Vagneur: The ugly truth about development at any cost
If you study the evolution of the Western Slope, it is imperative that you go back to the Native Americans, the Utes in particular, for it is reasonably clear that their Achilles’ heel was the vast amount of land they controlled. Settlers moving west, folks who had either come from the city or from small farms back east, and by small farms I mean 80 acres or less, must have been almost overwhelmed by the open vistas that greeted them as they crossed the wide Missouri and headed our way.
The early settlers couldn’t possibly imagine it took that much land to support such a small group of native people, not realizing that elk, deer, buffalo and all the other wildlife required great quantities of land for nourishment, or the nourishment of their prey. If you were a white pioneer, used to the crowds of the East and the productive small farms, it must have seemed such a waste of good land; land that could be much better managed by the white man’s culture. It may have been the beginning of the real estate pitchman’s confused drumbeat of today — “Development is the highest and best use of the land.”
The philosophy of Manifest Destiny became the general attitude and rallying cry for the settlement of the West, and the everlasting symbol of all that could possibly go wrong. That arrogance led to the decimation and depletion of the buffalo, elk and deer herds, which in turn forced wolves and grizzly bears to lurk around domestic livestock outfits, which led to the shameless killing of wolves, bears and other predators. Unfortunately, what we don’t understand we kill out of fear, and the wolf and grizzly were almost extirpated from North America through shooting, poisoning and trapping. We didn’t understand.
Not to be outdone by the killing of buffalo, those who charged across the fertile plains of the Midwest put plow to native grass and created the Great American Dustbowl of the 1930s. Small farms, created in the midst of arid grazing land by the insidious idea of the Homestead Act, led to collateral and egregious trespass on Native American land, creating untenable friction that eventually abrogated tenuous treaties and agreements and sent the Natives to nonproductive land, hundreds of miles from their home hunting grounds. We treated them better than the buffalo, but not by much.
Think now if you were one of those folks who seem to populate the gondola or biking trails with increasing frequency, looking around at all the pristine, undeveloped land in Pitkin County, wondering how you could develop just a small part of it, leaving the rest intact, or how you could buy a few acres and put in some behemoth house befitting of your perceived station in life. Or create another bike trail.
It makes some people’s mouths water, or sometimes they pee down their legs, just thinking about how they could improve the emptiness of undeveloped land surrounding our little burg of Aspen.
Every year, the encroachments continue, roads get built up and around hillsides, open pastures are obliterated by out-of-place houses and the lights stay on, whether anyone’s at home or not.
It would be difficult to explain the sweat, tears and yes, hate that went into creating a growth-management plan that kept a good share of Pitkin County lands undeveloped. A tremendous amount of metaphorical blood was let on both sides, but in the end, besides overinflated land prices, things seemed to turn out to the benefit of most.
We still don’t understand, and without apparent knowledge of Pitkin County’s history or the basic history of the West, some newcomers and residents alike, smelling of Manifest Destiny and unadulterated trumpery, seem willing to throw our unique valley down the drain and turn it into an I-70 corridor, bereft of wildlife and personality, an illogical sign of success. Fellow Aspen Mountain patroller and founder of Vail, Pete Seibert, once was heard to remark, correctly, that his mountain skied great — but he wasn’t responsible for the tacky development at the bottom.
We can’t close the door, but Pitkin County needs to step up and slow down development. Require 160 acres per household; lighten up the building restrictions and costs so that people without an account at Fort Knox can build something less than the maximum allowed by law and still feel like they’re making a good investment. Open Space and Trails, God bless ’em, seemingly without a rudder, needs a board that is truly knowledgeable about its effects on wildlife and agriculture, particularly wildlife and agriculture.
If you live in Pitkin County, there’s something you can do personally to stop the deterioration — vote Greg Poschman for county commissioner. He has an appreciation for our valley that runs even deeper than his roots and besides that, he “gets it.”
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.