Derek Franz

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March 21, 2012
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Wait and see for open space projects

Eagle County Open Space Director Toby Sprunk is crossing his fingers because he's got a big proposal on the line.

Great Outdoors Colorado is funded with lottery money and now Sprunk finds himself in somewhat of a lottery himself, though blind luck has less to do with his chances.

On March 16, he sent a final, refined proposal to GOCO in hopes of receiving $4.5 million for the "Upper Colorado River Conservation and Recreation Project." He'll find out if Eagle County gets it in June.

"It's a pretty big, bold vision and the GOCO grant (application) is sort of the culmination of that," Sprunk said of the Upper Colorado Project.

It's been tough just to get this far. The proposal is one of 17 from across Colorado that were selected from a total of 65 in the first round of cuts.

GOCO has dedicated a total of $31.9 million to be distributed to the winning proposals as part of its River Corridors Initiative. The initiative is new. GOCO just announced it last summer.

Sprunk said GOCO gives small grants throughout every year but then offers much larger ones every few years. The River Corridor Initiative falls into that category.

"The timing of this is so fortuitous for us," he said.

If awarded the grant, the Upper Colorado Project would:

• Buy 288 acres known as Nottingham Parcel for Eagle County Open Space;

• Secure a conservation easement of 1,017 acres from Colorado River Ranch, with public access to the river, Bull Gulch Wilderness study area and a historic school house;

• Extend the bike path along the Eagle River to Dotsero and build a bridge for the path over the railroad.

The Nottingham and CRR properties each represent two miles of river frontage, Sprunk said. Both are under contract with the county.

The project is estimated to have a total cost of $9 million.

"It's rare to be invited to submit applications for multimillion-dollar grants," Sprunk said. "Normally, GOCO grants are for about 10 to 20 percent of a project's cost - we're asking for 50 percent."

Sprunk thinks the county has a good shot at landing the money.

"This project represents an outstanding mix of outdoor recreation and land conservation," he said, pointing out that CRR would continue ranching operations and add only one more building to the property, which also encompasses part of an important migration corridor for wildlife.

Sprunk said the more aspects incorporated into a project, the better its chances are for receiving a grant.

"For such a big grant, GOCO has to be convinced that a project benefits the entire state."

As Sprunk said, the Upper Colorado Project would be the culmination of a grand vision.

In the last year, Eagle County has pursued acquisitions for river access more aggressively, using funds from its open space program. Commissioners have cited some of the lowest property values in recent history as a strategic reason for getting the land now.

Such purchases include a formerly private boat ramp at State Bridge and a parcel called Two Bridges, which is downriver from State Bridge. The Open Space Advisory Board recently approved a total allocation of $190,000 for improvements to those parcels this summer.

The vision is to make a long stretch of the Colorado River more accessible to the public.

The Colorado River between State Bridge and Dotsero, where it meets the Eagle River, is surrounded by mostly private property. The river along that stretch is very flat and calm, and ideal for fishing and family float trips. However, there have been so few public access points that it was hard to make day trips along that stretch, which deterred visitors. Meanwhile, the river above State Bridge has been heavily used every year.

"I think what we're doing is one of the boldest, most comprehensive projects Eagle County Open Space has done," Sprunk said.

Now it's a teetering moment in local history, as grand hopes hang in the balance, hinging on the news that June will bring.

There's more action brewing in southern Eagle County as well.

Eagle County Open Space recently partnered with Pitkin County, the town of Basalt and the Midvalley Trails Coalition to submit a GOCO grant application for $500,000.

That money would help buy approximately 145 acres in Basalt known as the Saltonstall property. The land is under contract for $5 million. The purchase would provide access to the "Crown," which is an extensive amount of Bureau of Land Management land that spans parts of all three counties and includes a network of trails.

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The VailDaily Updated Mar 21, 2012 12:40PM Published Mar 21, 2012 12:31PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.