Modern America is jam-packed with self-promoting, self-important individuals seeking to leverage even the most modest of achievements into larger-than-life accomplishments. Unfortunately, the media – social and otherwise – are awash with such individuals.
Consequently, in this cacophony of seeming hurricane strength, stories about those who really have contributed to the common good while never seeking a shred of recognition are lost or too often ignored. And yet, all of us benefit from recognizing the selfless efforts of those for whom the “common good” underscored much of their life’s work.
A Coloradoan named Pieter Hondius Jr. was one of those individuals. Born in Denver in 1923, Hondius contributed to everyone who calls Colorado home and to all the visitors – from the US and internationally – who enjoy this beautiful state, and particularly the region around Rocky Mountain National Park.
Hondius is hardly a household name, of course, but he deserves thanks and respect for tirelessly working to protect the open lands and trails in the Estes Valley. And yet for his efforts, he never sought acclaim or personal benefit.
In February, Hondius reached his 100th birthday, and died in May in Estes Park, which had been his home as a boy and in retirement. Earlier this month he was laid to rest on a vibrant summer morning among the blue spruce and quaking Aspen trees in a quiet Estes Park cemetery bordering the national park.
As a former real estate businessman in Denver, he understood the value of open land. He also revered the state’s mountains, meadows, and streams. He loved this state.
To protect this land, he actively participated in a multitude of outdoor-related organizations including as a member of the Colorado Open Space Council and president of the Colorado Mountain Club where he spearheaded a successful effort seeking Congressional support to protect the iconic MacGregor Ranch in Estes Park.
Hondius was also a key player in achieving protection by the federal government of the Indian Peaks area near Boulder, a goal that had eluded one of the most fervent advocates of establishing the national park, Enos Mills. Had the federal government not stepped in, the area would have been overrun by visitors.
But perhaps his most important achievement was as a founding member of the Estes Valley Land Trust, which since its establishment in 1987 has protected nearly 10,000 acres of open space in an area close to the national park. Hondius and a small group of supporters did this with what was, in the mid-1980s, a little-known concept called a “conservation easement.” In return for a tax credit or deduction, a private landowner would agree to limit the amount of future development on a parcel.
Fellow founding member Mary Lamy remembered that in the early days, the land trust did not have one conservation easement. “No one had ever heard of them,” Lamy told me recently. “The town and property owners were a bit suspicious. Piet visited with many, many people who even seemed remotely interested in the concept.”
Hondius’s efforts included having prospects for dinner at his home with wife, Helen, who passed away in 2020. “He was a one-man band,” Lamy said. “We all owe Piet a huge debt of gratitude. I do not expect to meet anyone, ever again, like Piet.”
Despite Hondius’s success in protecting open space, however, he was always humble and never sought to generate acclaim for his efforts.
Gary Klaphake, Estes Park Town Administrator during the 1980s, knew Hondius well.
“He must have stopped by my office maybe three times a week for 10 years,” Klaphake recently told me. The two would talk about the importance of preserving the natural appeal of the Estes Valley. “In a conversation he wouldn’t say ‘I’, he would say ‘we.’ That’s the character of being humble and working through others. It was precious.”
Rebecca Lynn Urquhart, who wrote about Hondius among others in “Ten Thousand Acres on a Shoestring” about the Estes Valley Land Trust, recalled Hondius as “a hero” adding, “His passion was the natural beauty of the Estes Valley.”
He was motivated by his concern that future development of the area near the national park would “destroy the Estes valley,” she told me. In today’s world, she observed, any achievement is often underscored by personal benefit. “While Pieter might have enjoyed the personal satisfaction from protecting open spaces, he was more concerned about the results, not getting credit for it,” she said.
The Estes Valley had a special place in his heart, James Pickering, Estes Park’s historian laureate, has said. “He knew about the land, and he knew about conservation,” Pickering told me. “He was so self-effacing and wanted to talk about the current moment, not the past.”
Perhaps Hondius’ greatest gift was the example he set with his genuine commitment to something larger than himself. As Klaphake explained:
“Maybe his legacy is that other people will get inspiration from the fact that doing the right thing is a really good thing – you don’t have to crow about it, and you don’t have to take credit or keep score. He had a great moral compass.”
Pieter Hondius Jr. was a true Coloradan.
Don C. Smith, of Denver, is a professor of the practice of law in the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
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