The next decade is seen as perhaps the most critical yet to determine how much of the remaining unprotected lands in the Roaring Fork watershed will be preserved to support biodiversity, open space and public access, in the face of increasing pressure from climate change and development.

At 141 acres, the acquisition in August of Coffman Ranch, located east of Carbondale off County Road 100, stands out for the kind of preservation effort that the environmental community hopes to see going forward, exemplary as it is of remaining intact lands and critical conservation values. 

The property, sold at a discount by longtime ranchers Rex and JoAnn Coffman to Aspen Valley Land Trust for $6.5 million, has been a working ranch for more than 100 years. Although about 80 acres of the property consists of irrigated meadows used in the spring and fall to raise cattle by local rancher Bill Fales, much of the rest of the site is more wild in character, with 35 acres of wetlands. It includes three-quarters of a mile of Roaring Fork River frontage along what AVLT Philanthropy Director Jeff Davlyn described as the most uninterrupted, biodiverse riparian corridor between the river’s confluence with the Colorado and Aspen’s North Star Nature Preserve.

An ecological inventory conducted on AVLT’s behalf lays out a total of five vegetative communities and two wetland types identified on the ranch property, supporting a wide array of plant, animal and fish species. While evidence of the impact of grazing is evident, the riparian habitat is still found to be in “excellent condition,” according to a draft of the study.

“The uniqueness of the property is the spatial distribution and mosaic of productive habitat types based upon vegetation communities and the extensive edge habitat they create,” says an ecological assessment from Carbondale-based firm DHM.  “The combination of riparian forests, shrublands, grasslands/pasture and wetlands provides a surprisingly high richness of wildlife (particularly avian species) for the size of the property.”

AVLT — which remains in the midst of a yearslong fundraising campaign to secure a total of $14 million to cover the purchase price and development of a management plan, as well as to fund ongoing improvements and operations — sees Coffman Ranch as an “ambassador” for a larger conservation and public-engagement mission, according to Suzanne Stephens, director of the nonprofit.

“It’s manifest of where we are needing and wanting to go. It’s a big step,” she said of the acquisition of the site, which is located roughly 1.5 miles east of downtown Carbondale and can be accessed via the Rio Grande Trail.

The irrigated pasture of Coffman Ranch, shown here in August, has extensive and senior water rights. That’s one of the reasons Pitkin County helped fund the purchase with $2 million in open space funds. Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

Bringing the public over the fence

Although habitat protection, open space and continued agricultural production are the key values driving the acquisition, public access for limited managed recreation and educational use are also important components. 

How these values and uses play out will be subject to the prescriptions of the management plan, a process expected to take at least until mid-2023. A conservation easement held by Pitkin County guarantees some form of recreation access no later than 2025. While there is currently no public access to the site pending the development of the management plan, AVLT staff is arranging tours for those interested in taking a look. Land-trust officials have discussed the potential of establishing a recreational trail that could be open for hiking and cross-country skiing, accessing the river and other portions of the property, but subject to seasonal closures. It is also expected that the parcel will be used as an outdoor classroom serving 26 schools located within 15 miles of Coffman Ranch.

Much of what a land trust such as AVLT does happens “on the other side of the fence,” Davlyn said, referring to the behind-the-scenes nature of working with landowners on conservation easements and preventing development from occurring on private property. “This is an opportunity to bring people in.”

He added that the agricultural history and significance of the property offer an opportunity to connect with the next generation of farmers and ranchers. A big piece of upcoming public engagement will be looking at how to best utilize the land going forward from a production standpoint, Davlyn said. (Fales will continue to run cattle on the property under a gap lease with AVLT while the management plan is developed.)

“We believe we can grow more than grass and contribute to the resiliency of the community’s food system,” Davlyn said.

Questions around access onto the property from the river — and whether the rocky riverbank would be available as a put-in or take-out for light watercraft — are trickier, as growing numbers of paddleboarders have made management of river corridors more difficult in other parts of the watershed. The management plan will be sifting through those questions, but Davlyn suggested that the parcel could have a role to play in helping to “educate people on what it means to be a responsible river user.” 

A conservation easement for Coffman Ranch held by Pitkin County guarantees some form of recreation access no later than 2025, with at least a foot trail from a parking area to the Roaring Fork River. The 141-acre ranch boasts three-quarters of a mile of river frontage. Credit: Aspen Valley Land Trust courtesy photo

Conservation area anchor 

Coffman sits across the river from Ranch at Roaring Fork, a residential subdivision that did not develop homesites directly adjacent to the river. That undisturbed land, on both sides of the stream, helps to anchor a 12-mile stretch of river, roughly from El Jebel to Satank, that has been identified as a “Level 4 Potential Conservation Area” by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) at Colorado State University, meaning it has a “very high biodiversity significance,” according to Sarah Marshall, an ecohydrologist with the CNHP and who has studied Coffman Ranch and the larger corridor.

