Unease on the open range
BURNS – In this remote corner of northwest Eagle County, elk outnumber humans by a long shot, and eagles seem as common as crows. Ranches, some of which have been in the same family for generations, comprise most of the land that isn’t publicly owned, and the abundant wildlife moves back and forth between them without a thought for the controversy brewing around their presence.Around Burns, ranchers are incensed by a new set of rules proposed by the county that would require any new development to be screened in terms of its effects on wildlife habitat. The rules apply to properties larger than 35 acres, which means ranches in many cases. And while agricultural buildings are exempt, ranchers say the proposed regulations would have a devastating effect on their livelihood.”They sit up there in Eagle and make decisions with no thought as to how it affects us,” said Susan Nottingham, who owns a ranch near Burns of about 10,000 acres with her husband, Vern Albertson. “If it passes, it won’t do anything to improve wildlife habitat.”Quite the opposite, she said. If ranchers are going to be penalized for having land that’s good habitat for wildlife, then the day may come when they take steps to remedy that.”If we lose our private property rights, then we’re going to start doing things to keep them off,” she said. “If people have 35 or more acres, they’re going to put up fences (to keep out elk). Those cottonwood trees the bald eagles like, I’ll cut them down.”Jill Schlegel, who owns a neighboring ranch of some 3,000 acres with husband Keith Scott, said the notion that bureaucrats at the state Division of Wildlife would have say over how they use their land is particularly upsetting.”It appears the Division of Wildlife would have full control,” Schlegel said. Different intentThat’s not the case, said Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon, who pushed for the new rules. The Division of Wildlife would act only in an advisory capacity, he said, with the county commissioners having the final say on land-use decisions.The real intent of the proposed regulation, he said, is to prevent large chunks of ranchland being sold off and turned into 35-acre “ranchettes.” That happens under an existing state law that allows ranchers to sell such parcels without any input from the county.
“It’s a poor piece of legislation that has led to some of the worst- planned communities in the state,” Runyon said. That’s because the county has to then be responsible for roads, school buses and other services in a widely spread-out area. It’s almost impossible to get utilities to all of the homes, Runyon said.As for wildlife, he said selling off such large areas can remove significant chunks of habitat for animals. What he’d rather see is more clustered development where open space is part of the planning and more homes are allowed, he said. “Then everyone’s a winner,” Runyon said. County Planning Manager Bob Narracci said the intent is to apply the so-called “1041” process to development on larger parcels and the potential effects on wildlife.”It’s a very preliminary draft,” Narracci said of the regulations. “I understand the concerns from the ranchers, but I think there’s also a bit of confusion from the comments I’ve heard.”On the plus side, he said, the ranchers being involved this early in the process can help craft the language of the regulation to where it’s more workable for everyone.Economic effectsThe ranches around Burns are mostly small, family-run operations that provide a good living but not a mint of money, Nottingham said. Critical to their survival is the ability to borrow money, which is based in part on property value. If the land is encumbered with regulations reducing its value, that ability to borrow money would be reduced, she said. Not only that, but the emergency option of selling land for cash could be compromised.”Now who would buy a 35-acre lot with those kinds of regulations on it?” she said.
As for previous such sales, Nottingham said one of their neighbors sold off five or six 35-acre parcels, and the new owners put homes on them.”We can’t even see them,” she said. “It hasn’t hurt a thing.”Albertson said the ranches offer valuable open space to the county that ought to be protected.”These are the only real, active ranches in the county, and the open space committee says we should save it,” he said. “But now they’re trying to control us. It’s not that we want to (sell), but if we have to …””We darn sure want our right to,” Nottingham said.Wildlife doing fineWhile Nottingham describes the family’s ranch as one big wildlife habitat, Albertson said there was a time not too long ago when that wasn’t the case.”When my grandfather first homesteaded here, there were few elk and deer,” he said. “Now, we have the largest elk herd in the world, some 58,000 head.”There are too many now, he said, and they cost ranchers a lot of money by eating so much of the local grass that they have to bring in hay to feed the cattle.”Wildlife is pushing us out,” he said. “It’s wrong, because obviously ranching has been a big help to wildlife.”Keith Scott said the ranchland has become a favorite stomping ground for animals, especially since the nearby Flattops was made into a wilderness area.
“There used to be tons of elk up there,” he said. “Now, with all the outfitting, people, dogs – those game paths look like jeep roads.”And the animals have moved down into the valleys. The feeling of the ranchers is that development and population growth has in some ways pushed more animals onto their land, and that now they’re going to be punished for it.Higher value?But Runyon said the intent of the proposed rules isn’t to impinge on the ranchers’ rights, and he said that, if anything, they’ll make the land more valuable.”It’s absolutely zero threat to an ongoing ranching operation,” he said. “I would argue that if it’s properly written and executed, it will enhance the value of property.”The regulations are still in their draft form, he said, and the aim is not to prohibit building on any land that might have wildlife habitat.”That’s not it at all,” Runyon said. “It’s to discourage the kind of land use that’s encouraged under the 35-acre rule and to do wiser, smarter development and land use.”Narracci said the process of soliciting public comment for the proposed regulation will begin this spring, with the draft moving through the county and Roaring Fork Valley planning commissions. Assuming those commissions take a few months to offer a recommendation, the regulation could go before the county commissioners for a final vote sometime in early summer.But Runyon and Narracci have their work cut out for them explaining how this is going to be good for the ranchers. All four of the ranchers interviewed expressed reservations about the state division of wildlife, and the idea of the agency having jurisdiction over their land-use decisions seemed to sit poorly with them. The fact that the ultimate decision would be made by the commissioners may do little to allay those concerns.”We’re concerned that we’re a very small voice up here,” Schlegel said. “We’re like the stepchild of the county.”Nottingham put it more bluntly:”Right is right and wrong is wrong,” she said. “And this is wrong.”
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