EAGLE — Eagle County commissioners approved the “crown jewel” of all the county’s open space deals Tuesday — 480 acres of the historic Horn Ranch between Eagle and Wolcott.
“This is a monster acquisition,” said Eagle County Open Space Director Toby Sprunk. “It’s the only open space project on the Eagle River with this much river frontage.”
The total deal is expected to end up around $3.7 million after transaction costs are figured in. However, Great Outdoors Colorado awarded $600,000 toward the project, which the county will likely receive in 2014, so the county’s cost is closer to $3.1 million.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Sprunk said. “Former commissioner Peter Runyon sort of got this conversation going with the landowner years ago.”
Runyon said the landowner, Magnus Lindholm, deserves a deep thanks for being so agreeable with the county.
“He could have been much more difficult,” Runyon said. “The county is so much better off for preserving this parcel.”
The project protects 7,300 feet of Eagle River frontage. Of the deal, 328 acres will become public land and 120 acres will be put under a private conservation easement. It preserves wildlife habitat that is commonly used by bald eagles and river otters, provides a potential connection for the Eagle Valley Trail and ties “significant” water rights to the land. Guided hikes will be permitted to a historic stone quarry north of Interstate 70 and, Sprunk noted, there is outstanding potential for public fishing access.
Another important factor is that the deal secures a 1.5-mile buffer of open land that would likely face significant development pressure in the future.
“This is undoubtedly one of the most visible properties we have in the county,” Sprunk said. “The Colorado Department of Transportation estimates that more than 8 million cars per year drive by that stretch on I-70 and U.S. Highway 6.”
Sprunk said the current plan for public access is to put a parking lot at the west end of the property that is off Highway 6. There may be a separate access easement for the Eagle Valley Trail in the future. Since there are minimal planned improvements, management costs will be low, he said.
“There seems to be universal support for this deal,” he added.
The Open Space Advisory Committee considers several criteria before endorsing a deal. Those criteria consider the scenic values; heritage, agriculture and ranching; wildlife habitat; sensitive environments; physical and visual buffers; and access to streams, public lands and recreation opportunities. The criteria are scored as “high,” “moderate” or “low.”
“I’ve been on OSAC since it began, and this is the first time a project has scored all ‘highs,’” Tom Edwards said. “This is a project the open space fund was created for.”
Commissioner Sara Fisher echoed the sentiment.
“Even those who fault the open space program will be able to appreciate the fact that as you go into Red Canyon, you will have one of the prettiest introductions you could possibly have to the area,” she said.
Sprunk said it is still a unique time for landowners to be engaging open space programs and the Horn Ranch deal will provide significant economic benefits to Eagle County.
“It’s an iconic piece of land on the Eagle River,” said Ken Neubecker, a representative of American Rivers. “This is the jewel in the crown of all the open space deals the county has done so far.”
Sprunk said the county has completed most of its conservation work along the Colorado River, and the Horn Ranch deal is part of a growing effort with multiple partners to complete a similar large-scale conservation effort on the Eagle River.
“The tax that funds the open space program ends in 15 years unless it is reapproved by the voters, and I would encourage everyone to keep it going when the time comes,” Runyon said.