Hart: Road to Berlaimont Estates would pave paradise for sprawl in the backcountry (column) | VailDaily.com

Hart: Road to Berlaimont Estates would pave paradise for sprawl in the backcountry (column)

Peter Hart
Valley Voices

Having grown up in the Eagle Valley, I know it is a stunning place. Public lands and a rich natural environment sustain an amazing quality of life for locals. Clean air and water, majestic mountains, raging rivers, abundant wildlife and recreation opportunities are foundational to the area's character and economy. We should be uniformly committed to protecting these values.

The population of Eagle County is expected to nearly double in coming decades. That growth will seriously impact these values. More than ever before, it's in our best interest to be thoughtful about how and where new development occurs. Yet we continue to entertain and approve land-use proposals that diminish and jeopardize community values.

The U.S. Forest Service is currently considering approval of a new two-lane paved road across public lands north of Edwards to facilitate development of Berlaimont Estates — 19 new mansions, 2,000 vertical feet above town. The sprawling subdivision would be developed on a parcel that is completely surrounded by National Forest.

Unlike other nearby neighborhoods (e.g., Wildridge and Mountain Star), public land managers must approve a new road across lands owned by you and me to facilitate this proposal. To approve the new road, the Forest Service must deem Berlaimont Estates a "reasonable" land use.

Berlaimont Estates is not reasonable land use. It is ludicrous backcountry sprawl. The proposed access road isn't a little driveway. It is a 32-foot wide, bermed, walled, plowed and paved thoroughfare switchbacking thousands of feet up a very visible hillside to provide year-round access to "estates" deep within the National Forest. According to the Forest Service's analysis, the walls necessary to support this road could be more than 1,000 feet long and as tall as 40 feet.

The south-facing slopes that would be impacted and bisected by this road contain some of the last best winter wildlife habitat in the area. Winter wildlife habitat is not some trivial designation; it is the most critical determinant of wildlife survival. Developing this winter habitat will reduce deer and elk populations that are already in tail-spinning decline. Old-timers remember huge herds of deer and elk in the area, so huge that migrations shut down traffic on Interstate 70. That doesn't happen anymore — mostly because development of important habitat has decimated herds.

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These are the consequences of our decisions. Destruction of winter habitat means that landscapes no longer support wildlife in historic numbers. Importantly, these wildlife resources are unique. The Piney River deer herd is the second largest migratory deer herd in Colorado. That is something to be proud of, something to protect. But the Berlaimont Estates access road would slice the herd's migratory route in half. It would impede migration, pave over forage and drive away animals that increasingly have nowhere else to go.

The Forest Service has been trying to protect this important winter habitat for years. The 2002 Forest Plan designated this area Deer and Elk Winter Range and restricted winter use to minimize disturbance. Now, though, the agency is poised to change the plan and allow year-round access for Berlaimont residents. That will increase vehicle trips through the area from approximately zero per day in the wintertime now to an estimated 215 trips per day post-construction.

Deer and elk aren't the only victims. There are rare and imperiled cutthroat trout populations in already degraded Berry Creek. The area also provides important breeding habitat for sensitive birds, like the Brewer's sparrow, which would be impacted. Recreationists will lose access to important trails and soft-surface roads if the Berlaimont road is paved.

These existing values would be degraded to facilitate suburban sprawl in the backcountry — large homes on large lots, a long way from existing infrastructure and services, resulting in disproportionate costs to the public. This kind of sprawl puts emergency responders (e.g., firefighters) at greater risk and contributes disproportionately to degradation of the environmental values we all cherish.

So, please tell the Forest Service that it is not reasonable to pave sensitive habitat on public lands for access to this new subdivision. Find a link to submit comments within this column at http://www.vaildaily.com.

Peter Hart grew-up in the Eagle Valley and now works as the staff attorney for Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.