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High Plains Environmental Center

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The High Plains Environmental Center

“Restoring Nature Where We Live, Work and Play”

This is the High Plains Environmental Center (HPEC) in Loveland, Colorado, an urban environmental park that is open to the public from sunrise to sunset 365 days a year. The center is comprised of 76 acres of land and 3 miles of trails that surround two lakes covering an additional 200 acres. The lakes were dug in 1907 to store water for irrigation and have subsequently become a valuable habitat for migratory waterfowl such as these western grebes that nest here every year.

HPEC leases the surface rights of the lakes which are exclusively reserved for wildlife, although in the future, the northern lake (Hout’s Reservoir) may be opened up for limited non-motorized boating.

The notion that human alterations of the landscape can have beneficial impacts on wildlife is at the core of what we do. We believe that development in Northern Colorado and elsewhere could have significant beneficial impact on wildlife if it is planned and implemented well. The 60% decline in bird populations in our region and elsewhere in the country over the last 40 years is a stark reminder that more often than not the opposite is true, and negative impact from poorly planned development and the corresponding loss of habitat is starkly evident. HPEC is committed to preserving Colorado’s unique natural beauty within our growing urban areas and cultivating a conservation ethic, so important for healthy future generations.

HPEC is located in Centerra, a 3500-acre mixed use, master-planned community. At build-out it is estimated that 10 to 15 thousand people will live in Centerra and twice as many will work there. Surrounded by that kind of population density HPEC is an urban natural area that feels remarkably spacious and natural. The idea for HPEC was originally conceived by Tom Hoyt the president of McStain, a company that builds residential communities. McStain built High Plains Village in the southwest corner of Centerra, adjacent to HPEC. Tom, a lifelong conservationist and developer, has frequently said, “You can’t talk about conservation on one hand and development on the other as if they were two unrelated issues because they’re not.”

Tom shared his idea for the creation of HPEC with Chad and Troy McWhinney, the developers of Centerra, and they readily adopted it as a visionary idea for preserving and managing open space within the development. HPEC was established as an independent nonprofit (501c3) on March 21, 2001. Through an agreement between McWhinney and the City of Loveland, HPEC is funded by environmental fees assessed through building permits on adjacent portions of Centerra. HPEC is a progressive model for a collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship between economic and environmental interests and one that we believe is worthy of replication.

When the center was created and the land donated to HPEC it had some existing native vegetation but the vast majority was weedy disturbed agricultural land. One area actually had a dump on it that included a complete railroad car. That has all been cleaned up and over the last 5 years we have been working to restore the land. The interesting thing here is the word “restore” because what we do is not conservation of something already existing, the land had already been disturbed, radically altered even. In the process of restoring the land we are introducing native plants that may not have existed here before the lakes were created. The goal then is to create viable wetland ecosystems that replicate similar natural environments in our region.

Old Canal Park gets its name from the abandoned canal built by the Greeley Loveland Irrigation Company (GLIC) which sets this area a part, forming a peninsula, surrounded on 3 sides by water. The park was paid for by McStain and McWhinney and given to HPEC in 2004. The original landscape plan for this area featured native plants but somewhere along the line when it came to the installation that got changed to more conventional plant selections.

On Earth Day 2008, a group of volunteers helped pull out the non-native plants in the park and replaced them with western native plants. The reason for our bias for native plants is that they have a unique ability to sustain the bird and insect pollinators that they co-evolved with. European and Asian plants introduced for landscaping do not offer the same benefits to wildlife. Therefore preserving native plants is key to preserving the wildlife that relies on them. From the perspective of a butterfly it does not matter if their favorite milkweed plant is in a wild open space or someone’s back yard. Utilizing the plants in landscaping can provide “connectivity” through our growing urban corridor with birds and insects literally hopping from plant to plant.

In 2010, our garden was accepted as a Plant Select demonstration garden. Plant Select is an organization that promotes great plants for Colorado. Although not all Plant Select plants are native to the West we have chosen to focus only the native plants in that palette. In 2011 we further expanded out Plant Select demonstration garden with the help of volunteers from Agrium Advanced Technologies.

In 2010, we created a wetland ecology demonstration garden that demonstrates the relationship between available soil moisture, native plant communities and wildlife. The garden consists of a wetland channel that connects the abandoned irrigation canal and Equalizer Lake. Along a trail that runs beside the wetland, visitors can learn about different types of plant communities including upland, sub-irrigated, wetland and aquatic zones, and their corresponding relationship to wildlife. In our fundraising for this project we promised “breeding areas for amphibians” and “daily access to nature for people” and we have been amazed and thrilled at how much this project has delivered on both counts with thousands of woodhouse toads tadpoles the very next season and scores of visitors to the park every day.

