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Setting record straight on Bair

Joe Macy

I am responding to Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone’s recent op-ed piece concerning Bair Ranch. I will set the record straight on issues he raised.n “A secret purchase.” The Bair Ranch project is hardly a “secret purchase.” Indeed, the project has been highly visible and has included innumerable opportunities for public input.The project has been the focus of dozens of articles, editorials and letters in the Vail Daily, Denver Post and other publications for the past two years.Our county commissioners held several work sessions on the issue, including the most recent public meeting on July 29 and 30, which were attended by more than 100 county residents.Moreover, the Eagle County commissioners sent an official letter in support of this project to our elected officials in Washington on April 2, 2002, and another letter of support to Great Outdoors Colorado on August 29, 2002.n “Spending public money on something that has no obvious public good.” The ballot language voters passed last fall listed five specific goals for the open space fund.They were: “preserving wildlife habitat, protecting working farms and ranches, conserving scenic landscapes and vistas, protecting wetlands and floodplains, and providing public access points to rivers and streams.”The Bair Ranch easement achieves all five voter-approved objectives.Recognizing the importance of these conservation values, the federal government has approved an appropriation of $1.5 million of public money for this project.Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar has identified the ranch as one of 10 “crown jewels” in Colorado most worthy of protecting, and Great Outdoors Colorado has committed $400,000 to the project.More than 15,000 people drive by this open space every day. The importance of this property has been likened to the Greenland Ranch conservation project along I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs. Here, over 31,000 acres of land form a spectacular viewshed along a 12-mile corridor. Roughly 85 percent of these lands remain in private ownership subject to conservation easements, just as the Bair Ranch would.n “County citizens should not be expected to spend their money on purchase of land or conservation easement outside of our county.”They won’t be.The open space ballot measure approved last November stipulates that tax funds are to be used for open space in Eagle County. Commissioners Gallagher and Menconi put a specific condition on their approval of the Bair Ranch project that Eagle County’s money be spent for Eagle County land ONLY. The Garfield County lands will be protected solely with money or donations from the BLM, state of Colorado, Eagle Valley Land Trust and other funding partners.n “Mr. Bair sold his big herd of sheep last year. I can understand this as a temporary measure because of the drought. But does he intend to get in the ranching business anytime soon? Probably not.” Mr. Bair has publicly assured the commissioners that he will return to ranching.The main reason Bair sold his sheep is that he temporarily lost the BLM grazing land in Utah where his herd spends the winter. The drought in Utah has forced BLM to temporarily suspend many grazing allotments. Some 60 percent of the livestock on Western ranches were sold in the past few years due to the worst drought in 300-500 years! Mr. Bair has already initiated efforts with the Forest Service and BLM to regain the grazing allotments he lost.n “There are more obvious properties that we should focus on.” Mr. Stone’s “wish list” includes the Edwards B&B gravel pit, the Wolcott meadows, the meadows east of Eagle, Wilmor Lake bench, and Brotman lands near Edwards.We agree that these are all worthy projects and absolutely EVERY SINGLE ONE has been investigated or is currently being discussed by the Eagle Valley Land Trust. However, the Bair Ranch project is ready to go, while the others are not and may never be.We look forward to working with our commissioners, including Mr. Stone, on these projects if and when the owners are willing.Any conservation transaction has two basic requirements: (1) a willing owner who has decided to pursue a conservation strategy and (2) a reasonable/affordable financial “deal.”An additional factor is time. Colorado Open Lands, which has consummated dozens of deals statewide, sent our commissioners a letter two weeks ago explaining that most deals require a minimum of two-three years to put together. There are no other projects in Eagle County, including those mentioned above, that are ready for funding consideration.n “No right to access by the general public.” While public access is not intended on the 4,300 acres of the working ranch, this deal does provide public access to 512 acres of land near the Two Rivers project, including access to three miles of the Colorado River.This is clearly in keeping with the voter-approved ballot language that provides for “protecting working farms and ranches” and for “public access points to streams and rivers.” Frankly, public access is usually not compatible with preserving a working farm or ranch because of obvious conflicts between the rancher’s need to manage his livestock and potential public interference with that need through trespass into pastures, leaving gates open, livestock theft, vandalism, littering and the like.n “Scandalous use of county general fund dollars.” The Eagle County commissioners, including Mr. Stone, submitted letters of support for the Bair Ranch project to our congressional delegation and to Great Outdoors Colorado.The county’s letter says, “Protection of the ranch with a conservation easement is a wise solution to protecting these many resource values and eliminating the possibility of development. We are pleased to see the project being done on a willing seller basis, and with an end result that keeps the ranch in private ownership.”Throughout the United States, conservation easements are being used as a cost-effective conservation strategy. They are a good bargain for the public as a way to protect wildlife values and open space while at the same time allowing the farms and ranches to continue as tax-paying entities. For example, it would cost $17 million to buy the Bair Ranch outright, whereas the development rights we are buying will cost only $5 million and Eagle County’s portion is only $2 million, which translates to $414 per acre. This is cost-effective conservation.Routt County has used tax dollars to purchase 23,000 acres of conservation easements on working ranches to keep them in open space forever. In the rest of Colorado, more than 150,000 acres of farms and ranchland have been protected by conservation easements, either wholly or partially using public tax dollars.Organizations such as the American Farmland Trust, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Great Outdoors Colorado and others who specialize in preserving farm and ranch lands are doing the EXACT same thing we are doing with the Bair Ranch.If Eagle County intends to only buy land outright rather than purchase the much less expensive development rights, it is difficult to imagine how it will be able to afford large tracts of open space.Funds generated by the designated Open Space tax will produce initially $3 million annually with a cap at $7 million annually. Additionally, when the county, or any other entity, begins to hold land in fee, it assumes maintenance responsibilities that as any rancher knows so well, are a significant and expensive proposition.Many people have worked hard to make this project a success. I want to thank the hundred-some people who have taken their time to contact our commissioners, write letters, and who attended the recent public hearing to voice their option on this project.I would also like to thank the Bair family, Congressmen Scott McInnis and Mark Udall, Senators Campbell and Allard, Commissioners Mike Gallagher and Arn Menconi, the BLM, Great Outdoors Colorado, the Forest Service, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, The Conservation Fund and the Eagle Valley Land Trust for working together as partners preserve Bair Ranch the way it is today, forever.We are confident that protecting the Bair Ranch is the right thing to do.Joe Macy is the president of the board of directors of the Eagle Valley Land Trust.”


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