Paul Andersen: Are land developers shedding bitter tears? |

Paul Andersen: Are land developers shedding bitter tears?

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

“So much land … so little time.” Such is the cynical lament of a local land use planner who has witnessed several decades of rapacious land development in rural Pitkin County.

His gallows humor speaks to the insatiable appetite of land developers, many of whom seem to focus on dollar signs instead of mountain vistas on our beautiful Western landscapes. One conjures a Simon Legree archetype rubbing his hands together over the potential lucre in pastoral beauty.

That’s a mean-spirited exaggeration, but it’s difficult to be charitable to those who carve out of rural agricultural lands outsized trophy homes, most of which will sit vacant for much of the year.

So imagine the laments when local ranchers preserve as conservation easements large tracts of ranchland through Aspen Valley Land Trust. Oh, the bitter tears shed by hungry developers over lost opportunities for profits when land is deeded as open space.

Never mind that wildlife benefits from conserved open space that also enhances all other properties by increasing their value. Never mind that endless growth is the mindset of the cancer cell. There are those who seek fortunes believing that capitalism and property rights combine into entitlements for converting irrigated hay meadows into luxury properties.

The Aspen Times reported June 22 that the John McBride family has deeded their ranchland — 5,300 acres — as a conservation easement to preserve open space, wildlife habitat and the traditional agricultural atmosphere of the Capitol Creek valley.

That ranch is being preserved from the machinations of land developers, of which McBride knows something, having done some developing himself.

As an early member of the Bill Janss development team at Snowmass, McBride went on to develop commercial and residential properties at the Aspen Business Center and North Forty. What sets McBride apart is having known when enough was enough.

McBride is sensitive to the loss of rural landscapes as the result of a craze for speculative vacation home development that fuels much of the regional economy. The McBride ranch has never been a speculative investment. Rather, it serves as a family homestead and their sole residence for 40 years.

That length of tenure has become uncommon here as “ranch” properties often become second, third or fourth homes. To live in a primary dwelling for four decades shows loyalty to the community, commitment to stewardship, reverence for a sense of place, and the placing of a personal boundary on resource consumption, something most itinerant owners don’t seem to understand.

John McBride’s remarks in the paper were simple and straight forward. “We feel it’s the right thing to do for the land and the wildlife that inhabit it.” His family’s largesse contributes to a long-term future for conserved properties that The Aspen Times reported include Capitol Creek Ranch, Harvey Ranch and part of the Weiben Ranch.

Conservation speaks to altruism, a motive for doing something — not for one’s self — but for the good of the land into the future and for the web of life that exists there. Were this attitude magnified globally, the biosphere might stand a chance.

The McBrides’ approach is not to exploit, but to steward, land as a precious value that land-based philosophers like Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry equate with the foundation of land ethics. The upshot is to care for the land as an inextricable part of the local culture, not as a commodity to be converted into cash.

The New York Times last week ran a feature article describing how vast tracts of Western landscapes are being bought up by the few rich and powerful.

“In the last decade, private land in the United States has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. Today, just 100 families own about 42 million acres across the country, a 65,000-square-mile expanse, according to the Land Report, a magazine that tracks large purchases. Researchers at the magazine have found that the amount of land owned by those 100 families has jumped 50% since 2007.”

The landed gentry has become an American aristocracy whose vast private and exclusive land holdings are fenced as personal preserves. At least one local ranch will be kept out of their hands.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at