We are constantly focused on harmonizing the built and natural environment and one area in Centerra where that has been done exceptionally well is the Lake Vista Apartments. In 2009, a plan was formulated to build a series of apartment buildings adjacent to HPEC. A portion of the building site was a remnant prairie where western wheatgrass (Pascopryum smithii) predominated, dotted with little native gems, such as common starlily (Leucocrinum montanum), scarlet globemallow (Spheralcea coccinea), Nutall’s violet (Viola nuttallii.) and winterfat (Krascheninnikovia lanata).

Great pains were taken in order to preserve 2.8 acres of this remnant prairie adjacent to the environmental center. The plant palette for the apartment landscaping (adjacent to the open space) with very few exceptions is comprised of Western native plants. Many sustainable features were included in the design of the apartments also including a large community vegetable garden and more than 6 acres open space (the entire project site is 16 acres.)

Only 7 percent of the installed landscape consists of irrigated turf. On portions of the site where existing native plants could not be preserved, volunteers from Colorado State University, the University Northern Colorado, and Intel, dug and containerized about 1000 plants.
Later a group of High School Students working with the Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado replanted the plants on HPEC Property adjacent to the apartments.

In In addition McWhinney hired a tree spading company to move 175 native rabbitbrush shrubs from the apartment site to HPEC. These shrubs have improved habitat by increasing the density of vegetative cover and served as the “bufferyard” plantings required by city zoning.

Stormwater ponds on the site will be utilized for a wildlife habitat. A bio-swale directs stormwater across the property, slowing down turbulence, trapping sediment and impurities and purifying the water before it reaches the ponds. The swale was vegetated with native tall-grasses such as yellow Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), switchgrass (Panicum virgatus), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata).

Disturbed upland areas on the property were re-seeded with slender wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus), blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) and green needlegrass (Nassella viridula) and blend seamlessly with the adjacent environmental center. All of this indicates an increased level of sophistication in the design and creation of open space. Previously a landscape architect might have simply written “dry land seed mix” in this open space. Such mixes often contain invasive non-native grass species such as crested wheat grass, orchard grass, smooth brome and intermediate wheat grass.

Continuing around the lake, this osprey platform is a great example of how what we do at HPEC is not conservation (preserving what exists already) but rather restoration (creating new opportunities for nature in the midst of development). The platform was built by community volunteers in 2006 and has been inhabited by a successfully breeding pair of ospreys ever since.

On the west side of Equalizer Lake, where there is a 300 foot setback between the wetland edge and the trail, is our highest value habitat area. This is an area exclusively reserved for wildlife with no public access. One of our first large scale restoration projects came on a cold April day in 2009 when 200 individuals with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado planted 1000 trees and shrubs with a high value to wildlife in order to create a thicket to screen the wildlife area from the trail.

This 10 acre area is not all protected though and we feel that it’s essential to allow children in particular to have access to nature. The northern portion of this protected meadow is a “Wild Zone.” Inspired by Richard Louve’s groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods, in which the author correlates the lack of unstructured time spent in nature with the epidemic of ADD/ADHD, the wild zone affords children this opportunity. Every year thousands of kids get to experience the wild zone first hand through our summer day camps and through school visits. In 2011, we had 2200 students from local schools visit HPEC and we like to think that we are contributing to the inspiration of a new generation of land stewards.

One of our Favorite events occurs in the Wild Zone every year when a local Native American family puts on a mini-powwow for 80 to 90 – 3rd graders from the Thompson School District. The drumming and singing seems to awaken something in the land that has known the voice of indigenous people for thousands of years.

In 2009 High Plains Environmental Center launched our Giving Garden with the help of a $5000 grant from the Beanstalk Foundation and a $5000 grant from The Coalition for Activity and Nutrition to Defeat Obesity (CanDo). In our first season we grew and donated 12,000 lbs. of food to the Food Bank for Larimer County and the Loveland House of Neighborly Service.

In 2010, utilizing the help 1335 volunteers donating 5213 hours of their time we increased our production to 20,539 lbs. We also shared $2,500 of grant money, along with our technical assistance and guidance, to help create five additional gardens in Loveland.

In 2011, we expanded our operation significantly, built a greenhouse to extend the duration of our harvest, increased our cultivated area from 1.3 to 4 acres, expanded our irrigation system to meet the increased demand and restored our barn. And once again we doubled our production providing a whopping 45,000 lbs. of produce the local food banks

The garden also provides visitors from regional schools, as well as other groups, with thousands of hours of outdoor education and valuable hands-on, community building, life experience.

We have been growing native plant from seed since 2009. In many cases the seed is locally collected thereby preserving unique local geno-types. This year will be the fourth consecutive year for a large-scale project collaboration between HPEC and VOC. It can be difficult to obtain sufficient numbers of native plants for large restoration projects. For that reason we are referring to the native plant nursery that we a constructing as a “habitat factory” which will produce tens of thousands of plants a year.

