Scientists: Pitco’s open space more valuable than thought |

Scientists: Pitco’s open space more valuable than thought

Jeremy Heiman

After a season of biological inventory work on Pitkin County’s open space properties, staff scientists say the lands are in better condition and more valuable than they first thought.

County staff conducted wildlife and vegetation inventories this year on the Moore Open Space just west of Aspen, the Airport Ranch property between Sardy Field and the Roaring Fork River, and Seven Star Ranch, in the Brush Creek drainage.

“Our open space properties are protecting more than we ever imagined,” said Jonathan Lowsky, wildlife biologist for the county.

The study results were announced as staff members from Pitkin County’s Public Works and Land Management departments reported on the year’s work (and plans for future work) to the county’s Open Space and Trails Board Thursday. Plant ecologist Lisa Tasker and land manager Michael Craig also addressed the board, as did Temple Glassier, the county’s project manager, and Brian Pettet, deputy director of public works.

“Lisa and Michael and I have found that these properties are more valuable than we thought,” Lowsky told the board.

“That just goes to show our gut reactions to these properties are sometimes pretty right-on,” said Open Space trustee Rick Neiley.

Open Space director Dale Will underscored the importance of science in justifying the land preservation work the open space program is doing.

“The biological work these guys are doing is critical to explaining why we’re doing any of this at all,” Will said.

It’s also important in determining how each property should be managed.

“I’ve been pushing for management to stay in step with acquisition because we need to show the public what we’re doing with their money,” said board chairman Hawk Greenway.

The biological inventory results will be used in drafting management plans, which are required by the Open Space charter for all the properties. A plan for the North Star Preserve was completed and adopted by the county commissioners this year, but numerous others must be completed. The North Star plan can be used as a template for other plans only to a small degree, because each property has different vegetation, wildlife and habitat, and different levels of human use are appropriate.

The information will also be used for comparison in biological monitoring planned at two-year intervals. Monitoring is intended to determine, by looking at species diversity, how the health of the properties is holding up, Lowsky said.

The presence of rare species of birds, such as Brewers sparrow, which requires healthy sagebrush habitat, and Virginia’s warbler, which is extremely sensitive to the presence of humans, shows that the properties are now in good shape biologically. If they find only magpies and robins in future monitoring, Lowsky quipped, they will know the land is deteriorating in quality.

Plant inventories done by Tasker, the county’s seasonal plant ecologist, produced encouraging results as well. The vegetation, dominated by sagebrush, on the Moore Open Space can be considered a rare plant community, she said. While sagebrush is not rare, the intact sagebrush plant community is threatened by development throughout the West, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

The Airport Ranch, as well, has several different plant communities that are considered rare elsewhere, Tasker said.

Craig said the trial use of rented domestic goats to combat weeds on Open Space properties is an ongoing experiment. The animals were brought in to help control two non-native weeds, houndstongue and thistle, which they reduced significantly on the Seven Star Ranch.

But county staff decided not to bring the goats back for a second feast this year, because they also dined on native grasses and forbs, which then needed to recover.

Unfortunately, the thistle, a biennial, began to grow back by the end of the season. But the goats provided an unanticipated benefit.

“They annihilated the crested wheat grass on the property,” Craig said. Crested wheat grass is an aggressive non-native weed.

Other accomplishments for the year include:

Development of procedures for future inventories and monitoring. Procedures must be uniform and must be followed rigidly in order for study results to be valid.

Completion of habitat descriptions and bird inventories on Koch Open Space, Vagneur Open Space, the Hunter Creek complex of properties and the Hummingbird Lode.

Completion of several trail construction projects.

Increased weed management activities by 28 percent over the previous year.

Improvements to the drive, parking and access to the boat ramp at Jaffee Park.

Removal of one mile of barbed-wire fence at Seven Star.

Improvements to the Arbaney-Kittle trailhead near Basalt.

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