Before he was a judge, J.E. was an eco-warrior
ASPEN ” J.E. DeVilbiss’ demeanor as a district judge is legendary and he was a widely respected Aspen City Councilman at the time of his death Thursday night. Less well known was his environmental activism that helped stop a ski area and a dam in the Crystal River Valley in the early 1970s.
DeVilbiss helped lead the charge against a proposed ski area and base village in Marble. DeVilbiss, then an attorney living in Carbondale, teamed with Michael Kinsley and William Jochems to formally represent the opposition.
“I think he, like the rest of us, thought it was a proposition that would destroy a valley,” Kinsley said. “It was never more than a land scam and J.E. realized that.”
Jochems said the proposal included 2,700 dwelling units – more than in the initial phase of Snowmass Village. One of the developers once bragged they would develop the valley the way God would do it if He had the money.
DeVilbiss helped re-incorporate Marble as a municipality to increase its legal standing in the debate over the ski area. He also helped foes of the project incorporate the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, an organization that still exists.
But it was DeVilbiss, Jochems and Kinsley who were responsible for attending all the meetings and pressing the case against the project. The trio attended countless meetings of the Gunnison County Commissioners, who were inclined to approve the project. They often found themselves in hearing room surrounded by proponents of the project. DeVilbiss was never intimidated, Jochems said.
“We were both practicing law and both probably lost clients over (their opposition),” Jochems said.
Kinsley said he was a young, dedicated environmentalist at the time who was in charge of pointing out small, often overlooked details on the potential effects of the ski area. Jochems employed an Abe Lincoln-inspired approach to philosophize about the ills of the project, Kinsley said. DeVilbiss tackled legal issues that Gunnison County, at that time, wasn’t even discussing, according to Kinsley.
Many of the meetings were held at night during the winter, requiring a long drive to Montrose, then east to Gunnison. The men would grab some beers for the long trip back to Carbondale.
“That’s when (DeVilbiss) was still drinking,” Kinsley said. “It was a hell of a lot of fun.”
Their efforts to stop the ski area were eventually successful. The review dragged on for a couple of years. Meanwhile Jochems and DeVilbiss protested the actions of the Marble ski area developers to the Colorado Real Estate Commission. They claimed the developers were selling lots they weren’t legally entitled to sell. The developers had their real estate license yanked and they never crossed the legal hurdles.
DeVilbiss also played an important, if less visible, role in battling the Placita dam, proposed on the Crystal River south of Redstone, also in the 1970s. The Crystal River Valley Environmental Protection Association, which DeVilbiss was tied to, opposed the project.
Becky Young, a co-editor of the Roaring Fork Review newspaper in Carbondale at the time, said DeVilbiss was a “mentor” to her and co-editor Pat Noel, two recent grads from journalism school. They were in over their heads trying to cover the complexities of a proposed dam. DeVilbiss helped set them focus on relevant issues. She believes that and other deeds provided a glimpse into DeVilbiss’ allegiances.
“Oh my, yes, he was an environmentalist,” said Young.
The dam was exposed as “ill-conceived” in the state’s review process and rejected, Young said. The associated reservoir “was damned to be silt-filled in no time at all,” she said.
DeVilbiss was appointed as a 9th Judicial District Judge in 1976, which snuffed his environmental activism. He retired in December 2002. After winning election as an Aspen councilman in 2005, his commitment to the environment flared again.
Although DeVilbiss was frail and often sickly-looking in later years, friends recall him as an “ox” and accomplished outdoorsman after he moved to Carbondale in 1969.
He was a river-runner, mountaineer and dedicated desert hiker.
Bill Kane of Aspen was invited to go on a trip in October 1976 that was organized by DeVilbiss. The judge planned a long backpack trip into wilderness area, then a trip up Gannett Peak, the highest in Wyoming. The 13,804-foot peak in the Wind River Range features a technical ascent of the last 400 or so feet, Kane recalled.
Bad weather prevented the group from reaching the summit on their first attempt, so they retreated to their base camp and waited. They were “weathered out” the next day, then DeVilbiss took ill. He faced an extremely difficult hike out. Back in civilization, DeVilbiss soon learned he had an illness that required removal of 90 percent of his stomach, according to Kane.
Kane said he recently came across photos of that expedition. It struck him that DeVilbiss was a very strong, strapping man who clearly had the look of an outdoor adventurer.
Kane recently left a photo of DeVilbiss on that trip at City Hall for the councilman. He later saw DeVilbiss in passing and yelled out, “Pretty good looking guy in that photo, eh?”
“J.E. said, ‘yeah, man,’ or something like that,” Kane said.
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