Vail Valley Voices: Why open space is crucial
Ryan Summerlin October 10, 2012
Eagle County’s open space program is necessary, even in a community with lots of public land, and to say otherwise is to fail to understand the complexities of our mountain environment.
First of all, public land is not the same as open space. Of the large portions of our community that are public land, only wilderness areas have a level of protection that guaranties permanence.
The rest of national forest land has varying degrees of protection. Some is leased for cattle grazing, some for ski areas, and some sections are even on the table to be sold to the highest bidder.
Right now there may not be many bidders, but with population growth, the day will come when there are.
All of these activities put pressure on the natural environment and threaten to harm it if they are not balanced with conservation and protection in other areas.
Secondly, and this is the heart of the matter, the land that is privately owned in our mountain community is mostly the result of early homesteading claims.
What did homesteaders need? Access to water for their livestock and easy transportation to connect to the rest of the world. The result is most privately held land is in the river corridor or valley floor.
This means that a very specific type of important habitat is almost exclusively owned by private entities and people. Combine this fact with the existing map of public land and you have a recipe for paving the entire river valley. Don’t believe me?
Look at Silverthorne, a community less than 45 minutes away by car. How can you make a map of privately owned land without using the Internet? Just look at where buildings are built, and that’s the entirety of non-Forest Service land, and it’s all along the river corridor where homesteading claims were made. This does real ecological harm to any community.
River corridor land is some of the most important habitat in any ecosystem. By having endless development in a river corridor the toxins of oil, gas and brake dust from cars flow directly into the lifeblood veins of communities. These contaminants kill off bugs and plants, the foundation of the local ecosystems. Wildlife and game species are prevented from accessing the water they need to live and rivers, instead of being a source of nourishment, become a monumental obstacle to migratory patterns.
The irony is the result of all this environmental impact necessitates us spending large sums of public money (taxes) to address environmental problems, and the results are poor when compared to managing land in the first place to avoid them.
Instead of having natural flood and pollution control from wetlands, we need to spend millions of public dollars on flood control infrastructure. Instead of having a healthy river system that naturally replenishes itself, we have to stock rivers with fish with more public dollars.
Instead of being able to enjoy natural landscapes by walking to them, we have to get in the car, burning gas, building ever larger roads and parking lots to accommodate the traffic.
Do we really want Eagle County to become one concrete and housing chute of Vail-EagleVail-Avon-Edwards-Wolcott-Eagle-Gypsum-Dotsero instead of separate, distinct, towns nested in the Colorado Rockies?
If you answer “no,” then there are only two options to prevent such an end game.
One, we legislate regulations to restrict urban sprawl and thereby spawn a host of takings lawsuits. Or we use an open space tax to make purchases in our community that allow for comprehensive land use planning and community building while recognizing the value of private ownership.
We need to make sound financial decisions when it comes to public spending, but we also need to acknowledge our deficit spending in the environment.
The environment is not an endless credit card we can continue to draw from without consequence. When we fail to have community buffers or protect wetlands, we are taking out a loan that our children have next to no hope of repaying.
The open space tax, and others like it in our neighboring communities, exist because proponents of the environment and its protection are working to address historical impacts of land ownership that were decided before humans had the science to fully understand the importance of natural, self-sustaining, ecosystems.
The time is now and the issue is urgent to protect the sense of space and the foundation of our economy in Eagle County.
There are already parts of our community that are difficult to distinguish between one another. Eagle River Station just passed this year, and regardless of how you feel about it, you can’t deny that there are powerful forces pushing our community to have endless development.
We need a countervailing force to make sure that once we come home from the jobs development creates our homes are healthy, inspiring places to be.
The open space program and the tax that funds it are not a luxury or a misguided priority. It is a critical issue to the healthy future of our community.
Scott Conklin is the project manager for the Eagle Valley Land Trust. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-7654.