13,000 acres of open space and 39 miles of trail | AspenTimes.com

13,000 acres of open space and 39 miles of trail

John Colson
Dale Will, director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, takes in the view from the platform on Smuggler Mountain. The program recently acquired roughly 200 acres on Smuggler after decades of often-bitter negotiation and fighting with landowner Wilk Wilkinson. (Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly)

The year 2006 has been designated by local open space advocates as “The Year of the Trail” in Pitkin County, in celebration of plans to do nearly $3 million worth of work on trails in the Crystal River, Brush Creek and Castle Creek drainages, as well as the East of Aspen Trail and the Rio Grande Trail.But it also is the year of big open space victories, mainly due to the recent purchase of some 200 acres on Smuggler Mountain adjacent to Aspen, culminating decades of often bitter struggles to preserve the city’s mountainous “backyard.” The fight over Smuggler pitted property rights against the perceived community value of raw, unimproved land, a battle that has gripped the entire American West as land values have soared.The mythological West, the land of boundless open spaces, has given way to the reality of the New West, where trophy homes are being built in places once thought to be impossibly remote and rugged; where oil-drilling rigs and shopping malls spring up in terrain once reserved for mountain lions and bears.In areas where the land available for development is hemmed in by U.S. Forest Service ownership and rugged backcountry, such as the Roaring Fork Valley, a frequent result is the loss of the very open spaces that first attracted people to the area. As land costs have skyrocketed over the last three decades due to increasing demand and decreasing supply, many have feared that the West’s open spaces would be sold to the highest bidders.But in Pitkin County, a determined cadre of activists decided a decade and a half ago to minimize that loss by buying parcels of land ahead of the development juggernaut and preserving them.The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program was launched formally 16 years ago, and has spent approximately $53.5 million (plus another $23 million or so from other government entities) on pieces of dirt, rock and streambed both large and small. That money has protected a total of 85 properties and some 13,300 acres (2,527 acres owned outright, and more than 11,600 acres of land under conservation easements). Counting just the land that is owned or managed by the government as “open space” amounts to roughly $5,700 per acre, which some might call a bargain in this real estate market.The majority of the program’s resources go into finding, negotiating for and procuring rights to pieces of Pitkin County that have perceived value as undeveloped terrain. Large parcels are either bought outright or placed under a conservation easement, a process that can take years and involve millions of dollars.As for the department’s 24 trails, the longest of them, the Slaughterhouse section of the Rio Grande Trail, is just over six-and-a-half miles in length. The shortest, known as the Lani White trail in the lower Hunter Creek gorge, is a quarter-mile in length. The trails total 38.75 miles in length. The rights of way are either purchased or donated, sometimes as part of a development plan for nearby terrain. That leaves the bulk of the trails funding to be used for paving, construction and other improvements.Whichever mechanism is used, the parcels and the trails become part of what is known as the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Inventory, maintained for the public’s benefit by the OS&T department.

Dale Will has been the director of the OS&T program since 1999. Will grew up in Denver, part of a family that has been in Colorado since the 1880s. His first tour of duty in the Roaring Fork Valley was in 1983, when he got a job as the land manager for John Denver’s Windstar Foundation in Snowmass, a post he held for three years before deciding to change direction.There followed three years of law school in California, and a stint as house counsel for the California Department of Conservation that lasted until 1999.”I had about three days off between resigning there and starting here,” he recalled with a rueful grin.He lives in Carbondale with his wife, Cheryl, and their 2-year-old baby, Forrest Hayden, along with two teenage girls from a previous marriage who spend half their time with him and half their time with their mom.He and his chief co-worker, Barb D’Autrechy, together oversee a staff of 10, including a full-time “ranger” who keeps an eye on the trails and tries to ensure the trail-using public complies with the rules; a seasonal ranger who works from May to October; a full-time land steward with a crew of four who do all the maintenance (including control of erosion, weeds and ditches), repair fences and empty the dog-waste receptacles; and a soon-to-be-hired administrative assistant.

