Arguments vs. Bair are flawed |

Arguments vs. Bair are flawed

Don Rogers
Daily Managing Editor

Reading aloud 15 e-mails opposing Eagle County contributing $2 million to a conservation easement for Bair Ranch at the east end of Glenwood Canyon the other day, County Commissioner Tom Stone signaled Tuesday exactly where he still stands on the question.

Ten of 11 people who came to speak directly to the commissioners voiced strong support for the contribution that would set the last piece in place for a $5.1 million deal protecting nearly 5,000 acres of the historic sheep ranch from full-scale development. The other, taxpayer advocate Michael Cacioppo, might well have been the only dissenter in the audience of 30 or so people in the county commissioners’ chambers.

Stone left to the other commissioner present, Arn Menconi, to enter into the record the petition of 204 signatures supporting the agreement and the petition of 23 in opposition.

The support of prominent fellow Republicans U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, the Western Slope congressman, and Russell George, head of the Department of Natural Resources, did not sway Stone. Nor did the partnership totaling over $3 million of federal, state and private contributors to the plan.

If they care so much for this agreement, well, they can pony up more funding for it, Stone suggested. He was sticking with “his” constituents, the people against the county contributing so much as a dime.

Just as the open space property tax passed by the narrowest of votes two years ago, so too is the Bair Ranch project controversial. It’s not a stretch to see that constituents are deeply divided on the deal, however much outside politicians and conservation groups want the easement agreement to go through.

And the opponents are not unreasonable in their views, which follow three broad themes:

n Lack of free access for the public to use the land. Why should people be charged to visit land their tax dollars support?

n This is no more than a subsidy for a private dude ranch and outfitting business. Who else gets deals like that?

n There are better choices for the open space funds.

These arguments are all flawed logically, however.

Open space, after all, is not the same as recreational space. There are other means and revenue sources for attaining and developing parks. And there’s no lack of public land in Eagle County already available to the public.

As for charging to use public land, that’s hardly a strange concept. Sylvan Lake State Park charges fees for entry as well as lodging. Nearly every national park charges just for entrance. And companies run businesses much like the Bairs’ inside America’s grandest public places. This is not even a stretch. Besides, Bair Ranch would remain private and taxpaying. All they would sell are their rights to developing the land for several times more than the price of the conservation easement. Is that really so hard to comprehend?

As for the Bairs benefiting from selling their rights to future development, well, that’s no stretch, either. The question isn’t so much whether the Bairs receive fair payment for these rights, but the value to the public in preventing full-scale development in and around scenic Glenwood Canyon, preserving a valuable wildlife area, and in the long term avoiding the pressures on the rest of the county that development brings in traffic, population and demands for services.

Actually, the county’s contribution for agreement is a major bargain. Opponents take the historical path of “Seward’s folly” in fighting the Bair Ranch project as a “waste.” To the contrary, it’s an astounding bargain, as was Alaska on a far larger scale.

Yes, the Bairs benefit by owning this ranchland in and around the eastern gateway to scenic Glenwood Canyon, just as the ranchers who sold land that became Vail, Avon, Edwards and so on down the valley profited by mere location, location, location. This is not so about the Bairs as for creating a haven from sprawl and its effects on the whole valley, which would have a rather large impact on all those good folks who holler about access and would never set foot on the land anyway.

Property that Stone mentioned as perhaps better suited for open space funding – in and around the gravel pit in Edwards, and a parcel neighboring Avon that Vail Resorts committed to acquiring and has since not lived up to its commitment – besides not being submitted for consideration to the county, have other problems. The Edwards land is under contract for about $12 million now, with a $9 million or so backup offer on the table. And Vail Resorts simply needs to live up to its commitment rather than seeking a belated bailout. Besides, the open space fund recharges at a rate of $3 million a year. Bair Ranch’s $2 million is just one of many steps to come in the county’s open space efforts. There will be plenty of other opportunities to build on the county’s stock of open space long after Bair Ranch has been protected.

The more abstract notion of protecting strategically placed land in perpetuity is a different paradigm than the “what’s in it for me now and directly” thinking that’s rather shallowly at work for opponents, including Stone. The arguments against the deal are understandable but wrongheaded.

Reading those 15 e-mails – while avoiding recognition of what Commissioner Menconi reports is public input running 70 percent in favor of the commissioners approving the contribution – was a big clue about Stone’s decision, and decision making.

He did agree to postpone a vote until June 1, when a currently ill Commissioner Michael Gallagher might better be able to attend and cast the deciding vote. The partnership of contributors has until June 23 to close on the current agreement.

Menconi and Stone did find enough common ground Tuesday to approve a conservation easement on 50 acres at the east end of the Berry Creek 5th, including funds for weed control.

Stone, the chairman of the board, did a good job of running a fair and open hearing, even if he wasn’t persuaded to take the side of the overwhelming majority of the audience Tuesday.

His arguments against the plan were not unreasonable – just wrong. We’ll see whether Gallagher is a clearer thinker in this case.


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