Eagle County’s Hardscrabble Ranch draft plan includes something for everyone | VailDaily.com

Eagle County’s Hardscrabble Ranch draft plan includes something for everyone

EAGLE — The great thing about bringing the 1,540-acre historic Hardscrabble Ranch property into the Eagle County open space program is the possibilities it presents.

That's also the challenging thing.

From recreation opportunities to ranching operations to wildlife habitat conservation, the county wants to manage the property, located just south of Eagle in the Brush Creek Valley, for the benefit of many. That was the message for a crowd of roughly 60 residents who turned out for an open house Wednesday night, Sept. 19, that detailed the new management plan for the property.

"I do think the property can have something for everyone, but it can't have everything for everyone," offered Jessica Foulis, stewardship and outreach manager for the Eagle Valley Land Trust, the entity that now holds the conservation easement for the property.

"Balance is a key theme here," said Bill Mangle, from ERO Resource Corporation, the consultant who helped author the Hardscrabble Ranch plan.

Mangle outlined four major priorities for the management plan — habitat conservation and restoration; agriculture management; public access and use; and programming and partnerships.

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Elk in trouble

"Right now in Eagle County, especially in this area around Brush Creek, the deer and elk are doing very badly," said Craig Wescoatt, of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. There has been a 40 percent decline in elk numbers in the area during the past decade.

For that reason, the Hardscrabble Ranch property has identified wildlife conservation as a top priority.

Wescoatt noted there isn't a single reason for the significant elk population decline, but rather a combination of factors have resulted in the situation. One of those factors is the loss of habitat. Another is the growing presence of humans in backcountry areas.

Wescoatt said that as elk numbers have dropped, animals have begun congregating in the Hardscrabble Ranch area. The ranch has become an important calving ground and it is vital to project it as such, Wescoatt said.

That protection has taken the form of winter closure proposals. On upper trails, the closures will run from Dec. 1 through April 15. In lower lying areas where elk calving is at risk, the closures would be extended from Dec. 1 to June 30. Additionally various habitat restoration projects and riparian area work is planned, along with the installation of wildlife-friendly fencing as appropriate.

Wescoatt stressed the motivation is to come up with common sense regulations that will protect animals while still providing access to the open space. As time passes, the regulations can be adapted as needed, he added.

"The management plan for this property has to be as fluid as animal behavior," Wescoatt said.

Stressed ground

The beauty of the Hardscrabble Ranch property disguises its issues, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

"What we have is a stressed piece of ground. It's condition now is nobody's fault but is it where we are starting," Mangle said.

A combination of off and on drought cycles combined with a somewhat neglected agricultural operation have resulted in a noxious weed problem, ditches in desperate need of repair and riparian and other habitat restoration needs.

"To put a positive spin on it, it is conserved now," Mangle said. "There is the opportunity and the will and it is a priority now to bring this place back."

Mangle noted that the irrigated pastures around the ranch are generally in fair to good condition with the non-irrigated land in poor to fair condition. Several of the upland areas are also rated as being in poor condition.

An aggressive weed management program is already underway and 170 acres have been treated in 2018. The plan calls for on going aggressive weed control and integrated vegetations management.

Mangle also noted there are nine ditches on the property. "Almost everything requires some on-going and continued maintenance," he said "There are some big projects that need to happen pretty soon."

Beyond the work that will be needed out on the land, the county will have to remove or stabilize some of the vacant houses on the ranch. The ranch headquarters itself will be maintained.

Working Ranch

One of the important aspects of the Hardscrabble Ranch open space is to maintain ranching operations at the site.

"One of the missions of Eagle County Open Space is to preserve history," said Kathy Heicher, of the Eagle County Historical Society. "This property has history."

Ranching operations at the site date back to the 1880s.

"This county's history is agriculture. There are plenty of people in this valley who think the valley started when Vail developed. That's not true," Heicher said.

The ranching part of the open space management plan calls for request for proposals for a new lease to begin in 2020. An annual operation plan consistent with the overall management objectives will be developed.

The ranching operations are also highlighted in a naming discussion that's related to the property. Consultant Amy Cassidy noted that the name "Hardscrabble Ranch" is a new moniker for the property that is not historically based. What's more, that name creates a fair amount of confusion because of the nearby Hardscrabble Mountain and another property called Hardscrabble Ranch located in the Gypsum Creek Valley.

Once the open space purchase was finalized, the country began soliciting ideas for a new property name. The options were vetted by the Eagle County Attorney's Office and some of the ideas had to be eliminated. There are two leading name candidates now — Brush Creek Open Space and Ranch or Brush Creek Valley Ranch and Open Space. Those names reflect a reoccurring theme, Cassidy said. "It really gives the property a sense of place," she said.

Heicher agreed. She noted that the first rancher in the valley was named John Love, but naming the property after him had a big drawback.

"When you Google 'Love Ranch,' you get a bordello," she said, drawing laughter from the open house audience.

"The history at this site is rich, and I am glad the name includes Brush Creek," Heicher added.

Chance to play

New opportunities for access to existing trails and U.S. Bureau of Land Management property south of the Hardscrabble Ranch open space, along with connection to existing roads in the Salt Creek area and fishing access along Brush Creek, represent new recreational opportunities at the property.

The management plan calls for two new trail head points and four primary trails. The community trail will run adjacent to Brush Creek and a connector trail will link with the existing Haymaker trail. Additionally a trail will run along the rim of the property, approximately 200 feet above the valley floor providing expansive views of the Brush Creek Valley. Finally, there will be a hiking and equestrian only trail on the southern border of the property.

There will be no hunting allowed on the property, but hunters will be allowed to pass through the property to access BLM land. No camping will be allowed at the site except for activities associated with approved special events. Events at the site will have to conform to yet-to-be-developed policies and procedures and will be subject to approval by the Eagle Valley Land Trust.

Ambitious undertaking

At the onset of the presentation, Eagle County Open Space Manager Diane Mauriello acknowledged that the Hardscrabble Ranch management plan is an ambitious project.

"We need your patience. It is going to take time and money to implement the various ideas," she said.

But before that work begins, she noted the county wants to know what people think of the management concepts.

"We want you all to view this as your plan and something that we can all be proud of."

What do you thinK?

The comment period for the Hardscrabble Ranch Draft Management Plan will run through Wednesday, Oct. 10.

To view the entire plan and to offer comment, including input on the property name, visit http://www.eaglecounty.us/openspace.