Popular support for the program has been clear and consistent.In 1990, Pitkin County voters agreed, by a 55-45 percent margin, to enact an Open Space and Trails Tax of 2.5 mills, which in the beginning raised about $1 million annually. Voters boosted public support for the program in 1999, by an even higher margin of 69-31 percent, raising the tax rate to 3.75 mills with annual proceeds that reached $4.3 million in 2005.The department has “leveraged” that annual income, borrowing to make large land purchases, and now holds about $17.5 million in bonded indebtedness, about $4.5 million shy of its voter-approved debt limit..The board also has gotten considerable help from “partners” including the city of Aspen, town of Snowmass Village, Eagle County, Colorado Division of Wildlife, the State Historical Society, the Aspen Valley Land Trust, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Great Outdoors Colorado and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust.The main thrust of the program, said Will, was and is to buy up or otherwise “acquire” as much land as possible given the money available. The second emphasis is to manage all that acreage and all those miles of trails, an emphasis that he believes will grow in importance in coming years.

“Real estate is a game of opportunity,” Will said. “What we really try to do is be in a position to meet the needs of the landowner, where they’re prepared to work on a conservation plan.”The 16-year-old program got its unofficial start nearly three decades ago, with Pitkin County’s 1978 purchase of the 175-acre North Star Preserve – for what seems now like a meager $1.2 million. The county’s general fund paid the bill because there was no OS&T department or tax at the time.The seller was the late James Smith, a former secretary of the U.S. Navy with interests in Aspen, whose family in 2001 added another 84 acres at the southern end of the North Star Nature Preserve for $6.75 million, thus preserving the town’s eastern entrance, at least on the valley’s southern side.Half of the purchase money came from OS&T, the other from the city of Aspen, which has been an active player in the open space game for decades. According to city parks director Jeff Woods and open space manager Brian Flynn, the city has spent about $30 million on its own since 1996, buying up 690 acres and kicking another $12 million toward the county’s purchase of 445 acres.Most recently, the county’s OS&T program snagged some 200 acres of the Smuggler Mountain holdings of George “Wilk” Wilkinson for what Wilkinson considered the bargain-basement price of $15 million. Again, the city and county split the cost.Through the years, Will said, numerous private landowners have come to believe that the public desire for open space outweighs the private sector’s desire for land to “improve.” This number has included some who fought the county for development rights and finally gave up, such as Wilkinson recently did in the face of a serious illness.Then there are landowners, such as Bill Fales from the Carbondale area, who not only plan to work with OS&T to preserve their land but have been active participants on the government’s side of the negotiating table.Fales, who owns about 600 acres near Carbondale, last week stepped down after 13 years on the OS&T board of directors. The occasion prompted a birthday party at the Pitkin County Courthouse Annex in which all the attendees wore cowboy hats in honor of Fales’ service and his abiding habit of wearing the same weather-beaten cowboy hat wherever he goes.

“It’s a great program,” Fales said this week. “It’s a program where the whole community helped shoulder the burden of preserving this land. You can preserve all the land you want through zoning, but it’s only good until the next election,” when a change in the political winds could prompt zoning revisions.”This is in perpetuity,” he declared.The program’s tax-funded, publicly supported status, he continued, “makes it a fairer and more equitable thing, rather than attacking the people who haven’t sold out,” meaning ranchers who have not sold their land to developers.Fales told of one rancher, whose name he would not reveal, who was forced to sell a family ranch to developers to pay off his sister’s share. The rancher never considered working with the OS&T program, Fales said, but if he had, “we could have bought an easement that probably would have paid off his sister” and kept the ranch in the family and in agricultural use.”Pitkin County has created enemies,” he said. “There are people who don’t want to talk to us. That’s a real shame … I think it’s really unfortunate when people won’t talk to Open Space and Trails.”

