Vail Daily column: Enjoy your trails — forever
As the snow melts away and our amazing trail systems and river accesses thaw, we’ll all be taking to them in our hiking boots, walking and trail running shoes, mountain bikes, fishing gear and boats. Take a moment to reflect about how these trails and river access points came to be and how they will be used in the future.
The West Avon Preserve, Miller Ranch, East Vail Waterfall, Duck Pond, Eagle River Preserve and the Horn Ranch properties, for example, were purchased either by the nearby town or Eagle County as open space amenities for our communities and our visitors. Using our tax dollars, our communities and the county have wisely and carefully invested in our future by investing in open space.
But will you be able to enjoy these properties and your other favorite places in the future? Is our investment in open space secure? For these four properties, the answer is yes because they, and many others that you enjoy, are protected by conservation easements held by Eagle Valley Land Trust that prevent them from being damaged, privatized, developed, used for other purposes, or otherwise taken away from us.
How do conservation easements permanently protect our trails and river access points? Landowners, in this case our towns and the county, promise, via a contract with the land trust, to forever extinguish the property’s development rights and keep the property’s scenic, ecological and recreational value available to the public. The contract is called a conservation easement. Should the current owner ever sell the property, new owners are bound by the conservation easement requirements, so the promise is forever.
Why would the elected officials of our towns and the county place a conservation easement on our public land? The mission of public agencies such as towns, counties or the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management is to serve the public in various ways. However, none have the land conservation focus of Eagle Valley Land Trust. The mission of the Eagle Valley Land Trust is to preserve forever scenic vistas, open space, historic lands, waterways and wildlife habitat that represent the uniqueness of Eagle County and the Central Rocky Mountains for the enjoyment, education and benefit of all who experience this special place.
Just because a public agency owns a property doesn’t mean that it will remain open space for public enjoyment forever. Future town councils or commissioners may not share our passion for open space or may feel pressure to develop the land or use the land in other ways. Therefore, our elected officials have reached out to Eagle Valley Land Trust to place conservation easements on many of these properties, such as the East Vail Waterfall, to provide the assurance that these open space amenities will never be taken away.
In some cases, as with the West Avon Preserve, the seller of the land (the U.S. Forest Service) required the town of Avon to place the property under conservation easement because they wanted to be sure it would never be developed. The town of Avon’s elected officials willingly obliged, recognizing the value of protecting the community’s investment in the West Avon Preserve open space for future generations to enjoy.
However, we as a community also have an important responsibility. While the properties will always be conserved, they may not remain open to the public if we as a community abuse them. The owners of the property could close the trails and access points if we create new trails, damage habitat, ignore closure signs or leave behind waste. Eagle Valley Land Trust can’t force the owners to keep public access open. So, if we all play by the rules, then we all win.
Conservation easements are a tried and tested land conservation tool. There are nearly 1,700 land trusts nationwide doing exactly what Eagle Valley Land Trust is doing for our community. Over the decades, these land trusts have preserved over 50 million acres nationwide, an area the size of Nebraska. In Colorado, approximately 5,800 conservation easements conserve an estimated 2.2 million acres of land.
Jim Daus is the executive director of Eagle Valley Land Trust. Eagle Valley Land Trust was founded in 1981 as a nonprofit environmental conservation organization and is state certified and nationally accredited. The Land Trust currently holds 28 parcels and over 7,000 acres of protected lands under conservation easements in Eagle County. These properties stretch from East Vail to the entrance of Glenwood Canyon and from Tennessee Pass near Leadville to Yarmony Mountain near the Routt County border. For more information about EVLT, please visit http://www.evlt.org.