diversity in the Midst of Development


Colorado Gardener:


Blighted area at HPEC before restoration
Blighted area at HPEC before restoration

On a Colorado blue-sky day in early March I visited High Plains Environmental Center (HPEC) to check out their new, almost completed educational visitor’s center. Located on the edge of a newer suburban development on the plains in Loveland, the super high efficiency building has a great view of the snowcapped peaks in Rocky Mt National Park to the west. “That’s the 20th century model of conservation,” said executive director Jim Tolstrop, pointing to the Park.


But HPEC is a 21st century model: preserving native diversity in the midst of development, a concept he calls, “Suburbitat.” HPEC’s deeded 76 acres surround two manmade lakes, dug in 1907. All 199 acres of the lakes’ surface area have been secured through a perpetual lease with the Greeley Loveland Irrigation Company.

Restoring wildlife habitat natives diversity land stewardship
Restored native plant wetland at HPEC

The southern Equalizer Lake is reserved exclusively for migratory water fowl and provides some of the best bird watching in Northern Colorado. In my short 10-minute stroll on the trail between the two lakes that day I saw several blue herons and an eagle. The adjacent lake, Houts Reservior, provides limited, non-motorized boating to residents though The Lakes at Centerra HOA.


In a uniquely cooperative arrangement between developers, builders, and businesses, HPEC was formed as a non-profit (501C3) in 2001 to create and restore natural areas as a component of community design.

When McWhinney, the creator of the 3000-acre mixed-use Centerra development in East Loveland, first brought their plan to the City of Loveland, the City required that it contain 20% open space at buildout. McWhinney hired Cedar Creek to study and identify areas of high habitat value – primarily the lands immediately adjacent to Houts Reservoir and Equalizer Lake, which became the footprint of HPEC. Other areas were identified on the east side of I-25, which became the Chapungu Sculpture Park.

Tom Hoyt, President of McStain, which was building High Plains Village, a residential neighborhood within Centerra, suggested creating a separate non-profit to own the land. McWhinney embraced the idea and voluntarily imposed a fee connected with building permits on properties within Centerra, west of I-25, in order to help fund the non-profit.


HPEC also consults with, and in some cases manages, additional natural areas for other landowners and has recently formed a partnership with Loveland Parks and Open Space.


All the plants used at HPEC are Colorado or regional natives. Parking lot runoff enters a bioswale planted with mostly grasses (all native) that purify the water before it reaches the lake. Even existing Austrian Pines in the lot will soon be replaced by native Ponderosas as the landscaping is updated to replicate Colorado Life Zones.


An award winning one-acre Wetland Ecology Demonstration Garden was designed to help Centerra residents and visitors understand and appreciate the innovative approach to storm water management used in their community. “Beyond that,” says Tolstrup, “we hope to inspire other communities and developers to view storm water ponds as a potential benefit, to conserve and even create wildlife habitat in the midst of development.” Tolstrup was formerly the State Horticulture and Restoration Chair for the Colorado Native Plant Society.


The business model for HPEC is that of a working farm, wherein the land sustains. In this case the money comes from the sale of native plants and from managing Open Space (including invasive species) for other clients.


The new visitors center building will serve as the access point for demonstration gardens showcasing native plants that support birds and butterflies while conserving water (a Colorado Garden Foundation grant helped fund the extensive native plant palette), as well as the native plant nursery, an heirloom fruit orchard, vegetable gardens, wetlands, open space, and trails.


The building contains a gift store, a library with books on wildlife, gardening, and nature, a large classroom, and administrative offices. (You’ll also find Kelley Driscoll, HPEC’s personable and capable Community Services Coordinator.) Interpretive signs on the walls of the new building will show the collaboration with developers, builders, and businesses. Funding came from three sources: the sale of the previous HPEC office building, Loveland Parks and Open Space, and McWhinney.


Want to Grow Natives in Your Garden?

Eric Blewitt, Operations Manager at HPEC, explains that some native plants from higher elevations may not thrive in prairie clay soils, but he encourages everyone to take advantage of microclimates and "keep trying – you'll find something that works." At HPEC they build planting berms using a "Golf Mix" of equal parts sand, topsoil, and compost, which he says works really well for growing natives.