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Open space showdown

Janet Urquhart

Eagle County has hit a home run with its inaugural move to preserve open space. Or, it struck out in costly fashion.

This week, county commissioners approved what proponents hail as a significant conservation move. Critics winced, though, as commissioners earmarked $2 million from the initial proceeds from a new county open space tax to secure the long-debated Bair Ranch conservation easement, preserving some 4,800 acres at the mouth of Glenwood Canyon.

The $2 million from Eagle County will be added to a pool of funds ” $5.1 million in all ” put up by a coalition of conservation groups, a federal agency and private donors to end the threat of development on a sheep ranch that has been in the Bair family since 1919.

Travelers on Interstate 70 know Golden Bair Ranch best as the green expanse of land, dotted with ranch buildings, south of the Colorado River at the Bair Ranch exit on the east end of the canyon.

The family’s landholdings include 512 acres stretching from the confluence of the Colorado and Eagle rivers at Dotsero to the mouth of the canyon and the separate, main ranch parcel, which straddles the Eagle/Garfield line. The ranch headquarters, which motorists see across the river from the Bair Ranch rest stop, is part of 1,524 acres in Garfield County. In the hills beyond, extending toward Cottonwood Pass, are 2,794 acres to be placed under a conservation easement in Eagle County in conjunction with a similar easement on most of the Garfield County property.

The easement is a legal tool that leaves the property in private hands but sterilizes it from development in perpetuity.

The Eagle Valley Land Trust, working with the Boulder-based Conservation Fund, sees in Bair Ranch a “wonderland of views and vistas” that combines diverse wildlife habitat with several stream drainages and plant communities as varied as the topography. The land also provides a key link to adjacent public lands and preserves a “living history” ” the kind of ranching operation that is quickly disappearing in western Colorado, according to the land trust.

Other proponents see preservation of the ranch as a chance to stop the sprawl that has gobbled up any number of ranches in ski resort areas like Eagle County, where shopping malls, condos, second homes and golf courses are replacing cowboys and sheepherders.

Opponents see taxpayer dollars supporting a dude ranch/tourist attraction and sometimes-sheep ranch and the conservation of land to which the public has little access.

Five generations of Bairs have simply seen the ranch as home ” a home appraised at $17,275,000, though family patriarch Craig Bair says it would fetch $20 million easily.

The money is tempting, Bair admits.

“If I didn’t love the place, it would be easy to sell.”

More than a piece of ground

When Brad Udall, former director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, first approached Bair about creating a conservation easement on the land, the rancher wasn’t interested.

“Then I got to thinking, that might be the way,” Bair recalled. Selling the easement and sterilizing the ranch from development would allow the family to remain on the land, realize some of its value and pay off LeGrande, Bair’s older brother, who was anxious to cash out on his share of the ranch.

“It’s home. It’s never been piece of ground to buy and sell,” Bair declared.

The Bairs entered negotiations with the land trust in December 2000. They weren’t prepared for the nasty debate that developed when public dollars became part of the picture.

“I had no idea it would be this controversial,” said Bair’s wife, Doris.

There was animosity between Bair and County Commissioner Tom Stone, observers note. According to Bair, the two men discussed a sale of some of the ranch so Bair could buy out his brother’s share, but the rancher chose the conservation easement route rather than listing part of the property with Stone, a real estate broker. The decision created the rift, Bair believes.

Others in the community apparently found the deal a little too sweet for the Bairs to suit their own tastes. Criticisms stung.

And some detractors complained the easement wouldn’t so much save a working sheep ranch as it would subsidize a dude ranch. The Bairs started High Country Adventures, offering cabin accommodations, horseback riding, fishing, hunting, snowshoeing and the like, to augment the ranch operation when a drought in Utah ” where they wintered their sheep ” forced them to sell the 6,000-head herd two years ago.

“You have to make a living somehow,” Bair said.

