Durangoans who love the local trail systems and open space can thank Paul Wilbert, who died suddenly of a suspected heart attack Friday at 60. He left a legacy Durangoans and visitors enjoy every day.
A landscape architect, he will perhaps be most remembered for co-founding the Children’s Museum of Durango, which grew into the Powerhouse Science Center, the design and founding of the Peter Carver Memorial Forest and seemingly endless volunteering for the city of Durango.
“He’s been instrumental in everything that’s happened here that has to do with trails, open space, natural lands, and he’s been on the board ever since we had a board,” said Kevin Hall, assistant director of community development for the city. “I’ve been with the city since 2001, and even before that, he was involved, even with the very beginnings of the Animas River Trail. Just two weeks ago, he was working on the Oxbow Preserve.”
Durango City Manager Ron LeBlanc said Wilbert was the first friend he made when he moved to Durango.
“He was a truly remarkable person, probably the kindest person you would ever meet and extremely intelligent,” LeBlanc said. “He was a force in many ways throughout the city, and open space, natural lands and trails benefited from his expertise and critical eye. Paul really had a vision, and he was able to use that ability to help steer a lot of good decisions.”
Wilbert influenced projects large and small, often spearheading the fundraising as well as creating the design.
“You can credit him for putting the trees in the parking lot in front of Walmart,” his longtime friend Bill Carver said. “He drew up a design when they were talking about building here, and when they came, they said they would like to discuss the Wilbert proposal.”
For his daughter, Emily McGough, a favorite memory is her father’s design of the Park Elementary School Preserve in what used to be an asphalt patio and now reflects all the ecological zones in the area, including a riparian zone.
“He came to my third-grade class and asked everybody to do a design for it, and they did drawings with water slides and roller coasters,” she said. “He said, “Let’s really do something with that asphalt, so he did the design with input from 25 third-graders.”
Wilbert, frequently seen around town on his bicycle, moved to Durango in 1983, beginning his career making custom cabinets, porch swings and lawn furniture, McGough said.
“I don’t think Durango was fancy enough to have a landscape architect in those days,” Carver said.
The two became cohorts in crime after Wilbert recruited Carver to work on the Children’s Museum.
“That was back in 1998,” Carver said, “I told him I really didn’t have the time, between raising the kids and running the businesses. He said, ‘The kids needed to grow up seeing you contribute to the community, this can’t wait.’ He thought about what people ought to do to help weave the fabric of community.”
Wilbert was involved in every stage of the restoration of the Powerhouse, including landscaping the grounds while working with volunteer gardeners.
“He was very heartbroken over Peter’s death, as devastated as anybody,” Carver said about his son, who was killed in an avalanche in 2013.
Wilbert was the moving force behind creating the memorial forest, which now will remember him along with remembrances of Peter Carver, Tyler Gordon, Kelsey McLean and Olivia Buchanan, all young people who loved outdoor adventures. Wilbert died while checking on the forest, which now numbers 85 trees along the top of Chapman Hill along Rim Drive.
“Paul’s project was the reason we were able to get through the grief over Peter,” said Claire Carver, Peter’s sister.
For his friends and family, Wilbert will be remembered for the person he was more than his accomplishments, the man who had a welcoming home he built himself, full of multiple generations, music and life, the avid backpacker and river runner, his friend John Thomas said.
“He had a strong belief if something was written up in a guidebook, it shouldn’t be visited,” McGough said. “He had traveled all over Europe, but in recent years, he said that there was no reason to go that far because there were an unimaginable number of places to explore around here.”