Into the great wide open — two steady hands retire from Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program
CLOSED CASE FOR OPEN SPACE
Voters have strong affinity for proven program
Pitkin County voters have proven time and again they appreciate their open space and they are willing to pay property taxes to support it.
The slimmest margin of victory was the first vote in 1990 — and that was by a whopping 10 percentage points in a 55 percent-to-45 percent outcome.
The program wasted no time making purchases, securing conservation easements and building trails.
That helped earn voter approval with reauthorizations in 1999 (69 percent approval), 2006 (72 percent approval) and again in 2016 (70 percent approval). The latest vote authorizes the program through 2040.
Here are some of the big steps the program has taken along the way:
1990 — Open space program and property tax is approved by voters.
1991 — The first open space purchases are the Arbaney Kittle trailhead outside of Basalt and the Redstone Park.
1994-2003 — Several trails are completed including Basalt-to-Old Snowmass (1994), East of Aspen (1996) and the Rio Grande from Woody Creek to Old Snowmass (2001).
1995 — The amount of land acquired for preservation through purchase or conservation easement reached 475 acres, five years after the program started.
1996 — Windstar property conservation easement undertaken with Aspen Valley Land Trust.
1998 — Hummingbird Lode acquired above Hunter Creek Valley floor with partners and community fundraising.
2000 — Emma Open Space acquired.
2001 — Rio Grande Trail completed from Aspen to Old Snowmass; Filoha Meadows acquired in Crystal Valley. Moves made to pull together the North Star property east of Aspen. Total assets after a decade total 3,535 acres and 23 miles of trails.
2005 — Wilk Wilkinson and Harley Baldwin properties acquired on Smuggler Mountain.
2006 — Assets exceed 10,000 acres.
2007 — U.S. Congress directs the Forest Service to complete the exchange for the Ryan parcel, securing the Ashcroft property.
2007-08 — The Grange Ranch conservation easement and purchase as well as the Emma townsite purchase preserves a large swath of the midvalley.
2010 — Pitkin County completes purchases from the Droste family with a $17 million purchase of 841 acres. The land would become part of the 2,500-acre Sky Mountain Park, stretching between Highway 82 and Snowmass Village, and between Brush Creek Valley and Owl Creek Valley.
2013 — Gold Butte acquired outside of Aspen and becomes part of the Roaring Fork Gorge acquisitions.
2014 — Glassier Ranch purchased, preserving more of the Emma area.
2015-16 — Lazy Glen Open Space acquired. Much of the land is dedicated to agricultural uses.
2017 — The Rolland and Mamie lodges, the last known inholdings among national forest in Hunter Creek Valley, are acquired.
2017 — Amount of property purchased or held in conservation easements tops 20,000 acres and includes 70 miles of trails.
The year was 1989 and Aspen was roiling in a battle over access to public lands via Hunter Creek Valley.
Tim McFlynn, a lawyer who was new to town, was helping lead the efforts of a citizens’ group called Friends of Hunter Creek that was fighting to preserve the north access route into Hunter Creek via private property on Red Mountain.
The Friends eventually prevailed, but their legacy stretches well beyond Hunter Creek. The fight, and the community’s effort to organize in response, also was the genesis of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program.
“Hunter Creek had already brought together a large community of people who loved the outdoors and conservation both,” McFlynn said. “It was easy to capture that magic and momentum.”
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Longtime residents such as Connie Harvey, Jim Ward, Charlie Hopton and Tom Cardamone were concerned that local residents were going to lose access to public lands as well as invaluable opportunities to conserve private property in the valley floor. Pitkin County attracted the uber-rich and land values soared. McFlynn said Harvey urged him to research the formation of operations of open space programs around the country.
McFlynn and his cohorts prepared a strategic plan for an open space program in Pitkin County and convinced the county commissioners in office in 1990 to place a property tax question on the ballot. It won by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin. The popularity has only increased in the 28 years since the initial authorization.
Now that the program has matured, it recently lost two of its steadiest guiding hands. McFlynn retired from the board of trustees of the program last month. Although he officially served on the board since 2005, he was a key collaborator with open space staff and some board members since the program’s inception.
Also retiring last month was Hawk Greenway, a trustee since 1997.
Between them, they formally helped guide the program for 34 years. With McFlynn’s help launching the first vote and always staying involved, the input was closer to 50 years between them.
Voters have reauthorized the open space program three times since the initial vote — with support from about 70 percent of voters each time. In 2016, the property tax for the program was approved through 2040.
The program has preserved more than 20,000 acres in the Roaring Fork Valley through outright purchases or acquisition of conservation easements (see related story on page 15).
“That’s why people stay on this board for a long time,” McFlynn said. “You really have the opportunity to do things that last forever.”
Be prepared to play
Greenway said his 20 years of volunteer service were an education because the land values are so “ridiculous” in Pitkin County. He learned to put aside real-world sensibilities when it came to economics in Pitkin County.
“I’ve always thought, if you’re playing in the sandbox you’ve got to bring your game and be ready to play in this game,” he said.
Pitkin County used to have a citizens financial advisory board. Greenway recalled board members explaining that, based on the strength of reauthorization votes, county residents wanted the open space program to move post-haste to buy and preserve properties — before values soared even higher.
Neither Greenway nor McFlynn can be described as acting rashly. Observing open space board meetings could be a maddening experience. McFlynn has never met a detail he wasn’t willing to discuss at length. Greenway reveled in the devil’s advocate role in board discussions.
But Dale Will, former executive director of the program and current director of acquisitions, said open space has been successful because of board members who are intimately familiar with the Roaring Fork watershed and its people.
