A recently finalized conservation framework for a 406-acre parcel in the Thompson Divide purchased in July by Pitkin County represents a “more sophisticated approach” to the potentially troublesome issue of whether — and, if so, how — to allow human activity in ecologically sensitive terrain.

A conservation easement, recorded last month and held by Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT), sets out that the “primary purpose” for the conservation of the parcel — which is partially surrounded by Forest Service land and traversed by North Thompson Creek — is the protection of wildlife and the relatively natural habitat. However, low-impact recreation, such as single-track trails, as well as educational offerings, may be allowed on the property so long as those uses are managed in a way that does not infringe on the property’s wildlife habitat and scenic open-space values.

The easement language includes a nod to a 2016 policy adopted by the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Board, which states that the county shall “rely on the best available science for property-specific study of natural habitat conditions, including the role of the property in the context of larger habitat and wildlife patterns in the Roaring Fork watershed.” That policy also states that “human uses, if any, will be planned and managed to minimize intrusion into breeding/nesting areas and migration corridors … (and) minimize intrusion into the time periods and/or places of special habitat concern.”

This easement represents an evolution in how such deals are done because it provides that the county can develop recreation and educational uses on the property without having to gain specific approvals from the easement holder so long as it establishes a management plan adhering to the the “best available science” approach in protecting biodiversity — and follows that standard in allowing human use.

“The big change is we usually have to ask for approval from the easement holder” before developing amenities for human use, said Open Space and Trails Director Gary Tennenbaum. In this case, as long as the county does what it says it will do as laid out in its policies and agreements, “we are good.”

In an email to staff announcing that the easement had been finalized, Dale Will, the acquisitions and special projects director for Open Space and Trails, called it a “a much more sophisticated approach to an issue that has been troublesome over the years.”

Allowances for human use on the property are not guaranteed and would be made only after detailed studies are completed on site-specific conditions, identifying wildlife and habitat needs.

“You answer those questions first and then say what niches are left where you can integrate humans,” Will said in an interview. That could take the form of enacting seasonal closures or making specific areas of the property off-limits year-round. The management plan could take years to come together.

“I would call it more sophisticated and science driven as opposed to rule driven,” said Will, referencing prior arrangements that have been established on protected lands with blanket prohibitions on new trails.

The 406-acre TD Ranch Preserve, purchased by Pitkin County in July for $5 million, is “comprised of beautiful aspen meadows that have been lightly ranched since the 1800s,” according to a conservation easement that will protect the land in perpetuity. Its ample riparian areas “contribute to the overall habitat effectiveness of a much greater area.” Credit: Photo courtesy Aspen Valley Land Trust

Unusual quietude

Pitkin County purchased the land, which it is now referring to as the TD Ranch Preserve, in July for $5 million. The county bought three separate but contiguous parcels of land owned by three related entities controlled by an attorney in Los Angeles who has family in Aspen. The total cost to the county’s open-space fund after rebates will be $4.04 million. Support for the purchase includes a grant of $854,014 from Great Outdoors Colorado — a statewide group that funds conservation and parks projects using lottery funds — and a $100,000 contribution from AVLT.

“When people talk about the Thompson Divide, this is classic Thompson Divide,” said AVLT Director Suzanne Stephens, referencing the 200,000-acre swath that has been the focus of conservation efforts for two decades, after a coalition formed to fight oil and gas development. The Thompson Divide consists mostly of mountainous, mid-elevation terrain that bridges the Crystal, North Fork, Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys.

The 406-acre TD Ranch Preserve, shaded here in red, is bordered by public land on the north and south, as well as three smaller privately held parcels. Credit: Screenshot from Pitkin County GIS mapping website

The property purchased by the county sits at the end of North Thompson Creek Road and “is comprised of beautiful aspen meadows that have been lightly ranched since the 1800s,” according to the conservation easement. It includes 11 different water rights tied to streams, ditches and springs on the land. The property lies within the summer range for elk, bear, moose, mule deer and mountain lion, according to the easement, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife has mapped an elk-calving area on its edge.

“The property’s ample riparian areas” — which include 8,000 linear feet of North Thompson Creek, two fens and multiple wetland areas — “contribute to the overall habitat effectiveness of a much greater area,” the easement says.

