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Panel: Fund Bair Ranch effort

Veronica Whitney

Effort to protect historic ranch moves on to county commissioners

By Veronica Whitney

Daily Staff Writer

The Bair Ranch conservation project took a step forward Monday night when the Eagle County Open Space Advisory Committee recommended that the county contribute $2 million toward the $5 million deal.

The money would help purchase a conservation easement – a legal tool that would block development on 4,830 acres of the ranch, about two-thirds of which is in Eagle County.

The county commissioners will review the Bair Ranch file May 11 and then make a decision on the request for funding.

“This is an imperfect deal, but it’s as good as it gets,” said Ron Wolfe, the advisory committee chairman. “A $2 million investment now will be paid back in time.”

The easement would protect 3,306 acres in Eagle County and 1,524 in Garfield County. An additional 512 acres, known as the river parcel, would also be bought with the funds and managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Although there would not be any public access on most of the ranch, the river parcel along the Eagle River would be open to the public.

Public access concern

Nine members of the 14-member committee voted in favor of the project. Susan Nottingham was the only dissenting vote. Four committee members were absent.

“I can’t support a conservation easement,” Nottingham said after her vote.

Committee member Andy Weissner called the project “almost a perfect solution.”

“We have more than seven square miles rich in wildlife,” he said.

“People would like public access, but that doesn’t go with a working ranch,” Wiessner added after several people said during the public comment period that they rejected the project because it doesn’t offer public access.

This is the first recommendation the committee will make on how to spend the open space tax passed by voters in 2002 that will collect an estimated $3 million a year.

“The Bair Ranch represents many qualities we are looking for,” said committee member Tom Edwards.

To qualify for open space funds, the Bair Ranch had to meet a number of standards set by the committee. Those standards include preserving “outstanding natural beauty and visual quality”; maintaining regional heritage; supporting agriculture and ranches; protecting wildlife; promoting visual buffers; protecting sensitive lands and the environment; and providing access to public lands.

While reviewing the criteria to evaluate the project, the committee voted to upgrade several of the recommendations made by Cliff Simonton, the county planner who evaluated the project for the county.

For example, Simonton had rated the visual quality of the property as low and medium. The committee gave that a high value. Although Simonton indicated that the visual buffer criteria weren’t applicable to the project, the committee awarded it a medium value.

“The ranch provides a significant buffer and transition between development in Dotsero and the canyon,” Wolfe said.

The committee agreed with Simonton’s report and gave the Bair Ranch a high value score for its regional heritage and wildlife preservation. The change in rating by the committee increased the project score from 42 to 52 points -out of a possible 60.

Partnership

“We’re delighted. This is a good example of democracy at work,” said Joe Macy, president of the Eagle Valley Land Trust board -the local fund-raiser for the project.

Christine Quinlan of the Boulder-based Conservation Fund, which is leading the Bair Ranch preservation campaign, said she was impressed with the work of the committee.

“We came in feeling this would be a compelling project for the committee to consider,” she said.

“We need to bear in mind the importance of the partners,” said Nicola Ripley, a committee member. “We need to show these entities we’re serious about preserving open space.”

The federal Bureau of Land Management has committed $1.5 million to preserve Bair Ranch. Great Outdoors Colorado, a state-funded conservation agency, contributed $1 million. The Eagle Valley Land Trust has committed to raise $1.3 million. And Garfield County has pledged $25,000.

“The GOCO board feels strongly about the value of this property,” John Swartout, GOCO’s executive director, told the committee Monday. “All pieces have been put together for this property and that might not happen again. This property scored very high with GOCO. We don’t fund everything that comes to us.”

The advisory committee made the recommendation with the condition that an annual monitoring of the property be submitted to the county staff for review.

“This has been a great learning experience,” said committee member Gil Marchand, “to have such a big project from the start.”


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