Garco should pony up for open spaces
November 16, 2006
For years the boards of commissioners in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties were, well, not exactly supportive of each other.Garfield County, in particular, has long resented its two wealthier, more upscale neighbors for reasons that probably could not all be listed here. Some, though, are pertinent and easily noted, such as the long-held belief on the part of Garco commissioners that Pitkin County was getting fat off the ski industry but its workers had to live in Garfield County because only the hyperwealthy could afford to live in Pitkin County.Many aspects of that belief have proven to be mistaken, and the Garco board has lately shown signs of opening its heart and its wallet to pay its share of the costs of housing and transporting workers to high-priced resort towns.Now the Garco board has another opportunity to shine, perceptually speaking, in comparison to the calcified, old-boy thinking of the past. Specifically, Garfield County has been asked to pay part of the cost of a conservation easement on most of the 1,100-acre McNulty ranch up Cattle Creek. The McNulty family has indicated they need a little more than $3 million in easement payments to keep what’s left of their historic spread, about 753 acres in all, as a cattle ranching operation. They have been working on open space grants from the state and from Eagle County, since the ranch straddles the Eagle-Garfield line with 466 acres in Eagle and 290 acres or more in Garfield.According to stories in The Aspen Times, the common wisdom holds that Garfield County won’t be a player in this preservation game, as that county has never seen fit to use its coffers to withhold land from the hungry maw of Roaring Fork Valley developers. Garfield County never has done so and probably never will, the thinking goes, in part because the county has no open space program from which to draw funds.Eagle County does have such a program and is mulling the situation. It will be up to the Eagle County Commissioners to make the call, and I, for one, hope that call is on the side of preservation. The last thing we need is another ranch being plowed under to make way for luxury housing, a use of land that in no way serves the real needs of this region and that would simply add to the growth that already threatens the area’s very soul.The McNultys, whose ranch dates back to the 1800s and who are determined to keep it as it is, already have shown the kind of steely resolve that seems to spring from a lifetime of working on the land. Turned down by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, from which they sought $1.4 million in conservation grants, the family is pinning its hopes on two of the three Eagle County Commissioners (the dinosaur of the board, Tom Stone, has made it clear he doesn’t support the McNultys’ request). Supporters of the effort are urged to call commissioners Arn Menconi and Peter Runyon.Despite the common wisdom, I cannot help thinking Garfield County has a role to play in this drama. The county historically has ceded the bulk of its domain to development interests. It is time for the commissioners to realize that this kind of thinking has had ruinous results, with rampaging population growth, horrible traffic jams and overtaxed services to show for it. Now would be a good moment for the Garfield County board to join the 21st century and realize that it has some quick work to do if it is to preserve what’s left of a once-beautiful part of the central Rockies. It could start an open space preservation program with the purchase of the McNulty easements, and then ask county voters for permission, and a modest taxing authority, to keep on going. I think the voters would go along.Some might be thinking that the McNulty ranch, miles from the Roaring Fork Valley floor and surrounded by encroaching suburbanization, is not worth the effort. That would be the wrong way to look at it.Remote ranches are all that is left of the county’s agricultural heritage, and must be preserved for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that luxury-home growth at the outer fringes of the county’s domain will lead to tax increases in order to support the extension of services to those areas. Why not step ahead of the curve, devote a portion of the county’s budget to saving this piece of what little is left, and avoid the need to extend services?All of us live n this area because of an innate attraction to its wide-open spaces, and all but the most cynical of us are dismayed at the rapid disappearance of those spaces. If we do not act to slow this process, to manage it and preserve what we can, then we are dooming the region to a form of urbanization that will be viewed by future generations as the worst kind of cultural crime. John Colson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.