Aspen-area land conservation rebounded in 2011 | AspenTimes.com

Aspen-area land conservation rebounded in 2011

ASPEN – The business of conserving land is bouncing back from the recession just like the economy.

Aspen Valley Land Trust snuffed the development potential on 2,438 acres of agricultural land and wildlife habitat in 2011 after experiencing some tough years in 2009 and 2010.

“When the crunch came in ’08, people were so uncertain they didn’t know what to do,” said Martha Cochran, the Land Trust’s executive director. While they still might be uncertain about the state of the economy, they’re now moving ahead with plans, she said.

Lower land values translate into smaller tax advantages for landowners, so conserving suffered. Property values have stabilized and, in some cases, started appreciating again. That’s helped to fuel renewed interest in conservation.

Cochran said the Land Trust is working with several landowners who want to conserve as part of estate planning efforts. In other cases, the easements are purely “statements of the heart” where landowners don’t need to conserve as part of their long-range planning efforts but they want to preserve a special piece of ground.

The Carbondale-based Land Trust has helped private landowners conserve nearly 35,000 acres of land in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys since its formation in 1967. Landowners give the Land Trust conservation easements that limit or remove development rights. In return, the state and federal governments grant tax incentives to qualified donors. The landowners get to maintain private property rights and control of the land. The Land Trust enforces the conservation easements.

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Prior to the recession, the Land Trust was going gangbusters. It received 35 easements from landowners totaling 7,536 acres. As the Great Recession took hold, the numbers sagged to 17 easements for 2,731 in 2008, but that was still a solid year.

In 2009, it received only nine easements for 1,175 acres. The numbers fell even further in 2010 with five easements for 455 acres.

The 2,438 acres conserved last year came via 11 easements.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, the Land Trust helped two families in their ongoing efforts to conserve major portions of their ranches. Wendy McNulty and her family conserved an additional 782 acres of their Quarter Circle 8 Ranch on Upper Cattle Creek. That boosted the total amount conserved to 1,200 since 2005.

Mike and Kit Strang conserved another 367 acres of their ranch in Missouri Heights, boosting the total to 453 acres.

Cochran said she is appreciative of all conservation easements, but a particularly compelling story from 2011 was conservation by Wonderview Farms owners Bob and Sue Pietrzak. Wonderview Farms runs along both sides of East Sopris Creek from the Crown to Light Hill in the midvalley.

“Several years ago, they worried that a neighboring farm would be split up and developed in the real estate craze of the day,” the Land Trust’s 201 Annual Report said. “So they bought the place and over the next few years conserved it, granting conservation easements that eliminated all remaining development rights.”

The conserved ground provides vital linkage for wildlife migrating between the Crown, East Sopris Creek and Light Hill.

Not far from Wonderview Farms in Emma is the Middle Ranch, where 335 acres was conserved last year.

Cochran and her staff have successfully expanded the Land Trust’s reach over the last decade. As the large, rural parcels of land in the Roaring Fork Valley get built out or conserved, the Land Trust has set its sites on the lower Colorado River Valley. One of the biggest success stories on 2011 was the conservation of 1,040 acres of the Tall Pines property, about 20 miles north of De Beque. The property is regarding as “outstanding wildlife habitat,” the Land Trust’s newsletter said.

scondon@aspentimes.com