“I sold all the sheep. That’s what everybody’s crabbing about. People cry about me doing horseback riding and something besides sheep. Well, you’d better be doing something else. The taxes still have to be paid,” he said.

“It’s just something for some of these people in opposition to cry about.”

In recent weeks, hundreds of new ewes and lambs began arriving by the truckload. Skeptics smelled a public relations ploy, but Bair contends it was always his plan to bring sheep back to the ranch.

“I’m the real thing. That’s the reason I’m doing it,” Bair exclaimed on an early May morning, after a truckful of bleating sheep clamored down an aluminum ramp into the sunshine and sagebrush off Cottonwood Pass Road. A wide grin brightened Bair’s tanned face.

In a cowboy hat, plaid shirt, jeans and weathered chaps, Bair cut the quintessential Western figure on horseback, barking orders to a pair of ranch hands and three sons who can only be described as textbook examples of “strapping.”

The sheep were unloaded onto BLM land and driven up onto the family ranch. Eventually, they’ll be herded onto summer range on the Flattops, public land on the opposite side of the canyon.

The Flattops ” via upper Coffee Pot Springs Road ” also offer a commanding view of what Eagle County taxpayers are preserving with their money. Of course the public can look at it, but they can’t play on Bair Ranch, except as paying guests of High Country Adventures.

Access, views, value

The public will have little access to the newly conserved lands, except for the 512-acre river parcel to be acquired by the BLM for $1.5 million.

That was a sticking point for Commissioner Stone, along with the fact that most of the land Eagle County taxpayers are helping preserve isn’t readily visible.

“It might as well be in Montana, as far as I’m concerned,” Stone said.

However, the county’s Open Space Advisory Committee, which voted 9-1 to recommend purchase of the easement, assigned a high ranking to the overall scenic value of the ranch.

Detractors of the deal also questioned how much development the ranch would realistically see if the family put it on the market, given the isolated, steep terrain on much of the property.

Bair scoffed at the notion that homes would never dot the landscape.

“That’s like saying they’ll never be another sheep on Bair Ranch,” he said.

“It would be a great, gated community with a golf course up there,” said Cindy Cohagen, executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust.

Ron Wolfe, chairman of the advisory committee, estimated the development potential at between 55 and 65 homesites in Eagle County. The growth would wind up costing taxpayers more than the property tax revenues the homes would generate, he reasoned.

This week, it was the value of protecting the ranch from what some deemed inevitable sprawl that swung the county into the conservation camp.

The easement, hotly debated last month, stalled in a deadlock with Stone opposing the move and Commissioner Arn Menconi staunchly supporting the expenditure. Commissioner Michael Gallagher, considered the swing vote, had been ill and out of the state, seeking treatment. His colleagues delayed a decision until June 1.

Upon his return, Gallagher matter-of-factly dismissed a host of frequently aired pros and cons to the Bair Ranch deal.

Regarding public access: “We’re getting the easement for a non-access price,” he said.

On preserving the area’s ranching heritage, he offered: “I don’t think the ranching heritage of Eagle County included dude ranching.”

As for preserving pristine views, Gallagher said: “Views is not one of my big issues. I don’t mind seeing somebody else’s house. I don’t even mind seeing somebody’s clothesline with their unmentionables hanging out.

“The fact that we can, for very well-leveraged money, say that these thousands of acres will never be developed is my reason for supporting this expenditure,” he said.

“With all due respect, Mr. Gallagher, I don’t think we’re getting value for our dollars,” Stone countered.

To Menconi, putting together a complex conservation deal for “one of the most significant conservation easements in western Colorado” is an auspicious debut for Eagle County’s fledgling open space program.

“I think it’s going to create a phenomenal momentum for open space purchases in Eagle County,” he said.

As for Bair, he likened the easement deal to the United States’ purchase of the Alaska territory in 1867, known at the time as “Seward’s folly,” as few people beyond the deal’s architect, then-Secretary of State William H. Seward, understood its significance. Later generations, Bair noted, came to recognize the value of that acquisition.

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


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