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Fate of Bair Ranch up to Eagle Co.

Janet Urquhart
Bair Ranch as seen from above the Colorado River north of Interstate 70 Friday afternoon May 21, 2004. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.
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Eagle County commissioners are expected to determine the fate of Bair Ranch today, ending a lengthy and, at times, pointed debate over the value of spending $2 million in taxpayer money to preserve some 4,800 acres at the mouth of Glenwood Canyon.

The $5.1 million deal has brought together conservation funds, federal money and individual contributions, but the linchpin is Eagle County’s money – what would be the inaugural purchase with proceeds from a county open space tax created by voters two years ago.

The county encompasses the I-70 corridor from Dotsero to just east of Vail, as well as El Jebel and part of Basalt in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Bair Ranch, where the Bair family has been running sheep since 1919, straddles the Eagle-Garfield county line. The property stretches from the confluence of the Colorado and Eagle rivers at Dotsero into the east end of Glenwood Canyon, and extends south from the Colorado River. Parts of the ranch are visible from I-70.

Commissioners were deadlocked May 11 with Arn Menconi supporting the purchase of a conservation easement on the ranch and Tom Stone opposing the expenditure. They agreed to await the return of Commissioner Michael Gallagher, who has been ill and out of the state seeking treatment. Gallagher supported preserving the ranch in a separate deal that fell apart last year, proponents note hopefully.

The county has the opportunity to “create one of the most significant conservation easements in western Colorado,” according to Menconi, who said he has never received more e-mails and letters on an issue than he has over Bair Ranch. Overwhelmingly, the communiques favor the deal, he said.

Stone, however, has questioned the value of the easement for county taxpayers. Some of the prime pieces of the property are not what the county will be preserving with its money, he noted in a recent guest opinion in The Vail Trail.

The Bair Ranch exit on I-70 is in Garfield County, while the 512 riverfront acres between Dotsero and the canyon – the only part of the ranch where the public will gain access – is being purchased by the Bureau of Land Management.

“This only leaves the property up in the hills that we can’t see or use to spend your money on,” he wrote.

Stone has also objected to purchasing a conservation easement that allows High Country Adventures, the Bairs’ dude/guest ranch operation, to continue. There’s no guarantee the ranch will continue to raise sheep, he adds.

“If you strip the politics out of this, strip the personalities … it’s about protecting 4,800 acres of land,” said Cindy Cohagen, executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust. “The issue is being portrayed as, all we’re doing is subsidizing a dude ranch operation.

“It’s about 4,800 acres of land that has tremendous conservation value,” she said.

The $5.1 million deal (plus $150,000 in transaction costs), includes $1.5 million from the BLM, $25,000 from Garfield County, the proposed $2 million from Eagle County and $1 million from Great Outdoors Colorado. The Eagle Valley Land Trust has committed to raising the rest.

Rancher Craig Bair would use some of the proceeds to purchase about 1,000 acres from his brother, who wants to sell his piece of the ranch.

If the conservation deal falls through, Bair predicts the family will eventually give into the temptation to sell out – he claims $20 million for the property isn’t out of the question – and the ranch will go the way of trophy homes and a golf course.

Then, it will never again be what it is, Bair said. “It’s gone.”

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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