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Bair case

Ken Neubecker

I was sitting in on the new open space committee’s hearing (last week) on the Bair Ranch project and I was struck by the major arguments presented against it. First there was access. Why should we spend $2 million of Eagle County open space funds to purchase a conservation easement if we, the public, can’t go wander on the property wherever and whenever we please? The second objection point was that there is no need for a conservation easement when a working ranch is by its nature a de-facto “open space,” with great scenic vistas that the public can always enjoy from roads like I-70 and that the wildlife will always have to frolic on.

First, it seems that the folks objecting to access don’t understand what an “easement” is, or a conservation easement in particular. An easement gives the holder a certain right to use, for a specific purpose, someone else’s land. If the county or whoever came to me and wanted an easement in my backyard, or on my entire property, for whatever reason, I could give it to them, if they pay me. Their new use right restricts my use of my property and I expect compensation. And no, you cannot come into my backyard, even after the county, using taxpayer money, buys the easement from me. It’s still my land, I still pay taxes on it, I still have to work on it to pay those taxes, and I still have to spend my money to maintain it. The county has the right to use the property for the purposes of the easement that they purchased, but unless the easement specifically allows public access, you have to stay out. That’s the nature of an easement. In the case of the Bairs, all of their land would become severely restricted, forever. That’s the nature of a conservation easement. Five million dollars compensation is a bargain, given land values for property like that in Eagle County. It is an easement for the purpose of protecting open space, wildlife habitat and the conservation values that we, the public, hold in such land. It will remain a private, working ranch and general public access is currently incompatible with that use and the easements purpose. Perhaps someday public access can become a part of the easement.

Which brings up the second point. Ranches are indeed de facto open space that the public can visually enjoy. Ranches act as buffers, as havens for wildlife and preserve our great Western heritage and the cowboy myth. That’s all well and good, as long as they stay ranches. Some of the ranchers who make the strongest objection that we don’t need conservation easements made a lot of money when their de facto “open space” lands were sold. Places like Vail, Avon, Avon Village, Eagle-Vail, Beaver Creek, Bachelor Gulch, Arrowhead, Cordillera, Edwards, Singletree, Lake Creek, Squaw Creek, Cordillera Valley Club, Red Sky Ranch, Eagle Springs Golf Course, Diamond Star, Eagle Ranch, Cotton Ranch, Two Rivers, etc., were all once ranchland, defacto “open space.” All of Eagle County was once “open space.” The argument that ranches today are “open space” just doesn’t hold water. They may be “open space” today but gone into development tomorrow. I guess the parking lots at Wal-Mart and Home Depot are still pretty open, as far as space goes. Not too many deer or elk grazing on the landscaping, though. But there is plenty of access!

The river parcel would become public and allow access to thousands more BLM acres. Even if access is now only by boat. I know an awful lot of folks with boats. And who knows what the future might hold, what might be in the works at BLM now that this property could become a logical extension of the Glenwood Canyon Recreation Area.

Purchasing a conservation easement on the ranch does ensure that the land will remain open space, free from the kind of development that we’ve seen from Vail to Dotsero. The compensation paid to the rancher for the conservation easement is a fraction of what the actual purchase price would be, and as a reward we get some undeveloped land, the rancher still gets to pay taxes on it, the water stays on it and the deer and elk don’t have to find a new home. For me that’s worth it. It’s the last large ranch holding in the valley, at the confluence of the Eagle and Colorado rivers. It’s the best $2 million Eagle County could spend on a property as good as this.

Ken Neubecker

Eagle


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