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The forgotten country

Tom Boyd

Part I: The upstream windGrowth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cellEdward Abbey (1927-1989)It’s April in upper Colorado River country. The smoke from a few scattered chimneys blows upward and integrates with tornadoes of spring snow and disappears with surging gusts over the face of the river, making upstream ripples against the otherwise inevitable downstream current of the Colorado.When it hits Bond the wind threatens to dislodge Lawrence Cordova’s hat as he makes a dash from his Union Pacific-owned rental home to his Union Pacific company truck and then into the Bond Post Office, where Rena Horn and Dorothy Perry sort the day’s mail into the remaining 20-or-so P.O. boxes.Small town?Tiny.”This is one of those towns where you could actually go around and count all the residents on your fingers,” Horn explains, looking out the window to start a count.”And its getting smaller,” says Cordova. “Because I don’t think there’s enough water out here. And the phone lines are old they don’t work.”Not to mention the electrical lines, which black out for three and four hours at a time. But Cordova, who has lived in Bond for 25 years, doesn’t seem to mind. Still, there are other things to consider.”People who move out here don’t like the drive, and for most it loses its appeal real quick,” says Horn.Most, but not all.Cordova is a railroad man. Perry and Horn are ranching girls, born or married into families that have raised livestock on the banks of Eagle County’s largest river for generations. Some can claim direct lineage to the first white homesteaders who pioneered the ranching community here, others come from families that flooded the area back when State Bridge was the end of the railroad line making it the hub of ranching activity in Eagle County.But property values have increased steadily over the past few decades, making ranching less and less viable each year. Horn’s family is one of the very few that can still claim to be purely agricultural. Most ranchers in the area have been forced to take on other jobs in order to hold onto their land and save something of their former lifestyle.”We lost our way of life and we hate to see that happen,” says Perry, who works the mail route while her husband drives for Colorado Mountain Express “to support our ranching habit.”Ranching is a great way to live, it’s a great way to raise kids, and you hate to see people lose it.”But lose it she has.Not every resident, though, is a rancher or railroader. Some make their money in the Eagle Valley, then make the trek home to the upper Colorado just to enjoy the solitude.Content to pick up his mail some other time, Dave Hathaway is spending his morning on the phone. He’s no longer obligated to share a party line with all of his neighbors, so now he’s free to sip coffee and maintain his construction business inside his remote but comfortable compound/cabin, where a month’s supply of propane keeps his house warm and functional during the periodic blackouts and blizzards.”We’re the forgotten part of the county,” says Hathaway, who has lived in the area for 25 years. “And we couldn’t be happier about it.”Hathaway and his neighbors only represent a small percentage of the county’s population. The Town of Vail has topped out at around 4,600, but the world-wide reputation of the ski area and the natural beauty of the valley has been a major force in the growth of the entire county, which boasted 43,497 people as of 2000, according to the state demographer.But the same kind of growth that has worked along the I-70 corridor won’t work in northwestern Eagle County, Hathaway says.”There’s a strong resistance to that up here; we’re very resistant to change,” he says. “You’ve got to convince us that it’s to our benefit not someone else’s. We don’t want to be a suburb of Vail, and people need to understand that we’re not just stupid hillbillies.”And farther downstream another voice echoes Hathaway’s sentiments. Garbed in well-broken-in overalls and surrounded by hundred of deer, elk and moose antlers, Allan Butts is the stubborn proprietor of a weather-stained cabin he proudly calls his “condominium.””How many Burger Kings do you pass on the way up here?” he asks. “How many mini-malls? None! That’s the way we like it and that’s how we’re going to keep it. Every time somebody has an idea to develop, all these old folks I never seen come out of nowhere and shout the county commissioners down. Y’all are doing a fine job down there in the Eagle River valley f____ing that up, so you can keep that B.S. right on down there.”As fiery as his words may be, Butts is hard-pressed to outdo his neighbor, Ruby Forster. Forster came to McCoy at age one, and has lived to see Vail’s birth and the Eagle Valley’s boom. Standing neck-deep in the history of the 112-year-old McCoy Post Office, Forster is the unofficial historian of the area and perhaps its most vocal local.”The sad part is that I can’t stand it down there. I won’t even go down there anymore,” she says. “To me it’s like a big cancer, eating the valley alive.”The people down there all come from the East Coast, or California, or north or south of the border, and they come because they didn’t like it where they were. Yet they bring all those things out here with them; they still want all the conveniences and they destroy it. People don’t have roots.”At the heart of Forster’s complaints (and many other area residents) is the loss of the local school, which was shut down in the early 1990s. Forster graduated high school there, met the man who would