‘Doing pretty well compared to the rest of the state’
EAGLE COUNTY – Tom Steinberg said he left the busy, paved streets of Chicago for the wide open spaces of Colorado. As the first physician in the valley, Steinberg has watched the valley grow and change over the years. In an effort to maintain his natural homestead, Steinberg became involved in the Eagle Valley Land Trust, a nonprofit group advocating land preservation.”I think human beings need a feeling that they’re not boxed in,” said Steinberg, who is president emeritus of the organization. “I much prefer this where we can see some trees and birds and so on.”But as development continues, the number of trees decreases to make room, and the birds must find another home. Steinberg and other conservationists are worried a surplus of homes and inhabitants will sully the landscape, he said. These open space advocates are working constantly to preserve open space. Recently, they received a nod of acknowledgment as the Colorado Conservation Trust told them although there is much work to be done in the valley, they are on the right track.”Eagle County is doing pretty well compared to the rest of the state,” said the Colorado Conservation Trust’s Lisa Aangeenbrug, who helped author the 2005 “Colorado Conservation at a Crossroads,” a report of conservation accomplishments, needs and challenges. “You can’t change population growth, and land in Eagle County is very expensive,” she said. “You could do better, but you’re influenced by external factors that you have no control over.”Population explosionIndeed, the valley’s attractive natural resources and amenities have lured record numbers in the last 15 years. From 1990 to 2005, Eagle County grew 124 percent and was one of the five fastest growing counties in Colorado, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
While the rate of growth in the county is expected to slow through 2030, the population will continue to increase. And the state’s population will more than double to about 7.1 million in that time, according to the Colorado Division of Local Government Demography Office. In the face of surging populations, conserving land is more vital than ever before, said the crossroads report. Looking at the county’s funding and organizational capacity, the Colorado Conservation Trust declared Eagle County a “medium threat area,” on a scale that ranked the threat of development taking over open space in counties from low to high. “You have about 50 percent of what you need to conserve as much as you want to conserve,” Aangeenbrug said of Eagle County. “It’s not great, but it’s better than other counties. And you actually have groups working toward this, which is good.”Eagle County escaped being one of 12 counties the trust identified as “high threat.” Elbert County, for example, has no organizations working to preserve land, and neighboring Garfield County will see growth to the tune of 18,660 acres of development with inadequate funding to conserve land, according to the Aspen Times newspaper. But at the other end of the spectrum, Bent County on the eastern plains earned a low threat score. While Bent County has no funding for land conservation, it also had no development pressure, Aangeenbrug said. Trusted workTo those in the Eagle Valley Land Trust and sister organizations, the work ahead is unending. “There are virtually tens of thousands of undeveloped acres in the county, and ideally, we’d like to conserve as many of those as possible,” said Cindy Cohagen, the executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust. “Ultimately, our goal is to preserve those pieces of land that really help to define the character of Eagle County,” she said. “So much of why people come here and stay here is based on open space, whether they hike through it or just enjoy it when they drive by it.”
Cohagen and Steinberg both agreed the Eagle Valley trust got into the conservation game late and is constantly making up for lost time.”Eagle County has got into this thing seriously over the last 10 years,” Steinberg said. “We’re making progress, but we’re never happy. We could do more if we had more money, more people, more time, but time runs out eventually.”Helping with the conservation effort, the Carbondale-based Wilderness Land Trust, which works around the country, recently acquired 75 acres of land in the Holy Cross Wilderness area called the Polar Star Lode. Bordering the edge of the White River National Forest and containing two trails, the land will be open to the public. “People have made the decision that they value wilderness not to be marred by private development,” said Reid Haughey, president of the Wilderness Land Trust. “The data shows people support wildernesses because they contribute to clean air, clean water and biodiversity. “Wilderness has been a very important part of my life, and I am motivated to pass on to my children wilderness as a recourse,” he said. Concern about conservation But while conservationists see every acre gained as a win, not all are in favor of their efforts. Some who praise open space dislike some land trusts’ habit of buying land that will remain private, such as ranches, Steinberg said.”People don’t really understand,” Steinberg said. “They think ‘If I can’t go there, I don’t want it.”Others, like Tom Edwards, a member of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, who also serves on the Eagle County Open Space Advisory Committee and the Gypsum Town Council, are tiring of land trust’s 11th hour missions to conserve land. Edwards also doubted land trusts’ ability to save as much land as they want to, he said.
“There will be enough land to be developed because there’s only enough money to save a small portion of what they want preserved,” he said. “But something is better than nothing. I would like to preserve some valuable pieces of open space in the valley, and I’d like to see planned growth in the valley.”As the battles continue, conservation advocates have found an unlikely friend in some who benefit from the people moving to the valley – developers and real estate agents. Rick Bolduc of Bolduc Realty Management, in charge of more than 600 properties, said he has contributed financially to the conservation efforts he feels are imperative to the vitality of the region. As the trusts continue their work, Cohagen said one of the greatest needs in the community is education about why conservation is so vital to the county’s continued viability. “The future is very uncertain because it’s all up to the private property owners,” Cohagen said. ” But with education will come funding, and as people understand who we are and what we do, I think we will see increased funding for the land trust itself and for our projects.”Looking at the dollars and cents of the issue, Haughey said funding is his No. 1 concern, while Bolduc wants to see more foresight on the local government’s part to set aside open spaces. “We’re in our early stages right now, but more needs to be done,” Bolduc said. “More need to be saved.”Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Vail, Colorado