Vail Daily column: Protecting the county’s future
August 20, 2015
Protecting our community's scenic beauty includes preserving our community's remaining ranches. The towns of Vail, Avon, Beaver Creek and Edwards are all located on former ranches. In all our surrounding counties, public funds have been spent on conserving ranches in addition to creating public access to publicly owned properties.
Like other land trusts, Eagle Valley Land Trust utilizes conservation easements — permanent agreements with private landowners — to provide these landowners with an economically attractive alternative to someday selling land for development by compensating them now for forever limiting the development of their land. The compensation comes from state and local tax incentives that were created for the purpose of encouraging landowners to consider placing their land under conservation easement.
Public support for these programs outweighs opposition, and that support continues to grow statewide and nationally. In Colorado, approximately 5,800 conservation easements conserve an estimated 2.2 million acres of land, and the state of Colorado has just nearly quadrupled the amount of public funding for conservation easements. Nationally, there are nearly 1,700 land trusts like Eagle Valley Land Trust promoting the conservation of important scenic and agricultural land locally. Over the decades, these land trusts have preserved more than 50 million acres, an area the size of Nebraska. Less than 5 percent of this protected land has public recreational access.
Despite our county government having a robust open space program, the pace and scale of land conservation in Eagle County is behind many of its peers and the attitude toward conservation easements is markedly more negative — seen as a "last resort" and "shameful welfare" rather than a prudent, private business decision. Routt County has conserved more than 41,000 acres of land under conservation easement and Garfield County has preserved approximately 48,000 acres. Meanwhile, Eagle County only has approximately 19,000 acres under conservation easement.
In part, this can be explained by the comparatively small overall supply of private land in Eagle County. Our valleys are not very wide, so there wasn't room for a lot of settlers in the late 1800s when the private land in our county was created by them. They settled only the relatively accessible, relatively flat land along the river corridors. The public's perception, ranchers included, fueled by some misperceptions of the roles of land trusts and conservation easements, may be the largest contributor to the slower pace of ranch land conservation in our community.
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Because of these misperceptions, our community became sharply and, the Land Trust would argue, needlessly divided over the use of public funds for some conservation projects that now are over a decade old. The Eagle Valley Land Trust is working hard to dispel these misperceptions and is confident it will gain land conservation the respect it receives in surrounding communities. The upcoming land trust bus tour and the recent Legacy Festival have already created important partnerships for future land conservation successes.
Development pressure in our community has driven the inaccessibility, even visually, to open space for everyone, including our kids and community agencies trying to serve them. Visual access is vital to our emotional and physical health. Test after test proves that just gazing into undeveloped, natural landscapes opens neural pathways, calms breathing and lowers blood pressure.
BENEFITS OF CONSERVATION
Indeed, accessible open spaces are a vital part of our medical infrastructure whether we can recreate on them or not. Drive down Colorado River Road, get out of your car and fix your eyes on something natural close by for three minutes and you can't deny this science. The scarcity of relatively flat land in our community makes it all the more vital we take steps to protect it — and most of it is our dwindling supply of ranch land.
Economically, investments in open space return $6 in natural goods and services (grazing, water quality protection, air pollution removal and others) for every $1 spent on conservation easements (source: "A Return on Investment: Colorado's Conservation Easement Tax Credit," The Trust for Public Land, 2009). A recent Association of Realtors report found the premium for homes near parks and open space can extend three blocks and start at 20 percent for those homes directly adjacent. (National Association of Realtors, On Common Ground, winter 2009).
We cannot take for granted that these places we currently connect to will remain natural. For example, the Wolcott area is likely to change forever — houses (albeit nicely planned and built) will be the predominant feature of this now natural scenic area. Dotsero is a great place to live but was the last easily accessible, relatively flat and quiet, natural area along the Interstate 70 corridor. These places are all now residential and commercial subdivisions, or shortly to become so. We can assume that the remaining natural and accessible places in our community will be developed in our future or our children's future if we don't all come together to protect our remaining important natural and scenic areas while conservation easements, public funding and tax incentives are still available to protect them.
The Eagle Valley Land Trust acknowledges that conservation easements are not a perfect tool. However, they are a very good one and they, along with the tax incentives and public funding currently available, are the only tools we have so our landscape, a vitally important piece of our community's health infrastructure, remains naturally vibrant, visually available and awe-inspiring. With the increased state tax incentive and the land trust's renewed appeal to the ranching community, we hope that the pace of conservation in our own ranching community will quicken in the coming years.
Entirely independent of the county government, the Eagle Valley Land Trust is a nonprofit organization which seeks to partner with local, state and, sometimes, federal agencies to promote land conservation. The group's mission is to preserve forever our scenic vistas, open space, historic lands, waterways and wildlife habitats that provide enjoyment, education and benefit to all who experience this special place.
Jim Daus is the Eagle Valley Land Trust's executive director.