Conservation easement permanently preserves 224-acre Sweetwater parcel
Walking Mountains Science Center, Eagle Valley Land Trust and Eagle County Open Space team up to make preservation deal happen
It’s a match made in land conservation heaven — Eagle Valley Land Trust, Walking Mountains Science Center and Eagle County Open Space recently partnered to purchase a conservation easement on a 224-acre site located off Sweetwater Road five miles north of Dotsero.
That means the expansive site will remain open space in perpetuity. Eagle Valley Land Trust — the only nonprofit organization in Eagle County who does so — will hold the conservation easement. Walking Mountains, the property owner, will proceed with plans to develop a small adjacent area for educational programming. Eagle County Open Space contributed $350,000 to cover transaction costs and to compensate Walking Mountains for a portion of the development rights they are forfeiting by agreeing to the conservation easement.
This marks the.second big conservation win for the area, following last year’s successful Save the Lake campaign to preserve the 488-acre Sweetwater Lake for public use through protection as White River National Forest land.
While the public may be more familiar with conservation easements paid to private landowners as a way to ensure land goes undeveloped, Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Jessica Foulis noted that private land transactions are just one of the applications for conservation easements. She pointed to conservation easements placed on municipal open space as an example.
“Open space zoning is not as permanent as people may think it is,” Foulis said. “A conservation easement is often the only way to ensure a property is protected in perpetuity.”
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Because assuring that the Sweetwater property will never be developed was the goal, Walking Mountains teamed up with the other organizations for the preservation deal.
“Walking Mountains still owns the property, which was purchased through the generous support from donors including the Precourt Family,” said Markian Feduschak, president of Walking Mountains. “Since we own the property and our main interest is to provide educational programs on the property, and because its is consistent with our mission, we decided to place a conservation easement on the land.”
“There are increasing development pressures on property all over Eagle County,” he continued. “This keeps it permanently open space. That is really the intention of our Sweetwater campus.”
Walking Mountains has owned the Precourt Family Sweetwater Campus acreage since 2015 and intends to develop a small section of the site to expand its environmental programming for local students. The George Family Base Camp, an 8-acre parcel located outside of the conservation easement, has been set aside for a future education center.
“The location of our Sweetwater property allows for easy access from downvalley communities and provides a different ecological area for our field science programs,” Feduschak said. He noted Walking Mountains has begun work at the base camp site, including road construction, parking areas and fire suppression. But as reflected by the new conservation easement, permanent preservation of the ecological and educational landscape is the priority at the Sweetwater campus.
According to the baseline ecological survey, which accompany all conservation easement transactions, the property encompasses native pinyon-juniper woodlands and sagebrush shrub areas at an average elevation of approximately 6,600 feet. Both Sweetwater Creek and Irrawaddy Creek traverse the land and the property’s vegetation provides forage, cover, breeding habitat, and migration corridors for a variety of wildlife species. It is an important habitat for migratory songbirds, raptors, big game, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Additionally, two state species of concern, the leopard frog and the bald eagle, both can be found there.
“The property contains important wildlife habitat for elk and mule deer, who utilize the area as critical winter habitat,” Feduschak said. He noted seasonal wildlife closures will be implemented at the property.
“Although we have honored seasonal closures since our purchase in 2015, the new conservation easement makes the wildlife closures official and are in line with Walking Mountains’ educational mission,” Feduschak said. “Conservation also helps to achieve goals set forth in the Climate Action Plan through preservation of land and soil sequestration.”
“This project is a model for how to balance sensitive wildlife habitat with environmental education — two values that continue to be at the forefront of our local community conversation. This is a win for our local youth and elk alike,” Foulis said.
Eagle County supplied the financing to make the Sweetwater deal happen.
“Eagle County Open Space saw an opportunity to conserve critical wildlife habitat, scenic landscapes and riparian habitat in perpetuity, while also providing access for educational programming for the next generation of land stewards,” said Katherine King, the county open space director. “The perpetual nature of the conservation easement protects against current and future development pressures.
“We are excited to partner with two outstanding local conservation organizations on the permanent protection of this unique landscape,” King added.
The Sweetwater Campus is the second conservation easement transaction for the land trust, Walking Mountains, and the county’s open space program. In 2016, the two nonprofits closed on Walking Mountains’ Buck Creek parcel with support from the county. The 3.5-acre parcel protected by a conservation easement is adjacent to, and part of, Walking Mountains Science Center’s Avon Tang Campus. An additional 97 acres owned by the town of Avon was also placed under conservation easement with Eagle County as part of the transaction.