Fales’ departure from the OS&T board came shortly after one of the “founders” of the Open Space and Trails program, local mediator Tim McFlynn, took a seat on the board he helped create in 1989 and 1990. Last fall, McFlynn replaced outgoing board member Rick Neiley.McFlynn, who also serves as president of the board of the Wilderness Workshop, noted that in 1989 he, local environmentalist Connie Harvey and others concluded that the only existing land preservation agency, the Park Trust Limited headed by Hal Clark, was too “passive.”Created by the late Fritz Benedict and planner John Doremus, the Trust would accept donations of land for preservation, but would not seek out potential parcels.”What was needed was a funding source,” McFlynn said, which would enable local governments to actively pursue open space deals.So a group of a half-dozen or so activists began to push the open space tax. After surveying other open space programs, the group came up with three basic tenets:• The OS&T board members should be five in number and appointed by the county commissioners, one from each of the commissioner districts;• Trails should be a formal part of the program, unlike most open space programs in which trails are either “optional” or left to other government agencies;• The OS&T board should have “veto power” over proposed uses of open space money to buy property, as well as any move to sell or trade away open space parcels for other uses.”It’s a check and balance,” noted OS&T’s land acquisition coordinator Barb D’Autrechy, adding that in most cases the county commissioners and the OS&T board have agreed on acquisitions and expenditures, particularly when trails are involved.To accomplish the task, the county voters dedicated 70 percent of OS&T tax revenue (it was increased to 75 percent in 1999) for property acquisition, whether through outright purchase or perpetual easement.The next 20 percent of the revenue is for trails acquisition, to gain access into the backcountry or stroll along a local river.Last in the OS&T priority ranking is the maintenance budget, which now comprises 5 percent of the total (it was 10 percent initially, but was reduced in 1999).

“This program is unusual,” Will said, in that Pitkin County merged open space with trails and won voter approval for the package deal.Will said 15 counties and 35 municipalities around Colorado have tax-supported open space programs, but Pitkin County is one of the only ones in which trails are a formal part of a broader program.”That’s where the people have contact with the program,” McFlynn declared. “I think the history of the trails’ side of the program is one of the best things about it.”As for the future, Fales said, “There’s still lots of great property in the county” that could be brought under the program’s umbrella. Open space advocates in general have mentioned large holdings in the Capitol and Snowmass Creek areas, McLain Flats, Woody Creek, the Fryingpan and Crystal River valleys, and even the possibility of working with adjoining Eagle and Garfield counties.And, Will added, “there are still a couple of donut holes” on Smuggler Mountain that the OS&T program would like to acquire.Aside from actual land purchases, there is continuing discussion about the way the OS&T program allocates money to the different priorities. The tax comes up for reauthorization in 2009, Will said, and each of the three “spending areas” – property acquisition, trails acquisition and maintenance – can be adjusted by up to 10 percent, with voter approval.

Will also thinks the program will at some point exhaust its opportunities, meaning it will have agreements for all the developable land within the program’s price range. He estimated that time could come within roughly 25 years. But even before reaching that saturation point, Will said, the program may require an adjustment to the 5 percent spending limitation on maintenance. “It’s good to revisit every 10 years or so how much money we need to acquire open space,” he concluded.McFlynn said he has a number of goals besides merely continuing the program’s land-acquisition work, including the purchase of water rights to ensure that the open space parcels receive adequate irrigation. He’s also interested in linking the upper valley’s nordic ski trails with the OS&T program, to expand the nordic trails system.And, he said, “we have to have a permanent mill levy for stewardship and maintenance.” Because the open space tax has a built-in “sunset clause” and might not be renewed, he said the holdings need to have their own perpetual funding mechanism.But the very first step, McFlynn noted, will be to begin the campaign for reauthorization of the Open Space and Trails tax in 2009, a campaign he predicted will begin next year.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com

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