Conservation deadline approaches
Conservationists say the opportunity to put a conservation easement on the 4,300-acre Bair Ranch could pass by if they can’t find $3 million soon.
“This is a timing issue,” says Cindy Cohagen of the Eagle Valley Land Trust. “Unfortunately, it’s just a matter of a month and not years. It’s tragic to me that we would loose the ability to protect 4,300-acres of land forever because of an issue of three or four months to wait to make it happen.”
Sell or subdivide
For the past three years, conservationists have been talking to Craig Bair, owner of the sheep ranch in Glenwood Canyon, about a conservation easement. To continue ranching there, Bair has said he needs either to sell the land or put it under a $5 million conservation easement. He has said he would use most of the easement money to consolidate his ranch – which otherwise would be subdivided by his brother if Craig Bair sells his portion of the ranch.
Bair now says he can’t wait anymore.
“I just gave them until July 27 to tell me if they can do it,” Bair says. “Then, we’ll shake hands and we’re done. I gave it three years; I figure that’s long enough.”
An easement on the Bair Ranch would eliminate all future subdivision possibilities, protect its agricultural heritage, keep the land on the tax rolls and preserve its scenic value, says Tom Macy, director of The Conservation Fund in Boulder, one of the partners in the proposed easement.
Cohagen says there’s “a huge sense of urgency” to know if the county commissioners support this project.
“We can’t hold back the Bairs any longer,” she says. “They have been working on this for three years. (But) it would be horrible to have $2 million in federal and state grants leaving the county.”
In May, Cohagen, John Hereford, executive director of GOCO, and Macy – all partners in the deal – asked the commissioners to help with the easement.
The money requested would add up to $1.9 million in grants already received for the project. The federal government, through the Bureau of Land Management, has committed another $1.5 million, and the state lottery-funded Greater Outdoors Colorado Program, or GOCO, which offers funding for open space and park acquisition, has pledged $400,000.
Cohagen has asked Eagle County commissioners to see if they could commit money that will be available next year through the new open-space tax passed by voters last year. The tax is expected to bring an estimated $3 million into the county’s coffers next year.
County Commissioner Tom Stone says he is concerned with the legality of using open-space tax money.
“It would be irresponsible to commit open-space tax money at this point,” Stone says. “I’m mostly concerned whether we are complying with the ballot language passed by voters, which requires that there’s an advisory committee to approve open space projects.”
Cohagen says she won’t know how much money they have to raise until the county knows how much it’s willing to commit.
“My question is, are there other ways they are willing to explore to provide some money?” she said.
County Administrator Jack Ingstad has told the commissioners he will explore the possibility of using capital improvement money if it’s possible to push some projects back.
“I think there are many ways for us to finance this project,” says Commissioner Arn Menconi. “There’s definitely a way to do it, if there’s a political way.”
Cohagen says the ballot language doesn’t preclude the commissioners to use other funds for open-space acquisitions.
“Everybody wants to do the right thing,” she says. “We need to see how we can balance doing what is right short-term with what is right forever. This investment will benefit future generations.”
Christine Quinlan a project manager for The Conservation Fund, calls the project a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“If Craig Bair is forced to sell part of the ranch, there won’t be a conservation easement deal,” she says.
Quinlan has appealed to both Eagle and Garfield counties – 30 percent of the ranch is in Garfield County – for help.
“Timing is the key here,” she says. “We have met with Garfield County officials, who have told us they are considering what they can do.”
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.