Clark takes gamble to preserve ranch |

Clark takes gamble to preserve ranch

From atop a fence at his own ranch in Emma, Tom Clark discusses his effort to purchase and preserve the Fender Ranch, where cows are grazing in the background. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

Longtime Emma resident Tom Clark scrambled last week to put together a $4.75 million deal to try to preserve one of the last working cattle ranches in Pitkin County.Clark enlisted his friend, Aspen businessman Tom McCloskey of Cornerstone Holdings LLC, as a money partner. They purchased 560 acres of Bill and Pat Fender’s ranch Friday.”A lot of people call it the heart of Emma. I really think it is,” Clark said. “That’s the key for me – I have a huge emotional attachment to the property.”Clark acknowledged that he is taking a big gamble to try to preserve the property that neighbors his own ranch. He has about 90 days to convince the Pitkin County open space program to purchase conservation easements on about 480 acres of the Fender Ranch and 120 acres of his own ranch, immediately adjacent to the Fenders’ on the north. That would remove the development potential from that land and preserve it as pasture and hay fields.”Our target is to conserve 600 acres,” Clark said. That plan features “a very limited amount of development” along with the conservation. If the open space program purchased conservation easements, then Clark and McCloskey would develop only two homesites – both on the east side of Sopris Creek Road. Two existing homes on the ranch would also be remodeled. They would also seek to transfer some development rights off the land that is sterilized, and use those rights elsewhere or sell them.”[McCloskey] was willing to take a chance, just as a friend,” Clark said. “If this goes through, a lot of kudos go to him.”If that arrangement fails, McCloskey’s real estate development firm will compete in Pitkin County’s growth management system to earn approvals for more homes. In that case, Clark will help usher in the very thing he’s trying to prevent.

Soaring development pressureClark probably didn’t have any choice but to arrange his own deal if he wanted the Fender Ranch to remain undeveloped. Bill and Pat Fender have worked the ranch for 45 years. They run cattle with their son and daughter-in-law, Willie and Fran.The Fenders entire 1,165-acre ranch has been up for sale for the past seven years, most recently at $10.5 million. A portion has been under contract before, but the deal has always fallen through.Recently the 560-acre portion that’s prime development ground went under contract to Tom Waldeck of Aspen, but he let the contract expire last month. Clark was critical of Waldeck’s preliminary development plan for seven homes when it was unveiled to members of the Emma Caucus last month. He urged members of the neighborhood political group to oppose Waldeck’s plan and hold out for something better.Clark said Monday that when Waldeck’s contract fell through, he realized he had to put together his own proposal. It was just a matter of time before it was snapped up by another developer in this hot real estate market.”Emma has never been under as much development pressure as now,” said Clark, whose family has lived there for 26 years. “I think it had all of us a little shell-shocked.”Private, public benefitsIf the plans comes together as Clark wants, it will clearly benefit him by boosting his property value. His home would be surrounded by 600 acres of undevelopable land, and its value would soar.

But there are also public benefits such as preserving agriculture lands, open space and valuable wildlife habitat. The 600-acre ranch would be one of only 10 or so ranches of 500 or more acres remaining in Pitkin County, which has a rich ranching history. It would keep open vistas that are the hallmark of Emma.Dale Will, director of Pitkin County’s open space program, confirmed that negotiations are under way with Clark.If Pitkin County acquired the conservation easements, Clark and his hired hands would take care of the land, irrigating and keeping it weed-free. About 200 or so of the 560 acres he acquired is irrigated pasture.”With us you’ve got a proven track record,” he said. “This is what keeps me sane, doing this work.”Clark said he would continue to run cattle on the Fender Ranch, in addition to the 100 on his own spread.The value of the land that isn’t irrigated is also high, as wildlife habitat. The Fenders’ property reaches up the hillside onto the east side of an area known as the Crown. Deer and elk flock to the Crown during winters to browse on its sunny, south-facing slopes. Clark said deer regularly wonder down the easiest slope to streams and ditches on the valley floor.Eagles, hawks and an abundance of other wildlife also live on the Crown. Preserving the old Fender Ranch keeps access to the Crown open and minimizes disturbance from homes, people and dogs.

The two homes that Clark and McCloskey would develop are on the opposite side of Sopris Creek Road from the foot of the Crown. About 40 acres of the Fender Ranch is on that side of the road.Greener pastures for ranchersRegardless of which plan ultimately progresses, the valley is losing more of its longtime ranchers. Bill and Pat Fender bought their ranch in 1960. They declined to discuss their decision to sell and leave the lifestyle they have known for so long.Clark said it was his understanding that Bill and Pat will continue to live in the area after they leave the ranch Dec. 1.Clark said part of his push to close on the ranch so quickly was dictated by a deal Willie and Fran Fender had on a ranch in La Veta. They closed on that purchase Monday, he said, and will vacate the Emma ranch by Jan. 10.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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