The ‘Fertile Crescent’ of Preserved Land in the Midvalley
Midvalley’s rampant growth magnifies impact of open space purchases
The Aspen Times Weekly
As a steady stream of vehicles whooshed by on Highway 82 one recent morning, Two Roots Farm workers buzzed around at a variety of tasks in an enclave tucked behind the old Emma schoolhouse.
The three-acre farm is only a quarter mile off the busy highway but it feels a world apart. In contrast to the interstate-level traffic volumes, there’s a laid back pace at Two Roots.
Most vegetables have been plucked from the ground, leaving long rows of dirt exposed to the sunshine. A mishmash of brilliant orange, burnt sienna and red flowers grows thick in one corner of the field. A small flock of turkeys flap around their pen, curiously eyeing passersby to see if they will hand out food. A score of ewes are divided into two pens with flexible electric fencing, newcomers segregated from old-timers until they get used to the new surroundings.
The air carries the scent of vegetation drying in the cool, dry days of autumn. There’s a faint smell of manure close to the skittish sheep.
At the farm stand on the south side of a new barn, customers eagerly examine the late summer bounty. They buy corn, peppers, greens, bouquets of flowers and eggs. The stand is open every Friday through October.
Two Roots Farm owner Harper Kaufman said it has been a good season, thanks to the ample rain that fell during the July monsoon after a dry and uncertain June. She’s in the fourth year of a 10-year lease of land from the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program. She’s able to rent at below market rates. The long lease, with opportunity to renew, provides the incentive to make financial and sweat equity investments in the site.
“It’s critical, absolutely,” Kaufman said of the lease terms. “Not just the affordable lease rates but also the long-term tenure and security of knowing it’s not just a landowner that could up and move or needs to sell, any number of things.”
She said she hopes to renew the lease for many more years once the current term expires.
“As a farmer most of the investments I make are for years down the road,” Kaufman said. “I won’t see the return for years as far as what I’m investing into the soil and perennial crops and even in infrastructure. It’s not something you’re going to be investing in if you’re going to be leaving soon.”
The board of directors of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program in the mid-2000s became disciples of a philosophy of obtaining farm and ranch lands in the middle Roaring Fork Valley before it was too late. They went on a buying spree from 2006 through 2016, acquiring some property outright and in other cases acquiring conservation easements that were critical for keeping ranching families on their land rather than selling out to developers. Purchasing conservation easements eliminates or reduces the development potential while keeping the land as open space or actively engaged in agricultural.
The open space program was incredibly effective in completing a string of deals that conserved land in the Roaring Fork Valley floor from Basalt’s eastern boundary to almost Rock Bottom Ranch on the west, a stretch of about 6 miles. It acquired land that used to be old potato fields on the historic Glassier Ranch along Hooks Spur Road. The acquisition of conservation easements ensured that Billy Grange and his nephews could continue cattle ranching on the edge of Basalt.
Additional land was acquired from other ranches up Sopris Creek. Dale Will, acquisitions and special projects director for the open space program, said the effort conserved hundreds of acres in the valley floor and additional “uplands” along Sopris Creek.
The purchase of conservation easements on a portion of the Cerise family’s St. Jude’s Ranch ensures land upvalley from Basalt High School will remain open. The image was taken on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails along with several partners have acquired several properties or conservation easements along an 8-mile stretch from Wingo Junction to Rock Bottom Ranch. The acquisitions prevent development on the south rim of the valley floor beneath the shadows of Light Hill and The Crown. Here is a rundown of the properties.
Emma Open Space . 2000 . 65 acres
Happy Day Ranch . 2006 . 25 acres
Crown Mountain Ranch conservation easement . 2006 . 559 acres
Tom Clark conservation easement . 2000 . 120 acres
Grange family conservation easement . 2007 . 223 acres
Emma townsite . 2008 . 12.5 acres
Shehi 2010 . 25.5 acres
Saltonstall . 2013 . 145 acres
Glassier . 2014 . 137 acres
Emma Farms conservation easement . 2015 . 116 acres
Glassier trail parking . 2015 . 1 acre
St. Jude’s Ranch (Cerise family) conservation easement . 2016 . 119 acres
Shippee . 2019 . 36 acres
The open space program has purchased 421.5 acres outright and place conservation easements on another 1,162 acres of land. The easements prevent or reduce development and allow land to continue to be farmed or left as open space. Combined, the easements and purchases preserve a total of 1,583.5 acres. The total spent by all partners was $27.29 million.
