Decision on Deer Hill looms for land trust | AspenTimes.com

Decision on Deer Hill looms for land trust

A respected local land trust will be forced to decide in the next few months whether the Deer Hill area west of Aspen retains any viability as wildlife habitat.

The Aspen Valley Land Trust owns 30 acres of undeveloped property directly north of Deer Hill. The city of Aspen wants to use that property for its proposed Burlingame Village employee-housing project.

The land trust owns the property outright and doesn’t have a legal obligation to protect its 30 acres. In many cases, the land trust is bound to keep a conservation easement on property in its control.

Although there is no legal dilemma, the land trust’s board of directors is on the hot seat because of the possible value of the property’s wildlife habitat.

“It certainly has the potential to be tough,” AVLT board president Michael McVoy said of the decision.

@ATD Sub heds:Wildlife value debated

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@ATD body copy: The value of the Deer Hill area as wildlife habitat is the subject of debate. The city of Aspen – which, in this case, is the developer – has essentially written off Deer Hill’s value to wildlife.

“Although the study area provides habitat for a variety of birds and mammals, it is not a regionally significant wildlife resource because of habitat fragmentation and barriers to movement created by cleared pastures, roads and highways, housing, the airport, the business park, the ski area, the golf course, etc.,” says a May 8, 2001, city report on the Burlingame project.

The city relied on reviews by the Colorado Division of Wildlife and its own environmental consultant. They concluded that the area “was no great shakes,” said city attorney John Worcester.

But other local wildlife experts disagree. Although deer will probably be scared off Deer Hill by the city’s housing project, the surrounding area would still provide important habitat that is worth preserving, said Jonathan Lowsky, Pitkin County wildlife biologist. That surrounding area includes AVLT’s property.

“Saying it’s not worth anything is malarkey,” Lowsky said.

The Deer Hill area is home to 15 to 20 species of birds, coyotes, red fox, weasels, four species of small mammals, and raptors that feast on an ample supply of deer mice and Wyoming ground squirrels, Lowsky said. It may even be home to the reclusive badger.

The vegetation in the Deer Hill area provides a smorgasbord for deer. It includes oak and service berry, which is their “meat and potatoes.” The mountain sagebrush that covers Deer Hill’s slopes isn’t a preferred food of deer but they will use it as “K-rations” during a tough winter, Lowsky said.

@ATD Sub heds:Disappearing sagebrush

@ATD body copy: The sagebrush is the most rapidly disappearing type of habitat in Colorado other than riparian areas. It supplies critical wildlife habitat.

Lowsky said so much sagebrush has been cleared from the Aspen area that sage grouse have disappeared and jackrabbits are all but gone. “The Brewer’s sparrow is next,” he said.

Respected local conservationist Tom Cardamone also agrees that the Deer Hill area is important habitat. He strongly urged city officials to get the property into public hands in the late 1980s.

He said the property could still serve as an important part of a wildlife corridor for elk moving from Owl Creek to the south-facing slopes and meadows of Red Mountain. That corridor would still be important if elk had a safe way of crossing the four-laned Highway 82.

Deer Hill is located just west of the confluence of the Roaring Fork River and Maroon Creek. The stream bottoms provide vital wildlife habitat that are relatively untouched in that vicinity.

Deer Hill and the adjacent AVLT property provide more than 200 acres of diverse habitat for wildlife that moves along the stream bottoms. AVLT’s land provides a link between Deer Hill and the Roaring Fork River to the north – a link that would gain in importance when Burlingame Village is built east of Deer Hill.

Both Lowsky and Cardamone, director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, agree with the city’s consultants that Deer Hill’s value is threatened by fragmentation that has already occurred due to development.

But they argue that the best response is to prevent further fragmentation rather than accelerate it.

McVoy said AVLT’s board will investigate the wildlife and conservation issues in detail before deciding what to do with its 30 acres.

If the city acquires the AVLT property, it would expand employee housing into a section it has deemed suitable for development. The slope down to the Roaring Fork River would be preserved, as would a slope up to Deer Hill, said Worcester.

City officials have also suggested that acquiring the AVLT property would help them preserve what’s known as the back bowl of Deer Hill.

@ATD Sub heds:City sacrifice zone?

@ATD body copy: It’s unknown if that preservation would do any good. Development of 330 housing units in the area would likely drive the deer away even if the back bowl is preserved, according to some officials.

McVoy said he doesn’t believe AVLT would be guilty of aiding and abetting the city in driving deer away even if the land trust provides property that is used for the project.

“The city’s going to do this project. The deer are going to be gone no matter what,” he said.

That said, he believes AVLT’s responsibility is to do what’s best from a broad conservation perspective. AVLT has to judge whether its participation could make Burlingame a better project, from the conservation perspective – possibly by preserving the back bowl, McVoy said.

Another big consideration is the “net benefit” for conservation. If AVLT trades its property by Deer Hill but acquires and conserves different property provided by the city, it would achieve that net gain, according to McVoy.

AVLT Executive Director Reid Haughey believes the organization’s 30 acres will have limited value once the city develops. Even if AVLT retained all the property, the effects from having 300 residential units next door would diminish the land’s value to wildlife due to human activity, he said.

So, like McVoy, he is looking for solutions where AVLT can increase the “net” conservation benefits.

Haughey and McVoy both stopped short of acknowledging that Deer Hill may be a sacrifice zone. However, they gave strong indications that their trade with the city would require gaining property elsewhere.

McVoy said it is too early to determine when the AVLT will make a decision on the city’s trade request because negotiations are still in a preliminary stage.