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Eaton Ranch a step in the right direction

Ken Neubecker

It looks like the Eagle River just might have a future.The Eagle County Commissioners have endorsed the concept of an “Eagle River Preserve” by pledging $6 million toward the purchase of a portion of the Eaton Ranch. This is the second large open space purchase that Eagle County has been involved in recently.The Bair Ranch purchase along the Colorado and Eagle Rivers below Dotsero was the other. Together these could anchor what really might become a true Eagle River Preserve.We should take a hard look at the remaining Eagle River corridor, from Edwards to Glenwood Canyon.Much of the remaining Eagle River corridor between Edwards and Dotsero would easily qualify as “open space.” These lands are a mix of private and public properties, and remain largely undeveloped. West of Eaton’s property the river flows through a broad floodplain and wetlands, the “Lakes.” Then the channel narrows, passing apartments and mobile homes and into the narrow reach between Edwards and Wolcott. In this middle reach the river wets the banks of a golf course and sheep pastures, past Wolcott and on down to the old Horn Ranch. Here it enters Red Canyon, what William Henry Jackson called “Elbow Canyon.”From Red Canyon the river runs past homes new and old, through more pasture land and into Eagle. Beyond the Fairgrounds the scene is repeated as the river winds through more pasture land and the Gypsum Ponds State Wildlife area. Between Gypsum and Dotsero the river coils in long sweeping bends across more BLM land, a few homes and businesses until it reaches the Colorado. Here at the confluence the mixed waters of the Eagle and Colorado Rivers glide past the newly acquired Bair Ranch lands, open space to be added to the larger expanse of BLM land.Still, there are serious plans for large scale development along the river, and not just in Edwards. The Town of Eagle is considering a major development between I-70 and the Eagle River nearly all the way to Red Canyon. Red Mountain Ranch proposes open space and residential development along the river. It also offers protection for the rural character east of the proposed commercial property. This “protection” lies in the PUD guide and the permitted land uses. While this sounds reasonable, PUD guides and the uses they allow are easily changed. Parcels of land given “protection” like this can be “amended,” allowing new development betraying the original promise. What seems like protection now is no guarantee for the future.Relatively dense development along the river means more harmful pollutants will reach the river. Oils, chemicals and even fertilizer washing in from homes, landscaping and parking lots are hurting the river. The Eagle River is already dangerously overloaded from fertilizers and effluent from septic systems and treatment plants. Then there is sediment and all the other stuff that washes in from the urban landscape. The river is hurting.Protecting the Eagle River corridor through an Eagle River Preserve would greatly increase the chances of the Eagle River’s survival as the living heart of the Valley. The fish, the wildlife and the River don’t understand private property or boundaries. What good is a park at Eaton Ranch or the Fairgrounds, Gypsum Ponds, public BLM lands or small dislocated pockets of open space if development on the river occurs everywhere else? Small local inflow of tainted waters will move downstream and blend with pollutions from other development, compounding the impact. Piecemeal protection just won’t work.Some land owners between Edwards and Dotsero might not share a vision of an Eagle River Preserve, a protected greenway along the length of the river. Others will. A range of options from conservation easements to outright open space acquisitions can be tailored for various properties and needs. Public access can be protected and even expanded, or limited if necessary. Some development could also occur along the river, that with very limited and easily mitigated impacts. The important thing is to truly protect the river corridor and its riparian fringe.Protections would also make restoration projects easier and much more appealing. The Eagle River Watershed Council, through a study recently completed by CSU, has identified two major areas below Edwards where projects could help the Eagle. One is along the river from the Eaton Ranch down through the Brett Ranch open space tract. The other is at the Gypsum Ponds.With a protected river corridor other projects might be worth while as well.The Eagle River has suffered deeply from the affects of mining, grazing and development. Creating a real Eagle River Preserve, protecting the river corridor, would go a long way toward healing these wounds. A real Eagle River Preserve is far more appealing than a corridor of piecemeal subdivisions, strip malls and big box stores punctuated with occasional picnic tables. The Eagle River and its valley have given a lot to us. Maybe we can give something back and leave a living river legacy for our children, and ourselves. VTKen Neubecker writes about water and the environment for the Vail Trail. He can be reached for comment at eagleriver@eagleranch.com.


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