In the Roaring Fork, conservation work that aims to achieve ‘forever’
Conserving lands for wildlife, food production and people is important work, but what matters perhaps even more is the work that follows
By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Aspen Valley Land Trust
Conservation efforts aren’t just do-good acts that protect our lands — they also provide essential lessons in ethical stewardship across generations in order to make conservation work relevant and lasting.
People must be here to care for conserved lands 150 years from now and beyond, said Suzanne Stephens, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT), which works for clean air, healthy rivers and open spaces across the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.
“AVLT is not anti-growth or development, but we are all for planning around a vision that includes a healthy ecosystem, clean water, room for wildlife and room for people,” she said. “We ignore conservation at our own peril. Twenty years from now, the Valley will be filling up, and any opportunities we haven’t deliberately taken to conserve the lands we want to remain open will likely default into other uses.”
With its roots in open spaces — AVLT owns seven public parks near Aspen, and one in Marble — AVLT expanded its work and mission in the ‘80s to include agricultural and wildlife conservation, which go hand in hand as part of a large-scale effort to connect corridors and protect a critical mass of ranchland..
“But at the same time, we are returning to our roots, in that alongside the landscape-scale priorities of saving land, we are working on several community-driven projects (see factbox) that are geared toward specific community needs and providing access and opportunities to a broad cross-section of the population, especially to our lesser served communities,” she added.
We sat down with Stephens to discuss the current conservation landscape in the region, and how the community can make a difference.
Future challenges for people, food and wildlife
The population in Garfield County is expected to grow by about 65 percent between 2020 and 2050, while Pitkin County is expected to grow by 29 percent during that time, according to data from the Colorado State Demographer’s office.
“We are facing a serious change on the horizon that will challenge people, water availability, local food production, and certainly wildlife,” Stephens said. “Each of these require thought and resources, and we are going to have to plan now if we want to save any amount of land and water for wildlife and food production — as well as for people.”
Private land along the valley bottoms, which includes rivers and streams, is the most fertile and productive land, but it’s also the most critical to wildlife.
“People and wildlife have competed for many years for this lower elevation/highly productive land — and if we don’t intentionally set some of it aside, people will win out and wildlife will lose,” she said. “Unfortunately, people will also ultimately loose because we have just as much need for breathing space, interaction with nature, and places to grow food.”
Connection to nature, affordable housing, food production, spaces between places, and wildlife are all threatened by the booming Roaring Fork Valley, Stephens said. With increased demands on the valley, costs of real estate, and thus affordable housing and conservation, go up.
“AVLT is currently working on a conservation plan that will help us focus on the most critical corridors for wildlife, water rights and water resources, and food production, as well as historically important land areas, and outdoor experience,” she said. “As a community we need to identify goals – for instance, are we willing to save half for nature? If so, we need to plan now, and conserve now.”
Why it matters to you and how to make a difference
Communities are built on land and around land, and the way of life we cherish is a result of living in the high mountains of Colorado with access to clean water and air, and fertile soils, she said.
“But for each of us, our relationship to land is personal. And caring about land and community takes place one generation at a time, for reasons that matter to that generation,” she added. “The beauty of land is that we can all connect to it for different reasons, and on our own terms.”
53 of AVLT’s conserved properties (whether owned by AVLT, municipalities or counties, or private landowners) are accessible to the public, though that is far from the only benefit they provide.
Interdependence of public and private lands
Public lands are central to our way of life and recreational enjoyment, but they tend to be located in the less productive, high elevation “rock and ice” zones that provide wildlife with summer range. To survive, big game and other species also need access to good wintering grounds and reproduction areas, which tend to be located in the privately owned lower hills and valley bottoms.
“To protect wildlife and our functioning ecosystems, we need both —and we need connections between the two,” she said. “Especially as the climate changes, populations of plants and animals will migrate — and the primary thing they need to do so is connected open space.”
Return on investment
Stephens points to a study last year by Colorado State University that found a $4 to $12 return for every $1 invested in conservation easements across the state. This does not include resort economy or tourism dollars.
“The case is clear that conservation makes us healthier, happier, and in many ways wealthier. Are we willing to prioritize this now and plan for the future? That ROI will only grow as we depend more and more on an ever shrinking land base, and now is the time to invest — before rising costs outweigh our ability to act,” she said.
With more than 40,000 acres from Independence Pass to DeBeque protecting agricultural land, 30 miles of trails, eight parks, as well as historically important land such as the Redstone Coke Ovens and the Townsite of Independence, Aspen Valley Land Trust is committed to its investments in conservation for generations to come. Through community support in the form of donations, open space votes and volunteerism, the work will continue.
“It is up to us to ensure that the next generation is left with something to care about,” Stephens said, “and that our children make connections to nature that will invest them in the cause going forward.”
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Pools in Aspen and Pitkin County will be allowed to open Monday, though COVID-19-related rules will apply.