Ranchers, wildlife advocate sound alarm for the Crown | AspenTimes.com

Ranchers, wildlife advocate sound alarm for the Crown

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen CO Colorado
Courtesy of Morris & Fyrwald/Sotheby's International Realty

EMMA – Critics of a plan by local governments to buy a midvalley ranch said Thursday that it appears that demands for recreation are trumping all other concerns.Ranchers Rory Cerise and Tom Waldeck, along with wildlife advocate Ted Guy, are among a group trying to get the governments to reconsider purchase of the Saltonstall property and prevent access for recreation to adjacent federal land called the Crown. They have already expressed their concerns to Pitkin County, and this week they lobbied Eagle County.The east side of the Crown is the last part of the 9,000-acre swell of ground where animals can go without facing conflicts with mountain bikers, Cerise said. The west side has seen extensive trail development off Prince Creek Road. Numerous trails have popped up in the past five years.Steep terrain has been a deterrent to development of the east side. Only a limited number of bike riders are willing to tackle the steep trail shooting up from the paved Rio Grande Trail. One possible use of the Saltonstall property is to provide an easier-grade access to the Crown from the midvalley.”It’s going to be devastating to wildlife and to my cattle operation, too,” Cerise said in a public meeting with Eagle County planners this week.Cerise and his wife, Lucy, rent three grazing permits on the Crown. They have permission from the federal Bureau of Land Management to run 68 cow-calf pairs on the ground. They take them up to one part of the Crown in mid-May and then move them to higher ground July 1.Rory has run cattle up there for 45 years. He said it has become “10 times tougher” to run cattle there in the past six to eight years because of the explosion of recreation. Whether malicious or not, trail and road users often leave gates open, and their constant passing through tends to keep cattle on the move. He found seven gates on fences between grazing allotments open Wednesday while making his rounds.In an interview Thursday, Cerise said adding access to the area via Saltonstall might be the step that makes the Crown useless for grazing cattle during summers.”How many doors do you have to put in a house before it falls down?” Cerise asked.

Waldeck, a partner with Cerise, said it doesn’t appear that the interests of ranching and agriculture count for much in the decisions of local elected officials. It’s a numbers game, he said, and they realize their constituent base is dominated by mountain bikers and recreationists.”Wildlife and agriculture are in basic conflict with recreation,” Waldeck said.Agricultural lands have been on a decades-long decline in the Roaring Fork Valley as tourism and second-home development expanded. Waldeck owns Emma Farms and has placed a conservation easement on 75 acres, removing the development potential. He holds approvals for six single-family home lots, which he says he would prefer to extinguish and keep the land engaged in agriculture.The summer grazing on federal lands is a vital part of the operation. If those lands aren’t available, it isn’t economically viable to keep his land in the valley floor tied up in agriculture. The summer pasture is needed for grazing while the crops are grown in the valley floor for winter feed.Wildlife advocates are also weighing in on the debate. Guy, a longtime Basalt-area resident, said he isn’t objecting to the use of public funds on Saltonstall, though he would rather see the local governments buy a conservation easement, eliminate development rights and allow the property to be managed as it is now – as a private ranch without public access. He is concerned that once the property is purchased, mountain bikers and hikers will use it whenever they want because of a sense of entitlement.Guy questioned if Pitkin County or the Bureau of Land Management will spend the funds necessary for enforcement of closures for wildlife.

Andrew “Salty” Saltonstall has a 145-acre ranch that includes 50 acres of irrigated lands for crops and 25 acres along the Roaring Fork River. The land was offered for sale, prompting Pitkin County Open Space and Trails to pursue a purchase. An agreement was reached last winter; the sale is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.Pitkin County is contributing $1.8 million, Eagle County is anteing up $2 million, Basalt pledged $500,000, and the Midvalley Trails Committee chipped in $50,000. Pitkin County has applied to Great Outdoors Colorado for $600,00 to complete the deal.The property is in Eagle County, but Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Director Dale Will said the purchase is a legitimate use of the county’s funds because it provides access to roughly 5,000 acres of federal lands on The Crown that are within Pitkin County.Will is optimistic that the Crown and Saltonstall can be managed in a way that is compatible with wildlife habitat and ranchers. There needs to be a “New West” approach that features a collaborative solution rather than an “Old West” approach that features a turf war between dueling interests, he said.Other ranchers with grazing permits on federal lands have told him that hikers and bikers don’t pose a problems for their operations.”I don’t think agriculture has any unified view on that issue,” Will said. “It’s just not clear that there’s a true issue up there.”As for compatibility with wildlife, Will said the open space program supports the recommendation from state wildlife officers to close the Crown from Dec. 1 through April 30. Access via Saltonstall would be restricted at the same time, he said.Saltonstall is “easy to close,” Will said. It’s open land, so anyone poaching the access at a restricted time would be spotted easily.He stressed that access to the Crown via Saltonstall is vital for a couple of reasons – it provides a more gentle route up, and the other access along the Rio Grande Trail isn’t guaranteed. It crosses a sliver of private land and could be closed.Will said he wants to see good access supplied for the Crown with community consensus on use. “I’d rather see a unified plan for the protection and enjoyment of the Crown and have that guide access from all sides and among all users,” he said.Will said the purchase of conservation easements were discussed with Saltonstall, but no deal could be worked out. Saltonstall declined comment and referred questions to Will.

If the sale of Saltonstall moved ahead, the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program will enact an interim management plan and then work with the community next spring on a long-term management plan, Will said.The ongoing debate over Saltonstall and its potential effects on the adjacent Crown have raised questions among at least one elected official.”I guess I have had some second thoughts about impacts to the area – specifically impacts to wildlife,” said Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, who earlier supported Basalt’s $500,000 expenditure.She said now she wishes the governments would have worked harder on purchasing conservation easements at a lower price and allowing the property to be managed as it is, though she acknowledged that doesn’t appear to be an option. That said, she wants extensive study on how access could affect wildlife on the Crown before the sale progresses.”I think it’s potential sacrifice of that area,” Whitsitt said.scondon@aspentimes.com

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