The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program is unique in that the county commissioners cannot unilaterally decide on a purchase. Purchases must be recommended by the open space board. It gives the volunteers on the board a power beyond most community interest boards.
Overseeing a successful program has required a board of trustees that is patient enough to save ammunition for just the right property but astute enough to act quickly when necessary, Will said.
“Hawk and Tim played a big part of that,” he said. “Both those guys at different times have been champions of different projects.”
McFlynn said it required restraint “not just spending top dollar to get whatever you wanted.” Being patient and opportunistic earns the trust of voters, he said.
Greenway said it is rewarding driving up and down the valley, or flying over as he does as a pilot, and seeing properties that were preserved.
“I was struck that there was not one purchase that we’ve made that I regret having made, that got bought wrong,” he said. “The regrets that I have are the parcels that we didn’t get and the preservation we didn’t get done.”
Both men pointed to Sky Mountain Park as a crowning achievement of the program during their time. Greenway was among parties who recommended the purchase. McFlynn helped assemble contributing funders and scrambled to salvage the purchase when the initial contract fell through.
“It was a high-wire act,” McFlynn said.
A series of purchases helped piece together the 2,500-acre Sky Mountain Park. It is a popular hiking, biking and equestrian area. But what it prevented is even more important. The purchase snuffed plans for nine houses on the southern ridge between Highway 82 and Snowmass Village and 3 miles of roads to access them.
For McFlynn, another critical purchase during his tenure was the Rolland and Mamie Lodge — a patented mining claim in the Hunter Creek Valley. The county mounted a meticulous effort in the 1990s and 2000s to identify and purchase all the private land inholdings within the national forest in Hunter Creek Valley.
Even with Rural and Remote Zoning — which restricts development to a 1,000-square-feet cabin in many parts of the backcountry — the feel of Hunter Creek would have been lost if cabins were developed and vehicular access could not be controlled.
“So one by one, we had to get those inholdings,” McFlynn said.
The open space program thought it found them all until a Silverthorne resident and expert at title searches acquired the Rolland Mamie near the wilderness boundary.
“He was the guy we feared was going to ruin Hunter Creek as we know it,” McFlynn said.
The owner initially ignored Pitkin County’s efforts to talk but he eventually sold the lode for less than he probably could have on the free market, McFlynn said. The idea of helping preserve the property appealed to the seller, he said.
Greenway said the purchase of the James H. Smith Open Space, also known as the Joy Smith parcel, was an eye opener for him. He was touring the property because he was having a tough time imagining open space dishing out $6 million for the site east of Aspen. While on a tour, then-County Commissioner Mick Ireland drove by and stopped. “Just buy it,” he said, according to Greenway.
Greenway accepted the price and now relishes the fact the property is a vital piece of the North Star Nature Preserve.
Acquiring the Ryan parcel at Ashcroft and eventually getting it into the U.S. Forest Service’s hands was another critical maneuver from Greenway’s perspective.
“People forget that the Ashcroft Ski Area was about to have a 15,000-square-foot home,” he said.
Both men provided numerous examples of critical purchases without much effort.
“They’re all unique and all forever,” McFlynn said.
They acted as trustees to support a recent thrust of the program to preserve agricultural lands and to invite or maintain farmers onto the lands, particularly in Emma.
Greenway noted the county commissioners never have rejected a recommendation from the open space trustees.
“It’s an incredible batting average,” he said.
Trails ‘R’ Us?
The open space program caught some flak during the 2016 reauthorization campaign that it was becoming too trail-centric. The criticism is resurfacing again during the debate over the Carbondale-to-Crested Butte Trail.
Wildlife advocates contend creating trails for the allegedly insatiable appetite of mountain bikers has become too great of a priority.
Greenway countered that a sizable portion of the “pushback” is really from people who want to preserve their privacy under the guise of being concerned about wildlife.
North Star west of the Roaring Fork River is closed year-round while Filoha Meadows is closed Oct. 1 through June 30, then access is limited. (An extensive list of closures on open space properties is available at https://pitkincounty.com/DocumentCenter/View/2281/Trail-Regulations).
Greenway acknowledged the need to invite the public onto many of the properties the program acquires.
“Without public there is no public lands,” he said.
Will estimated that the public has access to about 20 percent of the land in the program’s inventory. In addition, more of the program’s staff are now devoted to forming management plans — where to put people and when — than they are on acquisitions.
McFlynn said he’s been posed the question: “Has open space lost its way with recreation being the dominant activity?”
He doesn’t believe it has lost its way. Land purchases that enhance recreation and construction of trails grab headlines and trigger celebration by user groups, he said. Purchases of land for wildlife habitat or agricultural uses don’t tend to garner as much attention.
McFlynn also pointed with pride to the program’s adoption of a policy to guide the acquisition and management of open space and trails properties. It was crafted with the help of seven conservation groups. The policy is known as Protection of Natural Biodiversity and Management of Human Use.
At a time when the U.S. administration downplays science, it is more important than ever for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails to make it a priority in their dealings, McFlynn said.
Looking back, Greenway said he is proud of the open space program’s achievements and his involvement in them.
“I look forward to the robustness of the program,” he said. “Our public lands are unique in the world.”
McFlynn expressed a similar sentiment.
“It preserves the character of the community,” he said, “and it does it in a way that’s permanent.”
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Wayne Hall took a job as an air traffic controller at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in 2003 thinking he would stay for a short time. Instead he stayed for nearly 17 years and was promoted up to the position of air traffic manager. He reflected on the experience upon retirement.