Source: Pitkin County Open Space and Trails.
Pitkin County reached beyond its boundaries to secure some of the lands. In the midvalley, Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield county lines blend into one another along a short, three-mile stretch. The open space board’s reasoning was that the purchases outside of Pitkin County were still in Pitkin County’s interests, Will said.
The acquired lands and conservation easements wrap around the base of Light Hill and The Crown, two prominent mountains towering over the south side of the valley floor.
“I’ve started calling it the ‘Fertile Crescent,'” Will said.
He noted that nearly all the land was once part of the ranches homesteaded by immigrants from the Aosta Valley region of Italy. They selected the sites where the valley was broad and the growing season longer.
The acquired properties are all highly visible. The Rio Grande Trail runs through or adjacent to them, boosting the route’s appeal.
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails executive director Gary Tennenbaum is also a Basalt town councilman, so he looks at the acquisitions through a couple of lenses. He likes what he sees through them both. For Basalt, the acquisitions have limited the potential for sprawling development.
“It’s critical because you don’t have sprawl between Willits and downtown Basalt,” he said.
It’s a safe bet that the open spaces that were preserved would have been gobbled up by real estate developers and there would be applications under review for numerous rural subdivisions had open space not acted.
“When we were in negotiations with Billy Grange, he was getting offers all the time,” Tennenbaum noted. “Keeping the ag lands free of homes is huge.”
The open space purchases didn’t prevent all development along the 7-mile stretch, but severely limited it.
The pace of development has picked up in the midvalley this summer spurring some people to ponder if the area has exceeded the carry capacity for traffic, essential services and quality of life.
There are 477 residential units under construction and another 362 under review. Here is a breakdown of the projects.
Stott’s Mill, Basalt: 113 residences
Basalt River Park: 24 residences
Tree Farm, El Jebel: 340 residences
Parcel 5, Willits: 155 residences
Basalt Center Circle: 70 residences
The Fields, El Jebel: 137 residences
Total in pipeline: 839 residences
The Fertile Crescent preserves the midvalley’s western heritage of farming and ranching. More importantly, it gives new farmers a spade in the ground.
“I never expected the local farming to do what it’s doing. It’s just taking off,” Tennenbaum said. “We have done the big lift by buying the land. They’re doing the bigger lift by farming that land.”
Alyssa Barsanti was the agriculture manager at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ Rock Bottom Ranch for six years before the golden opportunity for her own operation arose this year. She submitted the winning bid to lease lands at the Glassier Open Space along Hooks Spur Road. Marigold Livestock Co. was launched this year.
“I think Pitkin County Open Space definitely makes it more feasible and doable for people to continue or start operations,” Barsanti said.
Finding private land to rent for an agricultural operation isn’t easy in the valley where land values soar to dizzying new heights by the month.
“As I looked for land, a lot of people were hesitant about livestock,” Barsanti said. “They were more willing to have their private land turned into a vegetable operation. Open space really values what livestock can do.”
She wanted to get into livestock. She raised 600 meat chickens this summer, 40 turkeys and has assembled 25 ewes that will be bred this fall and produce lambs in the springs. She is leasing pasture space from Two Roots Farm and will also have animals grazing at Glassier this fall.
As proud as open space officials are about assisting the local food movement, that’s just one of the goals accomplished by the acquisitions in the Fertile Crescent. The land and conservation easement deals meet the four pillars established in the program’s mission statement as criteria for acquisitions: preservation of scenic vistas, preservation of wildlife habitat and creation of recreation opportunities as well as agriculture.
“It’s everything,” Will said.
Deer and elk consistently graze during winters on the open fields preserved by the purchases. On the Glassier property, a trail was created that provides critical access for mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians to the trail network on Bureau of Land Management holdings on The Crown.
The conservation came at a cost. Information provided by the open space program shows assembling the properties of the Fertile Crescent cost about $27.29 million. About 62% of the funding, or $17.01 million, came from Pitkin County Open Space. Another $7 million was provided by the Eagle County open space program.
Basalt ($2.54 million) and grants from Great Outdoors Colorado ($2.82 million) were the other major funding sources.
Will sees additional opportunities to add the Fertile Crescent, though he couldn’t divulge details.
“I’ve made it a point of trying to get to know all of the major landowners in the valley,” he said.