“Affording spectacular news of Mount Sopris to the south, and including the widest stretch of riparian vegetation, the site is one of the most intact stretches along the lower elevations of the Roaring Fork River,” says a report on the broader conservation area. The stretch of river running from about 6,500 feet to 6,000 feet in elevation “incorporates an area that will allow natural hydrological processes such as seasonal flooding, sediment deposition and new channel formation to maintain viable populations of the elements,” the report says. 

However, the report warns that upstream changes in hydrology related to increased depletions and dams could alter those patterns. Davlyn noted that before Ruedi Reservoir was built on the Fryingpan River in the 1960s, historical photos show that the river near Coffman Ranch braided and formed new channels at a much greater extent than it does today.

A rare orchid, known as Ute ladies’ tresses, which is designated as a federally threatened species, has been identified on the Coffman property. According to the DHM inventory, the orchid’s survival “depends on natural stream processes and associated disturbances from flooding events with stable moisture through the growing season.”

This rare orchid, known as Ute ladies’ tresses, which is designated as a federally threatened species, is shown here on the Coffman Ranch. It relies on natural flooding in its wetland habitat for survival. Credit: Jeff Davlyn/Aspen Valley Land Trust courtesy photo

No matter which side of a county line

Despite Coffman Ranch’s location in eastern Garfield County, Pitkin County’s open-space program recommended spending $2 million to purchase a conservation easement on the land, funding for which was approved in March by the Board of County Commissioners. That easement enshrines open space, agriculture, public access and education as guiding principles for the land’s future management.

The county’s support helped set the stage for a $2.5 million grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, which, along with funding from other donors, including $200,000 from Garfield County, allowed AVLT to close on the acquisition. 

“Our open-space program is charged with protecting wildlife habitat, streamflows, agriculture, scenery, and recreational and educational activities associated with open lands,” Pitkin County Open Space Acquisitions Director Dale Will wrote in an email. “All such resources in our watershed are valuable to Pitkin County residents, regardless of which side of a county line they might land on.”

Will added that wildlife moves freely across these lines, and that while the majority of the federal public lands on “The Crown,” at the foot of Mount Sopris, are in Pitkin County, the surrounding lowlands and riparian habitat is spread into Eagle and Garfield counties.

“Ecologically this functions as a single system,” Will said.

The water rights associated with the property — amounting to more than 23 cubic feet per second and dating to the 1880s, provided by the Union and Slough ditches, the latter of which bisects the property — were also of significant interest to Pitkin County.

“Ensuring that these water rights continue to be used on the ranch essentially pulls water in the river all the way through Pitkin County from Independence on down,” Will said. Meanwhile, food grown on the property is a valleywide resource, he added.

Will lauded AVLT for its “vision in making this purchase.”

“Many of the most important conservation properties still at risk are in the lower valley,” Will said, noting the disparity of funding that Garfield County has for open space acquisitions and projects, compared to the other three counties in the watershed. “AVLT plays a critical role in this area by assembling partnerships for critical preservation areas. The Coffman Ranch acquisition is a major feather in their cap.”

This map shows a conceptual master plan for the site as well as property boundaries surrounding Coffman Ranch. Credit: Courtesy Aspen Valley Land Trust

Bigger picture inventory

Larger than the Coffman Ranch acquisition, a three-year Roaring Fork Watershed Biodiversity and Connectivity Study, led by the local nonprofit Watershed Biodiversity Initiative, is nearing completion. 

“Data collected on the ground (under a microscope) was used to inform satellite imagery (under a telescope) to characterize the ecological condition of the watershed’s 928,000 acres,” WBI Director Tom Cardamone wrote in a November update on the initiative. “Multiple data layers, refined through several iterations with our science team, are now being developed and layered together to produce a set of maps that depict the landscape-scale locations across the watershed that are likely to be high priorities for conservation of high-quality habitat for biodiversity.”

AVLT director Stephens, who also is on the WBI’s board, noted that Marshall, the CNHP ecohydrologist, has been working on the watershed study, which brought her to Coffman Ranch in the first place, along with other properties around the valley.

The biodiversity and connectivity study, as well as a concurrent effort from AVLT to produce a regional conservation plan due out in early 2022, are not expected to call out specific parcels to be targeted for acquisition.

However, “the WBI study will provide valuable current and ground-truthed scientific data that will feed into AVLT’s regional conservation plan and help provide more accurate information regarding conservation values, priorities and threats,” Stephens said.

“The WBI study is informing our conservation plan, our conservation plan helped us and Pitkin County Open Space identify the importance of conserving the Coffman Ranch, and separately scientists working on the WBI study have been able to come out to the ranch and confirm and uncover significant natural resource values,” Stephens added. “The fact that Pitkin County has been comfortable committing significant funding to help conserve Coffman Ranch, which is located in eastern Garfield County, is a testament to the importance of having good maps, data, and a nuanced understanding of the importance of our watershed and its natural resources.” 

This story ran in the Jan. 1 editions of The Aspen Times, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, and Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor and executive director of Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Connie Harvey Environment Desk. Curtis has also served as editor, managing editor, and reporter...