Garfield County commissioners deny removal of Aspen Glen eagle buffer zone; suggest more in-depth habitat impact study if request renewed
A protective bald eagle buffer zone along the Roaring Fork River in the Aspen Glen subdivision near Carbondale will remain just as it has for nearly 30 years.
Garfield County Commissioners John Martin and Mike Samson agreed after a continued public hearing Monday to deny the owner of the golf course and several undeveloped residential parcels near the river its request to remove the buffer zone.
That request was based on the argument that the actual eagles nest that the buffer was meant to protect no longer exists, due to wind damage three years ago that toppled part of the ponderosa pine where the nest had existed for several decades.
Martin said the presence of a thriving riverfront habitat that supports not only bald eagles but other forms of wildlife needs to be protected, even though the nest no longer exists.
That attribute has become an “asset” and a “blessing” to the Aspen Glen residents, Martin said, noting a strong majority of those homeowners had opposed removal of the buffer zone.
“It is something special, and it has grown to become one of the attributes of Aspen Glen,” Martin said
“The overlay (buffer) zone was put in place until certain things happened,” he acknowledged of language in the original 1992 Aspen Glen approvals that went to protect the nest site as long as it existed.
“When (the residents) say leave our asset alone, I think that’s worth more to Aspen Glen as a whole than the development of 26 new homes,” Martin said of the number of new homes that zoning would allow for on the three undeveloped parcels combined.
“We need to protect the wildlife there,” he said.
The decision didn’t come without some soul-searching on the part of Samson, though, after he deferred to Martin about his thinking on the matter.
The two commissioners were left to render the decision after the third member of the board, Tom Jankovsky, recused himself because he and his wife own a property management company with clients at Aspen Glen.
Martin made the motion to deny the request of the Aspen Glen Golf Co., a division of Apollo Global Management, to remove the buffer.
“I have not made up my mind on this,” Samson admitted even after the hearing was closed. “I believe in property rights, but there are many cases throughout history where the good of the whole is the best way to go compared to the individual. I just don’t know if that’s the case this time.”
Given that he would be unlikely to get a second and certainly not Martin’s vote to grant the request, Samson went along with Martin.
“I just can’t say enough about our neighbors and the way we all pulled together for such an important issue,” said Aspen Glen resident Lisa McPherson, who helped lead the neighborhood movement against the property holding company’s request.
“Mr. Martin phrased it beautifully,” she said. “Aspen Glen has become an incredible habitat. All you have to do is take your fishing rod down and walk along the river, and you see dozens of song birds, you see eagles, you see deer and elk, and now moose. I believe in my heart that the eagles will be back and that they will renest there someday.”
Residents had argued that the eagles abandoned the nest in 2016 when, with Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) permission, the Aspen Glen Golf Co. had a video camera installed in the tree. The eagles then established a new nest about three quarters of a mile upstream, even before the old nest blew over.
CPW and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) official had recommended that removal of the buffer zone was appropriate, since the nest it was meant to protect no longer exists.
However, several Aspen Glen residents and members of the public who spoke Monday and when the public hearing began Sept. 21 had called for a more extensive study to gauge the impacts of removing the buffer zone.
Martin offered that the property owners’ request could be renewed but that he would want to see a full analysis by wildlife and river ecology experts of those impacts.
Retired USFWS worker Paul Schmidt, who spent 33 years with the agency and helped develop the national bald eagle protection guidelines, agreed that a broader habitat study is needed.
“Significant eagle activity continues in that area,” he said in support of conducting a “rigorous field study.”
“More information is needed for an informed decision to be made,” Schmidt said.
Mary Harris, who chairs the Roaring Fork Chapter of the National Audubon Society, said that the local organization’s membership includes people with the expertise to do such a study, if asked.
Attorney Michael Sawyer, who represented the neighborhood group that formed as the Roaring Fork Eagles Coalition, said any future request to remove the buffer zone should come with an impact study.
“What we don’t have is any sort of evidence that removing the buffer zone is warranted based on scientific evidence,” Sawyer said.
Rick Lofaro, the executive director of the nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy, said the riparian zone within the Aspen Glen buffer and an accompanying 10-acre Bureau of Land Management parcel that fronts the river is among the best anywhere along the Roaring Fork.
Maintaining those protections into the future is important, Lofaro said. But Aspen Glen homeowners have a part to play in that by limiting their own activities within that protective zone that could disturb those qualities, he admonished.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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