Pitkin County buys ranch after spirited debate on access issues
The Pitkin County commissioners approved the purchase of property on Lower River Road on Wednesday after lengthy debate about whether public or private ownership would provide the greatest benefit to wildlife.
The board voted 5-0 to support the purchase of 38 acres at Deer Creek Ranch for $2.5 million. The property is located at 2553 Lower River Road, between Gerbazdale and Old Snowmass.
Neighbors of the property lobbied the commissioners to leave the land in private hands. Some speakers acknowledged they are concerned about the possibilities of a trailhead and a boat launch on the Roaring Fork River in their backyard. They don’t want “strangers” attracted to their neck of the woods.
But eight neighbors that spoke at the hearing claimed their biggest concern is over wildlife that flourishes in the canyon.
The property is private right now. Some neighbors have permission to enter the property to hike or ride their horses in a narrow canyon.
The canyon provides access to thousands of acres of national forest in the higher ground to the north via Arbaney Gulch. A sliver of the land also is located between the Rio Grande Trail and the Roaring Fork River.
Homeowner Donna Gardner said she owns 14 acres of land near the ranch and was told by the county she cannot put up a riding arena because of concerns about deer and elk migration. She questioned how the county could consider buying property and allowing significantly more hikers into the canyon.
“It seems so hypocritical, quite frankly,” she said.
Linda Waag said the neighbors have agreed to limited access to the canyon. Purchasing the property as open space will harm the neighborhood and destroy the canyon, she warned.
“It is development, pure and simple,” Waag said.
Perry Will, area wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, voiced concerns to the commissioners about heavier use of the property, though he didn’t necessarily oppose the purchase.
Deer, elk and other wildlife need their solitude, he said. “I think some time, our public lands, we’re loving it to death,” Will said.
If a trail gets developed in every gulch, the wildlife will be squeezed into fewer areas, Will said. High frequency and duration of use of an area can reduce the use of an area by wildlife by as much as 80 percent, he said.
“When’s enough, enough?” Will asked.
Each of the five commissioners spoke about the need to protect access to public lands. They also said the Open Space and Trails Program will undertake a transparent, inclusive process to create a management plan for the property that addresses wildlife concerns.
Commissioner Patti Clapper noted that private ownership of homes with extensive access to the canyon could be worse than public ownership with restricted access.
Commissioner Rachel Richards was even more direct with the neighbors. “It does strike me as awkward to say, ‘I love this gem in my backyard, don’t let anybody else find it,’” she said.
She referred to the U.S. Forest Service acquisition of the Hunter Creek Valley, the vast area north of Aspen that was once in private hands and slated for development. Imagine how different circumstances would be if Red Mountain homeowners had fought the public acquisition, she said. Hunter Creek is more or less Aspen’s most popular playground.
Richards said public access to public lands shouldn’t be dictated by neighbors of any particular trailhead. “If that prevailed across Pitkin County, we wouldn’t have trails in Redstone, we wouldn’t have trails in Castle Creek,” she said.
Richards also stressed that purchase of the property doesn’t automatically mean year-round trail use on Deer Creek Ranch.
Other commissioners stressed that theme. Commissioner Michael Owsley said state wildlife officers have credited Pitkin County for protecting wildlife and habitat. The open space program also has a great track record of taking its time on management plans for the sensitive properties it acquires. He said he had no doubt the county will address the concerns of the neighbors of Deer Creek Ranch.
“We deal with it with rational planning and concern for wildlife,” Owsley said.
He noted that conditions have continually changed for wildlife throughout rural Pitkin County. Deer Creek Ranch was homesteaded in the 1880s and operated as a ranch before it was broken up into home sites.
“Each of you participated in the breaking up of this ranch,” Owsley said. Each of you has a house where elk once slept.”
He said his point wasn’t to be critical, but to note that conditions change and that Pitkin County and its residents do a good job of adapting.
Commissioner George Newman said the debate over Deer Creek Ranch is similar to the debate across the U.S. West over public versus private access and development versus conservation. He noted public fishing access has disappeared on the Fryingpan River. That’s not a legacy that should be left to future generations, he said. The Deer Creek Ranch purchase has the potential to preserve access to the Roaring Fork River.
The county is scheduled to complete the purchase July 6. The open space program will start work on a management plan at a time to be determined. The policy is to close properties while a plan is being worked out.
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