Bowles: Have we reached the tipping point in Eagle County?
In eight years as a mountain hiking guide, what I loved most was seeing the beauty of our mountains through other people’s eyes. Their “oohs” and “aahs” reminded me of my first reactions. With each group I guided, I saw the valley “again” for the first time.
However, I also saw how we have changed this valley in ways that are not good. We have not been good stewards of our environment.
How might we look to others? The headline story of the July 27 Denver Post was about the bighorn sheep under threat in Vail. The Post characterizes the issue as “…a conflict pitting economic interests at a ritzy mountain resort against wildlife in once-pristine high country.”
If we love our environment, why are we not protecting it? We live in a magnificent place that once was known for clean fresh air, abundant mountain wildlife, dark starry nights, rivers and streams and dense mountain forests. However, in parts of Eagle County, it is also a high-altitude alpine desert — an extremely fragile environment. Our ecosystem is easily damaged. The recovery time is slow.
Last month, the voters of Colorado’s fifth-largest city, Lakewood, voted to limit the city’s growth to 1% a year. A city located in an environment ideal for expansion had the foresight to start controlling its growth. The town of Golden voted to limit growth in 1995. Pitkin County and Aspen have a low-growth philosophy. In our valley, we are doing the opposite.
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Currently, there are two rearguard actions in the valley fighting to protect elk and bighorn sheep herds decimated by human activity. The proposed Berliamont development north of Edwards blocks elk and deer migration. The elk population has already been reduced by 50-60 percent in the past 10 years. Proposed employee housing in East Vail impacts a herd of nearly 50 bighorn sheep who are at just 5% of their historic numbers.
This will not get better. Eagle county’s estimated population (54,993), according to the United States Census Bureau, is roughly 2.5 times what it was in 1990 (22,000). The state projects that in 20 years, our county will have a population of more than 90,000. Envision an almost continuous urban strip along the Eagle River.
We all pay the price. More people, buildings and traffic create an inhospitable environment for wildlife. The next drought, our limited water will be spread among more homes and businesses. With more traffic congestion, we must add more parking, streets, roundabouts, and widen roads and bridges, creating more impermeable surfaces that release contaminated runoff into our struggling rivers.
The increased noise, heat, and pollution reduce our living quality. Thousands of lights dim our once dark skies. Overuse of many of our mountain trails by hikers and their dogs have left them eroded, spoiled with litter, and bereft of animal life. We no longer have a sustainable environment.
How bad is it? Vail Daily stories report proposals for at least 5,000 additional housing units and more than 100,000 square feet of commercial space in this valley. This is enough housing for more than another 15,000 people. To illustrate:
- Vail: Construction is underway on hospital improvements and scores of condos. Complete redevelopment of the 10-acre civic area is yet to come. The 61-unit Booth Heights proposal threatens the valley’s remaining bighorn sheep.
- Minturn: Two proposals, totaling 1,012 units and 40-60,000 square feet of commercial space, would double the town’s size.
- Avon: 340 units under construction or planned.
- Edwards: 681 units (including a hotel) are planned or proposed with 1,600 underground parking spaces. The hotel would be next to Eagle River Preserve where elk bed down for the winter.
- Eagle: Three proposed developments would add another 1,600 units and 30,000 square feet of commercial space.
- Gypsum: Almost 1,000 new housing units and RV pads have been approved.
It’s a vicious circle. We approve more residences and businesses, and then we lack adequate employee and low-income housing. Developers use employee housing incentives to get approval for more residences.
If you wonder how humans can continue to wantonly destroy the Amazon, fish the oceans until species are depleted, or permit endless building in hurricane or flood-prone areas, just look at our valley. We do it because we believe we need growth. Makes sense to us. But to other people’s eyes, we are those people who live in “once pristine high country” where “economic interests are eliminating wildlife.” We’ve destroyed the place others thought was special.
Instead of trying to fight individual projects piecemeal to protect our embattled elk and bighorn sheep, might it not be better to follow in the steps of Lakewood and Golden and limit how much we grow? Start with our county, then let towns such as Avon, Vail, Minturn, Eagle, and Gypsum decide their fates.
This is not an anti-growth proposal. This valley has grown enormously. Our time for more growth is over. Our deteriorating environment is Mother Nature’s way of saying she can’t handle more — we’re at the tipping point. Our “pristine” is almost gone. It’s time to call it quits and protect what remains. Otherwise, are we any different from those who fish the seas until they are empty?