Boon or bomb?
Last month, the Eagle County commissioners broke new ground when they voted 2-1 to contribute public money toward the purchase of a conservation easement for the scenic Bair Ranch, on the east end of Glenwood Canyon.
Five weeks later, letters to local newspaper editors and public debates are still flowing – and the discussion is hot.
Open-space devotees see the decision as wise use of a proven land-planning technique that will help ensure the permanent preservation of open space, in this case a “working ranch.” Opponents, many of them from the county’s ever-shrinking ranching community, see the county’s donation as an appalling mis-use of public funds for the gain of private rancher, with little tangible benefit to the public.
Arguments from both sides have demonstrated some wide differences of opinion about open space, and widely varying interpretations of what conservation easements are and how they work.
Eagle County Commission Chairman Michael Gallagher says he receives a variety of answers when asking citizens to explain what open space means to them.
“Some say “only if I can go on it,’ or “only if I can put my four-wheeler on it.’ Others say “only if there’s a herd of elk on it,’ or “only if there’s nothing on it,'” says Gallagher, adding he’s not surprised by the variety of interpretations.
Hard sale to local ranchers
Among the staunchest critics of the Bair Ranch conservation effort – and conservation easements in general – are members of the Eagle County ranching community, including the Albertsons family, who have been ranching near Burns, in northern Eagle County for 100 years.
“Personally, I don’t care for conservation easements, and I don’t think the majority of cattlemen in Eagle County do. … They’re kind of scams, really,” says Vern Albertson, 67.
In discussing easements, Albertson draws a distinction between “real ranchers” – people who have a working and sentimental commitment to the land, and others who make their money elsewhere. Albertson says the “real ranchers” are less likely to accept the conservation easement concept.
“Conservation easements are for perpetuity. That’s a long time. Why would I want to do that?” asks Albertson. “With times changing so fast, I wouldn’t want to saddle any of my family, or generations to come, with an easement they have to abide by.
“What do the Bairs do when the $5 million (the total cost of the conservation easement) runs out? They have a piece of property they’ve lost all the development rights on,” adds Albertson.
One of his big objections to the easement, which has been reflected in several letters to local newspaper editors, is the fact that public money is being spent on the conservation easement.
“In this case, for the commissioners to use taxpayer money that comes from my property taxes to bail out Craig Bair and put a conservation easement on his land is wrong – and somewhat illegal,” Albertson says.
Rancher Craig Bair, whose 4,300-acre property is the source of the local debate, says the conservation easement deal, which is not yet final, has been an agonizing experience for him. He’s uncomfortable with people walking up and offering congratulations.
“Congratulations for what? If I cut off both your arms and pasted them to your chest, would that be a good deal? This doesn’t last for 10 years. It lasts for an eternity,” Bair says.
He’s been surprised by some of the reaction to the proposed easement.
“To say that I’m not a rancher. … That frosts me,” he adds. “There shouldn’t be any personal attacks against me. I didn’t do anything to offend anybody. I didn’t want to fight.”
Like other ranchers in the valley, Bair says he has been attempting to diversify his ranching operation in recent years with side businesses, such as horseback rides, guiding and outfitting.
“Everybody forgets that I’m a taxpayer, too, and will continue to be. This is not a tax-free deal,” he says.
Cheryl Matthews, director of open space and natural resources for Douglas County, says many objections to conservation easements reflect a lack of education about how they work.
“A lot of times ranchers may not understand. They are suspicious of government. They don’t understand we aren’t taking anything away from them,” she says.
Public money/private land
At the root of much of the controversy over the Bair Ranch deal is the issue of whether public money should be spent for an easement on land that will remain, for the most part, inaccessible to the public. The only public access will be on a 512-acre parcel adjoining the Colorado River. The remaining 3,788 acres would be placed under the easement, but would not be accessible to the public.
“You can’t have a working ranch with the public tromping through it at all times,” says Diana Cecala of Edwards, the leader of the Citizens for Open Space Group.
Jay Fetcher, a Routt County rancher, is one of the founders of the Cattlemen’s Trust, which purposely steers clear of involvement with federal agencies that require public access.
“That kills the deal,” says Fetcher.
Mike Guzik, 42, of Eagle, has spent the past 25 years on the Western Slope. He’s a construction supervisor who enjoys hunting, fishing and the outdoor lifestyle. He says he doesn’t approve of the Bair Ranch conservation easement.
“My personal feeling is that if public money is spent, it should be something the public can go onto,” he says.
Guzik says many of the people who voted for an open-space tax in the county assumed the money would be used for land they could access.
Fetcher says he hears similar comments from Routt County taxpayers.
“My answer is, well, you can’t walk on it, but you can sure use that land with your eyes and you can use it forever,” Fetcher says. “You know that driving up Elk River Road you can always see those hay meadows.”
Do conservation easements work?
Commissioner Gallagher, meanwhile, readily admits he’s not a fan of the open-space tax but says he accepts the fact a majority of county voters favored it.
“What matters is the people (voted for the tax), and I’m their servant,” he says.
So why, as commissioner, did Gallagher vote for the Bair Ranch easement? He says it was to introduce the concept of purchasing development rights by Eagle County. He says conservation easements can be an effective tool.
“That land (with the easement) will never have the impact of development. The fact that it is beautiful land is fine,” Gallagher says. “In practicality the only way to control sprawl is to deny it on developable land.”
Fetcher says the key to getting an effective conservation easement program is education.
“Once a landowner really understands it, that they as a family are committed to that land, there is no down-side,” says Gallagher. “They get to capture some of the value, and still do what they want.”