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Paul Andersen: Living off the land

Paul Andersen

When a cattle ranch becomes a golf course, it saddens me. When a horse pasture is subdivided into building sites, I feel a loss. When luxury second homes spring up on a winter wildlife range, I question land-use planning.

I mourn the end of agriculture and open range. I rue the decisions of rural landowners who sell out because they’ve hit the wall of economic necessity. Can it be that the legacy of Western ranchland will disappear incrementally until there’s nothing left?

My wrath often goes to the listing real estate agent who stands to profit from the sale and development of rural land. As the land changes from pastoral to residential, an added bitterness arises knowing that somebody is profiting from it.

I live in rural Eagle County. My home site was once part of a ranch. We bought our land through a real estate agent. So, where do I come off venting at agents for providing a service in the sale of the land I own?

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This newspaper carries plenty of real estate ads, and advertising fundamentally supports this newspaper. The space allotted for this column is paid, in part, by real estate ads selling the cattle ranches, horse pastures and wildlife ranges that make our valley so beautiful. There is no black and white, only regrets.

Last week I received a plaintive e-mail from a friend in Crested Butte who sees the same trend in rural Gunnison County. He is embittered by the rampant speculative atmosphere following the sale of the ski area and the promise of resort growth. He describes a kind of feeding frenzy.

When I visited Crested Butte a month ago, there was a fever of expectation that spelled doom to my rich memories of a small, quiet valley in the heart of the Elk Range. Business in Gunnison County has been off for five years, and the promise of prosperity has created a tsunami of speculative real estate development.

Everything is in place for a big boom: deep pockets at the ski area, new airport runways in Gunnison, a newly paved Highway 135, a county government aligned for growth, and a groundswell of support to pave Cottonwood Pass to Buena Vista. Gunnison County is hungry after five years of recession. Now it’s time to gorge.

Real estate developers look at rural, undeveloped land as an opportunity. They exploit the natural beauty and quaint rusticity as backdrops for glossy color brochures. Gunnison County will gain property value while its ranching heritage and rural ambience erodes.

Undeveloped land is shrinking throughout our once pastoral valleys, and with it comes a loss of tradition and culture. This loss describes an equally important loss of values as financial gain overrides conservation of rural land and lifestyles. At times, the economics of growth seem to represent the highest value of all.

Several years ago, when a long-standing Aspen real estate firm listed a remote mining claim in Hunter Creek as an elite home site, I was shocked. Surely, the listing agent, a longtime local, realized the higher value of that beautiful land. Was there nothing more sacred than profit?

If this broker hadn’t listed the parcel, another probably would have, and yet the listing raised the stakes for a pending conservation purchase. In the end, the agent facilitated that purchase, even donating his listing fee to the acquisition of the land as the open space easement it is today.

Ethical boundaries are blurred when individuals stand to profit at the expense of community. Decisions come hard. Making a killing as a land owner, speculator or agent invites compromises that muddy the deeper values of a shared land ethic. As a property owner, I am complicit in that, and the conflict gnaws at me.

Some say the world today is a place where people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Developers seem to have rewritten the concept of living off the land. In light of practical realities and harsh economics, it may be unrealistic to mourn the loss of open space and rue the impacts of sprawl, but I still do.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.


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