Valley native works her dream job, conserving land

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Suzanne Fusaro Stephens, Aspen Valley Land Trust's executive director,
Matt Suby/courtesy photo |

Talk about the dream job. Suzanne Fusaro Stephens grew up loving the wide-open expanses of Old Snowmass. Now she gets paid to help conserve some of the remaining big ranches and smaller properties in the Roaring Fork Valley and western Garfield County.

She realized at a young age that Capitol Creek Valley was something special.

“I remember being very worried as a kid about what would happen to that valley if the housing developments moved in,” Stephens said.

That’s when she learned about land trusts and became enthralled about their ability to conserve land. It was a lesson she never forgot.

Stephens joined the staff of Aspen Valley Land Trust in 2003 and soon started handling the transactions where landowners gave the trust conservation easements to their property. The easements limit or prohibit development. In return, landowners receive tax benefits.

Stephens immersed herself in the conservation business — handling 85 transactions in 12 years as a staff member and ascending to associate director under Executive Director Martha Cochran.

When Cochran retired at the end of 2015, Stephens was the logical choice for the trust’s board of directors. The board released a statement when Stephens was hired in February that the organization was fortunate to have such a high quality candidate “within the AVLT family.”

Entering its 50th year

Stephens is at the helm at an important time in Aspen Valley Land Trust’s history. It turns 50 next year and is Colorado’s oldest land trust.

The organization holds conservation easements on “just shy” of 39,000 acres, Stephens said. She anticipates it will top that benchmark next week when it completes a transaction on an “iconic” Aspen property that “everybody knows.”

The first transaction completed under her watch was one with personal significance for Stephens. Aspen Valely Land Trust raised the funds to purchase Marble Basecamp — a 47-acre island in the White River National Forest that’s hosted visits by thousands of middle school children over the past 45 years. It inspired the love of the outdoors for many of those students, including Stephens, who visited there while she was in the Aspen school system.

Thanks to efforts led by the land trust, the Chapin Wright Marble Basecamp will continue that inspiration.

Stephens’ vision

Aspen Valley Land Trust staff is working on a land conservation plan that will identify areas of top priority. The organization understands the importance of building connections between young people and minorities with the land, Stephens said, and will work toward that goal. However, a top priority also must be to conserve land for use by wildlife, she said.

Pressure from growing demands for recreation and expanding home development are affecting habitat.

“Wildlife has taken a huge hit,” Stephens said. “It adds up to a grim future if we don’t take action.”

Stephens said a general priority is to connect the dots — conserve lands in the valley floors with the protected wilderness and national forest lands at higher elevations. That way, the corridors that elk and other wildlife need to migrate and thrive are protected. Without that action, the higher lands will become “islands,” she said.

Aspen Valley Land Trust works with private landowners. The land it conserves is rarely used for recreation. An exception of sorts is a parcel on the shoulder of Smuggler Mountain that was conserved by Frtiz and Fabi Benefit. The land trust holds the conservation easement and, in the process of an internal check on compliance with conditions, it discovered no trails were allowed on the property. It’s the site of a short but popular jughandle trail named the Verena Mallory Trail off the South Hunter Creek Trail. The trail been used by hikers and mountain bikers for 24 years.

Aspen Valley Land Trust tried to close the trail last year. A user group filed a lawsuit to keep it open. It’s in a judge’s hands.

Stephens said she couldn’t talk about the case since it is under litigation. Whichever way it goes, the land trust “will live with it,” she said, but it must abide by conditions of the conservation easement it holds.

Plenty to do

In the meantime, Stephens and her staff have their eyes on the bigger picture. They don’t solicit conservation efforts but invite private landowners to explore options with them voluntarily. Stephens is optimistic the land trust will be conserving several more properties as open space, despite land values again heading up in a generally healthy real estate market.

“Fortunately there’s always going to be landowners who don’t want to develop,” she said.

She anticipates there will be plenty for Aspen Valley Land Trust to do for the foreseeable future.

“We’ll never be done,” Stephens said.