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Snowmass rejects nature center site

Sarah S. Chung

By a margin of one vote, the Snowmass Village Town Council yesterday denied a proposal for a nature center on Owl Creek Road on the grounds that the structure could potentially affect future elk migration.

A “super majority” was needed to approve the nature center’s wildlife-mitigation plan on town property. The final vote was 3-2 in favor of the project, but four supporting votes were needed to keep the application alive. Councilmen Jack Hatfield and Kevin Costello voted against the center’s mitigation plan.

Local and state wildlife experts all agreed the site’s proposed location is no longer in an active elk-migration corridor.

But the experts were split on how effective mitigation would be in the face of potential development on adjacent private property. And concerns that future development might shift migration patterns back toward the center were enough for two councilmen to vote against the plan.

“In my gut, I just don’t feel it’s right,” said Costello in defense of the elk that can’t “come to meetings to say enough is enough.

“I feel we’re continually pushing the animals too much,” he added.

With emotions running high in a three-plus-hour discussion, members of the public and the council criticized the rejection of a nature center when it was the development approvals of recent years which drove out the elk in the first place.

“I’m very disturbed that we’re letting a wonderful opportunity go by the wayside,” said Councilman Mark Brady. “I’m also very disturbed that we’re drawing a line in the sand – not at the maintenance center, not at Two Creeks, not The Pines but here. … Frankly, it blows my mind.”

Without exception, public comment focused on the notion that a “perfect site” – one that poses no impacts – no longer exists in Snowmass Village. Advantages have to be weighed against disadvantages, they argued.

“You’re looking at some of the biggest tree huggers in town,” remarked Snowmass Village resident John Howard. “If we really believed this application threatens elk, this application would not be in front of you.”

The nature center’s board members further noted that, over the course of two years of weekly meetings, many alternative sites were investigated. They lacked proper access to trails or roads, enough acreage or the permission of the property owner.

Board member Karin Gustafson reminded the council that the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies was successfully placed in a wetlands without devastating the site’s wildlife. She also stressed the importance of a nature center’s placement in nature as opposed to a more sterile setting that “school children will dread going to.

“This is how you touch people. This is how you raise generations of stewards,” Gustafson said.

Throughout their deliberations, council members stressed their support of the center in concept, if not its proposed location. They encouraged the center’s board to find another site.

But how successfully the board can rally its energy and funds around another location was unclear following the meeting. Several board members openly doubted whether enough momentum could be generated to pursue another site.

A board meeting will be held next week. After two years, however, funds “are low” and “our credibility may be shot with fund-raising,” said board president Jim Wells.


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