couples walking trail

High Plains Environmental Center (HPEC) has played an integral role in the Centerra community for as long as residents can remember. The idea for the center was originally thought up by Tom Hoyt, president of McStain Neighborhoods, builder of High Plains Village at Centerra. His long-held belief that conservation and development go hand-in-hand was one of the driving forces behind the creation of HPEC. The center officially registered as a non-profit on March 21, 2001 and celebrated its 18th anniversary earlier this year.

In 2007, Jim Tolstrup joined the team to indulge his love of nature. Jim oversees everything from HPEC’s land management program to maintaining native plant gardens to day-to-day administrative tasks. Jim has always had a love for the outdoors, plants, birds, and wildlife, making his position at HPEC the perfect fit.

Four years ago, a keynote speech by Brian Kurzel, Colorado Director of the National Wildlife Federation, sparked inspiration in Jim. Kurzel was discussing the organization and the Community Wildlife Habitat certification, explaining that nobody in Colorado had reached that achievement; Jim decided then and there that he would personally commit to becoming a part of the first Colorado community to become certified as a Community Wildlife Habitat. He began instilling the same inspiration in his teammates at HPEC, and dedicated hours toward reaching the certification requirements. Some requirements were already in place, others were easily achieved (creating a native plant garden, creating a list of Colorado native plants), and some proved to be more of a challenge, such as getting surrounding residents involved. In 2018, the center finally achieved its goal as Centerra became Colorado’s first Certified Community Wildlife Habitat. The center went above and beyond the certification requirements and were thankful to receive third-party acknowledgement of their hard work. “Having a credible, nationally recognized conservation group give us [the center] that acknowledgement, it’s a real validation of our accomplishment” said Jim.

Local homeowners can also register their yards to become Certified Wildlife Habitats, which contributes to Centerra’s eligibility in remaining certified. In order for a resident’s yard to be deemed a “wildlife habitat” it must meet certain requirements: must have a food and water source for wildlife, provide a source of shelter, and offer a place that wildlife could raise their young or build a nest. The National Wildlife Federation intentionally makes these requirements easily attainable so that residents can become certified without having to fully renovate their yard. For example, a water source can be something as simple as a water filled birdbath or something more complex like a fountain or stream. Once a resident’s yard fulfills these requirements, they will be asked to fill out a questionnaire about their outdoor habitats and complete a form in order to receive their certification. Certified residents not only help Centerra maintain its certification, but also contribute to Centerra’s community commitment to protecting a natural environment where residents and wildlife can thrive.

With Centerra’s population slated to grow in the next five to ten years, so will the importance of maintaining a commitment to protecting natural environments. Centerra is appealing to many residents because of its open spaces, trails, and variety of wildlife, but Jim emphasizes the importance of properly maintaining and respecting those areas to ensure they’re around to enjoy for years to come. A critical piece of being good neighbors to the wildlife that call Centerra home is ensuring dogs out enjoying the trails remain on a leash and on the path. In the last 40 years, bird populations in Colorado have decreased by 60%, with the most impacted species being ground nesting birds. When owners allow their dogs to run off-leash they have the ability to find and destroy these ground nests, or disrupt birds trying to create their homes. The long-term effects of these behaviors can drastically impact our community. Jim explains that if nests continue to get destroyed, or birds continue to be chased by off-leash dogs, they are more likely to leave our community entirely because they no longer feel safe within the community. Keeping dogs on leash is imperative to protecting and respecting our unique bird species.

Since reaching the goal of becoming Colorado’s first Certified Wildlife Habitat, HPEC decided to begin working towards a new goal: building a 2,400 square foot greenhouse classroom. This project is currently in progress and looks to serve as a source of plant production and act as a gathering place for residents. The greenhouse plans host dinners and events held by HPEC as well as be a hands-on classroom for students of all ages. The greenhouse will have a large focus on hosting professional development events in areas like horticulture, agriculture, biology and many more environment-focused professions. This community resource will allow students the opportunity to engage with professionals in those industries, as well as participate in demonstrations and presentations.

Every May HPEC hosts its Native Plant Sale to raise awareness about the necessity of native plants to a wildlife habitat. The sale was created five years ago to provide native plants to local community members. Beyond the fact that these plants are beautiful and an integral part of Centerra’s environment, Jim also thinks it’s important for the community to learn about replenishing depleted food and shelter sources for local wildlife. Because native plants have adapted to Colorado air conditions, high winds, and dry weather, they are a great option for providing food and shelter for Centerra wildlife. This year’s plant sale will be held on May 4 and May 18 from 9:00 am – 3:00 pm. The sale also includes a habitat fair where participants can learn more about conservation efforts being made not only locally but state-wide. Partners like the Butterfly Pavilion, Colorado Native Plant Society, Honeybee Keep and others will be at the event to teach participants about their conservation efforts. If you are interested in volunteering at this event, please contact Lauren Sadowsky at lauren@suburbitat.org.

The High Plains Environmental Center has volunteer opportunities throughout the year for groups or individuals to get involved with their mission. If you’re interested in learning more about these opportunities, please reach out to Lauren Sadowsky at lauren@suburbitat.org, or check out HPEC’s events calendar on their website to find upcoming ways to dig in and help out.

Follow HPEC on social media to learn more about volunteer opportunities, upcoming events and their conservation efforts on Facebook and Instagram.