become her husband, and says there’s no sense of community without it. With new school schedules bound to make school an 11-hour-a-day ordeal for local children, Forster is one of many who want to get out of the RE-50J district and see the local school re-opened.Part II: The downstream current great engines move slowly.Francis Bacon (1561-1626)Now Forster is looking out the window of the post office at the snowflakes outside, her eyes filling with emotion as she recalls a day in 1952 when a blizzard blocked the roads with snow while her dying sister awaited medical treatment. Forster recalls how her neighbors, in desperation, plowed the roads with scoop shovels and ranching equipment so her sister could get the help she needed.Despite the community’s efforts, Forster lost her sister. Since that time, she says, she has lost the feeling of community spirit as well.”Years ago neighbors helped neighbors, and there was no pay involved,” she says. “We all worked together branding cattle, farming potatoes, threshing grain and that’s just the way it was.”But as the old community fades away, a new community is moving in. Among those to find solace in an upper Colorado River retreat is Merv Lapin, who moved to Vail in 1966 and invested in land outside of McCoy in 1992. Lapin has paid close attention to the valley’s growth over the past few decades, and he says he recognizes a pattern in the way things are developing along the Colorado River Road.”Changes have already started,” Lapin says. “You’ll see a lot more 35-acre parcel sales up there, and that’s how it always starts. That’s how it worked in Eagle, and up Salt Creek, Lake Creek, Bellyache Ridge and Squaw Creek. What normally happens is that as more and more (larger parcel sales) occur there will be more and more people that go through the process to get 5- and 10-acre parcels.”Lapin doesn’t expect a lighting-fast pace of development to prevail near his property in McCoy, but he does see the changes as an inevitable series of events.Almost every major player in valley real estate has found a way to secure private land in the area between Wolcott and Steamboat. Names like E.B. Chester, Gary Bossow, Magnus Lindholm and Lapin himself all have property and/or houses in Vail/Beaver Creek as well as the Highway 131 corridor. One anonymous source inside the real estate industry likened the move to that area as a game of connect-the-dots. To find out where big real estate profits will be 10 years from now, he suggests, look to where wealthy landowners are investing now.Substantial water, electricity, plumbing and communications infrastructure are still a missing link in the development plans for the area, but Lapin says those issues could be overcome with a certain influx of effort and money. Once Eagle and Gypsum build out a bit more, he says, the road will be paved, literally, for growth to happen in Burns, Bond and McCoy.But that growth doesn’t have to happen against the wishes of people like Cordova, Horn, Forster, Hathaway and Butts.At least that’s the view of Dick Kesler of Slifer Smith & Brampton Real Estate, who has been selling ranches in the area and real estate in the valley since 1982.”Especially on the river corridor road there might be some minor subdivisions eventually,” Kesler says. “But I truly feel the direction of this market is that the larger parcels will remain individually owned.”That’s fine with the 87-year-old matriarch of the fifth-generation Kirby family, Edith Kirby, who says her clan isn’t planning on letting go of their property anytime soon.”(Development) will be moving in and I’m telling you that it’s bound to,” she says. “But we’re going to hang onto (our land). As I say, it was our homestead.”Like the Horns, the Kirby family may have a tougher time justifying holding onto their land as time goes on. The price per square foot reaches as high as $1.10 in the area, and ranching is simply not going to be viable if growth trends continue.But the Eagle Valley Land Trust offers ranchers another option. Rather than sell their land outright, they can sell the development rights to the EVLT and, depending on the way the deal is structured, receive federal and state tax breaks. The program has already helped maintain 4,300 acres of land in the county in three years.The beauty of the area, the open space, the wild west flavor of the way of life, and the slow-paced friendliness of the community all ranked high among residents who chose to talk to The Trail. The idea of large ranching operations shutting down, becoming part of the EVLT, or being sold to a wealthy landowner doesn’t really bother people like Hathaway.”We don’t want gas stations, 7-11’s, or housing developments,” Hathaway says. “But the gentleman ranchers a lot of them are tolerable.”Mostly, Hathaway says, he just wants to be left alone to his own devices, much like his neighbors. He likes silence. He likes walking down to the river, where he can watch the wind and the current interplay. Like his neighbors he knows that changes are as sure to come as the river is sure to flow, but he plans on having a say in how those changes occur and what happens to his home and the homes around him.But if the flow of development ever threatens to flood the upper Colorado valley with mini-malls and Burger Kings, there seems to be a very deep-seated conviction among the residents that everyone there will take a stand, and do whatever it takes to preserve the things they hold dear.As one anonymous source told The Vail Trail, “There’s a monkey wrench gang around here that keeps everything in check.”


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