VOC joined us once again in 2011 with 65 volunteer ages, 3 through 70, planting 2500 of the plants that we grew, in order to restore a wetland area. For the first few weeks the weather was dry and we had to water the new transplants by hand but when the adjacent farmers tail water, returning to the lake from irrigated fields, hit the wetland plants they exploded and put on amazing growth.

As weeds are eradicated and areas get cleaned up we seed them with native grasses. Each year we add new restored areas. But the process of re-establishing native grasses from seed on dry land is slow work requiring a lot of patience as it can take several years to establish.

The wetland mitigation area was created in 2007 in order to replace a wetland that was disturbed during development in another part of Centerra. Over several years this area has established very well and has become one of the highest value habitat areas at HPEC

Again, this area was anything but “pristine” and was once totally inundated with weeds such as Canada thistle.

Soon a series of stormwater ponds will be dug by the developer on HPEC land. This a great arrangement for both parties because it gets the ponds off of the buildable lots and places high-value habitat restoration on HPEC land.

When developers build rooftops, parking lots and other impermeable surfaces, rain and snowmelt (stormwater) can no longer percolate into the ground and must be managed in order to prevent flooding. Conventional stormwater ponds provide little or nothing in the way of wildlife habitat, native plant diversity, aesthetic value, recreation or public education.

In 2007-2008 McWhinney (the master developer of Centerra) HPEC, Ark Ecological Services and BHA Landscape Design drafted a document called the stormwater pond and conveyance design guidelines. The guidelines which, provide pond specification that replicate natural wetlands, won a Land Stewardship Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2009.

Under these guidelines, stormwater ponds and conveyances in Centerra are designed to replicate the natural contours and structure of wetlands. They have native plants arranged in communities according to available soil moisture, undulating edges vs. linear edges and uneven pond bottoms vs. flat bottoms.

Ponds built in this way can create a high value wildlife habitat in the midst of urban and suburban development by replicating the ecological functions of natural wetlands. They improve water quality and removes sediments and toxins by filtering runoff through plant material. This is also a great way to put nature back into the lives of urban people and that has been demonstrated to have a positive impact on physical and mental health. If children and adults create a personal connection with open spaces and lakes full of fish, frogs, and birds, it is likely that they will become advocates for their stewardship and preservation. So if you count all who benefit, wildlife, people who live and work here, water quality, developer, environmental center, it’s a win, win, win, win, win.

The construction of these ponds also provides an area of interest for visitors and an opportunity for public education and it physically connects Old Canal Park and our Farm and Nursery area.

We have come to view what we are creating here at HPEC as a sort of botanic garden of the wild. In 2011, we had a design charrette at HPEC in which we put all the ideas on the table for our long term master plan. We were looking for a way to pull all of the projects that we have done together into a cohesive plan and this is the model that we came up with. We already have the farm and nursery pretty well developed. The mission for that area is to “Preserve Loveland’s agricultural, architectural and cultural heritage and build a plant propagation facility that also serves as a visitor destination for hands-on environmental and horticultural education.”

The chain of stormwater ponds will have trails on either side, one a paved trail that will include bikes and the other trail will be a soft trail that exclude bikes and will provide more of a contemplative nature viewing experience. The mission for this area will be to create a “Living Laboratory” that fully realizes and demonstrates the principles found in the Centerra Stormwater Guidelines.

In the third area, Old Canal Park, significant progress has already been made to accomplishing the mission to “educate the public about gardening with native plants and the corresponding benefits to wildlife”

Chain of Ponds

  • Offers a replicable working model of collaboration between environment center, developer, community, public schools and conservation groups – demonstrates ecological, economic and social benefits of this model
  • Promotes HPEC goal to consult, design, build and maintain stormwater ponds that replicate natural wetland functions
  • McWhinney (developer) will build ponds as a part of a working stormwater system
  • Chain of ponds features varying degrees of retained moisture and corresponding plant communities
  • Creates high-quality habitat (amphibians, turtles, birds)
  • Improves water quality by filtering runoff through plant material
  • Provides a place for quiet nature experience

Old Canal Park

  • Increase public appreciation of existing natural features of HPEC
    Engage businesses, residents and the general public in environmental stewardship
  • Gardens feature wildflowers and native plants
  • Plant Select Demonstration Site
  • Utilize lawn area to increase community involvement (eg., bocce ball)
  • Viewing platform provides optimal bird-watching opportunity
  • Generate revenue through rental for weddings and events (maximum event capacity 100)


  • Greenhouse will be used to propagate vegetables and native plants
  • Revenue-generating nursery will provide native plants for use in landscape restoration and pond construction projects
  • Outdoor classroom will host ecoliteracy programs in partnership with adjacent public school
  • WILD ZONE offers unique nature experience for children
  • Community gardens promote local foods and sustainable agriculture
  • High degree of excellence and innovation in design, low relative cost (replicable), community involvement in design and construction, sustainable principles including use of recycled and locally-sourced materials
  • Public event capacity 300-500