The property, which contains two cabins, will remain in agricultural use as the county has renewed the lease with a rancher who held a lease with the prior owner.

“It’s not a far drive from Carbondale,” Stephens said, “but you get up there and it feels like light years away. … It has a lot of habitat value and a lot of unusual quietude we don’t see a lot of.”

The county’s parcel, bordered to the north and south by Forest Service land, is adjacent to one smaller adjacent privately owned parcel on the west and two on the east. One of those adjacent parcels is partially protected by a conservation easement, Stephens said.

While there are no platted development rights on the property, were it not for the county’s acquisition it could have been subdivided into 35-acre lots.

The easement notes that the habitat connectivity offered by the property “is important to the local and regional landscape and provides wildlife habitat resources that attract tourism and commerce to the area.”

Preservation is called for in this case given “a foreseeable trend of intense development in the vicinity of the property. There is a strong likelihood that development of the property would contribute to the degradation of the scenic and natural character of the area,” the easement says.

County officials and AVLT haven’t floated any specific proposals for public access on the property; any such plans would need to be vetted through a management-planning process where biodiversity values will be held highest.

“AVLT is interested in the property because there are several different ways it can provide a public benefit,” Stephens said. “I think we are trying to be really creative about what might be possible there.”

The TD Ranch Preserve is “not a far drive from Carbondale, but you get up there and it feels like light years away,” says Aspen Valley Land Trust Director Suzanne Stephens. Credit: Photo courtesy Aspen Valley Land Trust

A critical decade for conservation

Finalizing the easement on the TD Ranch Preserve is coming in the midst of a cycle where “things are busier than they ever have been in my 15 years (at AVLT),” Stephens said. The “COVID real estate scramble” has accelerated long-term trends, she said.

Tennenbaum agreed.

“What we are seeing,” he said, “is a huge influx of people into this valley,” accelerated by COVID-19. Those market forces are fueling the urgency of prioritizing what needs to be conserved out of remaining undeveloped lands and forcing the land managers to make sure recreation happens in a sustainable way on public lands.

Both Stephens and Tennenbaum said the next 10 years will be critical in terms of land conservation.

“From Aspen to Rifle, everyone wants to see the space between the towns protected,” Stephens said.

According to Tennenbaum, “This coming decade, we are going to see how this valley wants to prioritize conservation versus development. We are hitting that level of ‘What do you want to see?’”

AVLT has been laying the groundwork for its efforts in the coming decade with a regional conservation plan, which has been in the works for the past few years. The work includes mapping out conservation priorities and balancing values of habitat preservation and community access. The plan, currently in the fine-tuning stage, is expected out in the first quarter of 2021, Stephens said.

Another critical piece of the planning picture is the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative, an independent group that is undertaking an intensive study of area wildlife populations and habitats in order to identify where conservation would be most effective.

In many ways, the TD Ranch Preserve deal is a model project for the era. It conserves an island of private land in the middle of already-protected public land, protecting habitat connectivity. It also codifies a framework streamlining how Pitkin County and AVLT can work together on conservation projects.

“What’s really notable here is that Pitkin County is putting their money where their mouth is and not only invoking the use of their biodiversity policy, they are agreeing to use it making management decisions around public access on this ranch,” giving AVLT and Open Space and Trails clear, objective context and criteria for evaluating future uses, Stephens said in an email, referencing the conservation easement.

The county and AVLT have long worked together, and AVLT holds conservation easements on many Pitkin County open space parcels. But in an example of how the relationship is evolving, AVLT is gearing up to purchase the 141-acre Coffman Ranch, which sits off of Catherine Store Road outside Carbondale. The parcel is one of the most significant pieces of land that AVLT would own outright, and AVLT has so far raised just over $5 million of a total $8.5 million projected project cost.

Management of the parcel will include balancing wildlife habitat — the property is fronting the Roaring Fork River and has 35 acres of wetlands — and maintaining agricultural production and public access. In an inverse of the TD Ranch Preserve arrangement, Pitkin County is expected to hold the conservation easement once the deal is done.

“And (that easement) will probably use this same language,” Tennenbaum said.

Editor’s note: This story was edited on Dec. 13, 2020 to clarify the structure of the entities that sold the Thompson Divide properties to Pitkin County.

This story ran in the Dec. 7 editions of The Aspen Times and The Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

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...