Wolfe: New direction needed on Eagle County open space
Vail, CO Colorado
In 2002, Eagle County voters narrowly approved an open space ballot authorizing a new county tax for the purpose of acquiring, maintaining or permanently preserving open space. I was among those who voted against this new tax, not because the preservation of open space isn’t a good idea, but because I believed spending to preserve open space should have been among all the good ideas competing for the already ample county tax revenues.
After losing on this conservative point, I wanted a say in how my tax dollars would be spent, and I became the founding chairman of the Open Space Advisory Committee (OSAC). In an effort to develop rigorous recommendations for the Eagle County Commissioners, who authorize open space expenditures, OSAC developed six criteria to evaluate open space projects, including: scenic landscapes and vistas; regional heritage, agriculture and ranching; wildlife, wildlife habitat and migration routes; sensitive lands and environments; physical and visual buffers; and access to streams, rivers, public lands and dispersed recreation opportunities. While desirable and definitely a benefit, public access is not a requirement.
Five years and $14 million later, Eagle County has been a major contributor to partnerships that conserved the Bair Ranch, Eagle River Preserve (Eaton Ranch/gravel pit), parts of the Grange and McNulty ranches and, very recently, the entire Gates Ranch. While each of these projects has merit and meets the criteria the ballot question and OSAC set forth, it’s time for some new direction.
The open space process can be improved and meet naturalist objectives while at the same time serving environmental, societal and economic needs in our quickly growing communities. Growth, tourism, recreation, housing and quality of life can all be better served through a more demanding, discriminating and targeted open space program. This can be accomplished ” and we owe it to ourselves as taxpayers and to the generations that follow ” to do so.
Conserved land improves the general quality of life by preserving physical and visual gaps between areas of intense development. Open space can reduce polluted runoff into our streams and rivers. It can help control noise, air pollution and the pressures of excessive development. Open space within or close to towns preserves wildlife winter range, migration routes and calving areas. These are the more climatically benign and attractive regions that we humans also choose for our homes, and we are in increasing conflict with wildlife in valley-floor development corridors. We live in a vast sea of public land that offers abundant summer range for wildlife, but in developing the valley floors we are eliminating important winter range that wildlife need to survive.
Our communities thrive on tourism. Visitors and residents alike value the natural beauty, Western culture, abundant wildlife and visible husbandry of the close-in meadows and ranches. We have to pay more attention to conservation right in the midst of our communities. This is where we all live, and we fund the open space program through our taxes. We have to focus more of the open space funding on our community needs and benefits. Of course we need to keep a balance by preserving remote endangered habitat and outlying ranches, but we’ve done mostly that so far.
More emphasis needs to be placed on endangered or preferred habitat in the midst of our communities. Funding decisions should also place a higher value on educational, access, visibility and overall protection of the environment, economic and quality-of-life aspects of a specific project. Even if a proposal reflects conservation values at some reasonable level, it may rank marginally or even poorly against what a really great project would show. In such a case shouldn’t we bank our funds and go find the great project?
I say, yes. These better projects may indeed be more expensive because of their location in development corridors, but they have greater and more critical conservation, environmental and economic values. Crucial valley parcels are the most threatened in the county and will be impossible to preserve in the near future. The price may be higher, but so is the value.
Ron Wolfe is Mayor of Avon and a member of OSAC.