Ambitious plan for preventing development on Roaring Fork region land
Aspen Valley Land Trust aims to conserve between 40,000 and 50,000 acres in the next decade
The oldest land trust in Colorado, Aspen Valley Land Trust has set an ambitious goal to double the amount of land that it has spared from development in the next decade.
The trust has purchased land or acquired conservation easements on 45,000 acres in the Roaring Fork and Lower Colorado River valleys in the past 55 years. The nonprofit organization’s new strategic plan calls for conserving another 40,000 to 50,000 acres in just the next decade.
A map of AVLT’s protected lands shows it has historically been slightly more active in the Roaring Fork Valley than in the Lower Colorado River Valley. It has conserved 24,166 acres between Aspen and Glenwood Springs and offshoot valleys. It has conserved 20,766 acres in the ranchlands and farm country surrounding New Castle, Silt, Rifle and Parachute. The balance is likely to shift over the next decade.
“There are some large parcels left in the Roaring Fork Valley, but by and large most of the opportunity is in the Colorado River Valley,” said Suzanne Stephens, the executive director of AVLT for the past six years.
It will be a hefty challenge to conserve land anywhere thanks to soaring land prices, but AVLT is undaunted. One big advantage is that Colorado has significantly sweetened the incentives. The tax credit offered by the state for conservation used to be 50 cents on the dollar. It has been boosted to 90 cents, according to Stephens.
With few exceptions, AVLT depends on voluntary agreements with landowners rather than outright purchases of property. When it acquires a conservation easement, the landowner retains ownership but limits or surrenders development potential in return for tax credits. The appeal is often that the tax credits can often be used as revenue to plow back into a farm or ranch, Stephens said.
Another challenge is some of the targeted land is also property ripe for development of affordable housing — a dire need throughout the region. AVLT is acutely aware of needs beyond preservation of open space.
“We’re not just here to commit random acts of conservation,” Stephens said in a meeting Thursday with the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program’s board of directors.
After the meeting, she said communities could achieve preservation of open space and development of affordable housing with proper planning.
“I truly, truly don’t think it needs to adversarial,” she said.
AVLT’s target area stretches from the Continental Divide east of Aspen to the Roan Plateau west of Parachute. That area encompasses 2.1 million acres, with the vast majority held by public land management agencies. According to AVLT statistics, 42% of the area is national forest, 21% Bureau of Land Management holdings and about 1% held by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and local open space programs.
That leaves 35% as private land, but the importance of that land to wildlife and food production can’t be exaggerated.
“Generally, public land occupies the higher elevations and peaks and private land covers the lower elevations and valleys,” AVLT’s website said. “The valley bottoms and lower elevations are often the most rich and productive for both wildlife and humans; they are also the most highly threatened by growth and development pressure.”
To craft its strategic plan, AVLT engaged in an extensive public engagement process where it consulted with 550 people through open houses, surveys, interviews and meetings with municipal officials. That input will help determine what lands to pursue. The plan spells out specifically the types of qualities the organization is seeking in property is conserves.
The priorities include some of the obvious attributes:
- Working lands that help maintain food production and rural character;
- Open space to protect greenbelts between towns;
- Wildlife habitat and migration corridors;
- Wetlands and riparian areas and help protect water quality and quantity.
But AVLT is also looking for opportunities that provide less obvious advantages. The organization wants to promote equity by expanding outdoor access for communities with the highest need. Stephens said conservation groups run the risk of sinking into irrelevancy when not catering to all segments of local constituents.
The organization will also gauge acquisitions by the potential to provide recreational and education for local residents.
A final factor is acquisitions that help with climate resilience.
To date, AVLT has protected 67 square miles, the equivalent of a strip 1 mile wide from Aspen to Rifle. If it successfully achieves its goal, that will double by 2032.