Think about the top five reasons you live in western Colorado. Most likely your list includes clean air and water, wildlife and vast, scenic vistas that seem to go on forever. The Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT) has been working for almost 50 years in the greater Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys to protect these hallmarks of western life, conserving close to 40,000 acres of private land in Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Eagle and Mesa counties.
“In the West, we’ve not been very responsible with the land,” says Martha Cochran, AVLT director. “We see it as a place to build something.” But, she added, from hunting in Rifle to hiking, biking, and skiing in Aspen, the economy of western Colorado is based on open space. “People don’t come here to look at shopping centers.”
She said Colorado is the leader for land conservation. “We’re the ones that have set the standards and practices for how land trusts operate all over the country.”
For AVLT, Colorado’s oldest land trust, it all began in 1967 when a group of citizens formed a nonprofit organization in Aspen to own land that was to be used as public parks. Fritz and Fabienne Benedict donated several parcels, which AVLT still owns, including Freddie Fischer Park, Verena Mallory Park and Emilee Benedict Park. Other locals later donated Stein Park and Aspen Alps Park to AVLT.
In 1976, as urban sprawl began to gobble up prime farmland, the federal government gave landowners tax benefits to place land that fit certain criteria — including open space, wildlife habitat and historic significance — into conservation easements. Then, in 2000, due to the same concern for loss of agricultural land, the state of Colorado enacted the Conservation Tax Credit, which allowed landowners to receive cash for conserving land. “That has been a real incentive for private landowners to conserve vast and important lands,” said Cochran.
A conservation easement is basically an agreement between the landowner and the land trust to maintain specific qualities of the land, such as agriculture, scenic views, and wildlife habitat, by restricting development; however, that doesn’t mean current uses come to a standstill. “The landowners still own the land,” explained Cochran. “They can sell it and they can give it to their children.”
But the agreement ensures long-term protection of natural resources. In other words, if a rancher places agricultural land into a conservation easement prohibiting housing developments and decides to sell the ranch, the new owner must also abide by those same terms.
Cochran recalled one such new owner who did not understand the land’s easement requirements and built new roads in a protected part of the property. AVLT worked with the landowner to develop a restoration plan that cost close to $1M, said Cochran. “Some [owners who purchase easement lands] don’t have the same values as the original owners,” she added. “And, by law, we have to enforce the easement.”
AVLT’s staff of four (plus various consultants) operates on a budget of $790,000, which comes from private donations, fees for services and fundraisers, including this year’s National Sheepdog Finals in September at the Strang Ranch.
Most of AVLT’s work involves stewardship, which is the other part of the easement agreement. “At a minimum, we monitor all 170 [AVLT] properties once a year,” said Cochran. Monitoring means walking or riding on the land making notes and taking pictures, traditional flights over each property, and a new kind of aerial monitoring that involves 3D orthophotography. “It’s like uber-Google Earth,” she explained.
AVLT contracts with Lighthawk, a Fort Collins-based environmental organization, to produce the images. Pilots in specially designed, fixed-wing aircraft with a camera attached to the bottom of the fuselage fly a grid pattern that encompasses large tracts of land. “It saves money and gives us better information,” said Connor Coleman, AVLT’s stewardship manager, who plans to use the images for virtual tours of easement properties. “We not only see human-induced changes but over the long-term, we will see habitat and migration shifts due to climate change.” He added that monitoring methods rotate every three years.
Orthophotography is less invasive than other methods, and Coleman said landowners find it useful, but, despite the high quality images, he believes there’s no substitute for human relationships and contact with the land. “During the years that monitoring is not on the ground, I will get with the landowners to see how things are going,” he said.
Cochran, who understands the importance of preserving a lifestyle as well as the land, agrees. She and her sister, Vicky, own the family farm in Missouri that her great-great-grandfather homesteaded in the mid-1800s. And she has stories that match the gritty humor of the western Colorado ranchers whose lands and culture AVLT works hard to protect. “What I care about is the land, how it’s used, how people relate to it,” she said. “The land is what gives us nourishment and feeds our soul.”
“What I care about is the land, how it’s used, how people relate to it. The land is what gives us nourishment and feeds our soul.”
Aspen Valley Land Trust director