Emma easement leads to the blues

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

An Emma landowner blasted the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program last week for allegedly “abandoning” her in a dispute with a neighbor over use of a trail.

Ginny Parker warned the program’s board of directors that there is a risk the county’s actions will spook other landowners away from giving conservation easements for land and trails.

“Pitkin County doesn’t seem to be standing up,” Parker said Thursday.

Parker and her family have been longtime owners of Happy Day Ranch in the heart of Emma. She gave an easement to the open space program a few years ago for Nancy’s Trail, a path that starts in a parking area on the ranch and connects to Bureau of Land Management property on The Crown. The route on private and public property creates a hike through red sandstone and wildflowers to high ground with views of the midvalley. Nancy’s Path is named after Parker’s daughter, who died of cancer.

Tom Waldeck owns the adjacent Emma Farm and is partners with Rory Cerise, whose family operated a cattle ranch there for several decades. They contend that the route is vital for moving their cattle from the valley floor to BLM summer grazing grounds on The Crown. Waldeck said use of a 300-yard stretch through Parker’s land has been established by use of the prior owners of his ranch since at least 1917.

A legal battle between Parker and Waldeck is approaching four years old. A trial is scheduled in August.

Pitkin County and the Aspen Valley Land Trust, which hold the conservation easement for the trail on Parker’s land, were initially named in the lawsuit, but they settled with Waldeck about one month ago. Parker said that’s left her alone to fight the costly legal battle.

“I feel like Pitkin County has abandoned me, and (the land trust), too,” she told the open space board.

But Dale Will, director of the Open Space and Trails Program, stressed to the board that the county’s decision to get out of the litigation shouldn’t be construed as taking sides.

“The county settled out of this dispute,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’re supporting Waldeck.”

The county’s interest is to manage the conservation easement in the way that best suits the public and matches the terms under which the easement was granted, Will said. The county got out of the lawsuit because Waldeck agreed to limit motorized use of the trail to driving cattle up in the spring and down in the fall. An all-terrain vehicle or motorcycle will be used only for purposes related to caring for the cattle herd, according to Will. Ranchers often have to mend fences, deliver salt blocks and care for sick livestock.

Will said the county is “neutral” regarding the factual dispute between Parker and Waldeck. The legal right of Emma Farms to use the trail through Happy Day Ranch is a matter for a judge to decide after looking at the evidence, Will said. That part of the dispute has nothing to do with the county, he said.

Members of the open space board said they could say little in response to Parker without knowing more about the county’s decision to settle out of the lawsuit. They were scheduled to get a briefing in a closed session from County Attorney John Ely.

Prior to that briefing, open space board member Anne Rickenbaugh said she believes it is “unconscionable” for the program to distance itself from Parker. The right thing to do is “step up” or other landowners won’t want to work with the program, she said.

Will responded he saw nothing wrong with the county’s actions.

“This dispute doesn’t involve Pitkin County. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t,” he said.

Parker lamented the “constant battle” that arose after the dedication of the trail easement.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “I did this to honor my daughter, and it’s been nothing but trouble.”

Waldeck wasn’t at the meeting because it wasn’t a scheduled topic. When contacted Friday, he also expressed regret about a fight over infrequent use of a 300-yard trail across Parker’s land.

“Why this is a jihad of hers I don’t know,” he said.

Waldeck noted that he and Parker must go through court-mandated mediation prior to the trial date. However, a prior mediation attempt failed. Waldeck said he accepted the terms and Parker didn’t.

“All we want to do is get our cows up and down (from The Crown) and keep them healthy,” he said. The grasslands on the Crown are vital to feeding the livestock, he said.

If he loses the court battle, Waldeck said he could not continue ranching. Eagle and Pitkin counties already have granted approvals for seven home sites.

“That’s what will force me to sell the cattle and build big houses,” Waldeck said.