Aspen Glen residents contend broad wildlife issues at stake in eagle nest buffer zone debate
Garfield County commissioners will visit site, resume review Oct. 11
The Garfield County commissioners faced an intense lobbying effort from members of the public Monday to leave a special buffer in place at Aspen Glen golf club to benefit wildlife.
About 20 speakers urged the commissioners to deny a request by Aspen Glen Golf Co. to remove what is known as an eagle nest buffer zone. That restrictive measure has prevented development on about 25 acres of prime land along the Roaring Fork River since 1992. The golf company wants the restrictive designation lifted because, it claims, a mating pair of eagles relocated in 2018 after the tree its nest was located in fell in a windstorm. Now that the eagles no longer live in the buffer zone, the special designation is no longer needed said the development team, headed by land use planning consultant Davis Farrar and attorney David McConaughy.
“These three parcels were treated differently in 1992 because they were different. Now they’re not,” said McConaughy, an attorney representing a couple that wants to build a home in what is now the restricted area.
The development company has the backing of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“As the historic nest tree no longer exists, Colorado Parks and Wildlife feels the Eagle Nest Buffer Zone is no longer warranted,” said a letter to Garfield County from CPW area wildlife manager Matt Yamashita.
The development team also contended that any future development would still be subjected to conditions suggested by CPW.
Commissioners John Martin and Mike Samson said they needed more information to sort through the complicated issues. They set a site visit to Aspen Glen on Sept. 29 and continued the public hearing to Oct. 11. Commissioner Tom Jankovsky recused himself from participation because he and his wife own a property management company that has clients in Aspen Glen.
Several speakers at the four-hour public hearing questioned CPW’s credibility on the issue. Aspen Glen resident Lisa McPherson claimed the eagles relocated after CPW undertook an effort to install a camera in their nest in November 2016. The eagles watched for three days as a crane was extended high into the tree for the work.
“They watched. They never returned to the tree,” McPherson said. “Everybody who lives in Aspen Glen knows what happened.”
Numerous speakers also contended the buffer zone was always intended to do more than protect a single eagle nest. They said the zone along the river is needed for habitat for a variety of wildlife, including elk, deer, bear and various raptors. Construction of roughly 26 more residences on the three parcels affected by the buffer zone will drive that wildlife away, they claimed.
The development team countered that the conditions set in 1992 were clear — if the eagles departed, the landowner could seek a lifting of the buffer.
The wildlife issue has pitted the golf club developer against the homeowners’ association as well as individual homeowners. Representatives of the homeowners’ association’s board of directors said all five members are against lifting the buffer zone. Margaret Karren, a member of the board, said 300 members signed a letter opposing the removal of the buffer zone, while only six didn’t sign.
“It would be really helpful if the county would give us support to protect these areas,” she said.
The bald eagles at the center of controversy relocated to a tree seven-tenths of a mile upstream, about 30 yards from the deck of the nearest house. That was used as evidence by the development team that the eagles are adapted to human activity. But several speakers said the home’s former owners were rarely there, so there wasn’t much commotion. The new owners have applied to build a swimming pool and fire pit.
“The eagles aren’t going to stand for that,” Karren said, adding they will flee again. The buffer is needed not only for a place for them to nest, but also to roost and forage, several speakers said. The valuable habitat shouldn’t be sacrificed because of a “money grab” by an outside equity company, several speakers said.
Speaker John Patrick said he watched the development of Aspen Glen back in the 1990s. The area was once home for 30 heron nests and grazed by 200 elk, he said. While wildlife numbers have been reduced, he witnessed how the eagle nest buffer zone created a broader wildlife buffer zone. He urged the commissioners to keep the buffer in place or the wildlife will be completely displaced in another 20 years.
Mark Gould Jr. expressed a similar sentiment. The Glenwood Springs native, who now operates the family business that helped build Aspen Glen, has witnessed the steady displacement of wildlife because of development in the valley. He said the Aspen Glen Golf Co. is trying to frame the issue as private property rights. But the core issue is displacing wildlife, just as the Roaring Fork Valley’s working class has been displaced further and further downvalley, he said.
He called for a more thorough study of how removing the buffer would affect wildlife. He felt the response by CPW wasn’t rigorous enough.
“They didn’t really study what’s going to happen to the eagles,” he said.
The representative for CPW, Yamashita, departed the meeting before the agency was criticized for its position. An effort to reach Yamashita for comment during the meeting was unsuccessful.
Letters from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and the Roaring Fork Chapter of the Audubon Society urged the commissioners to keep the buffer in place to promote habitat diversity. Roaring Fork Conservancy, another prominent nonprofit organization in the valley, deferred to CPW.
The only speakers from the public in favor of lifting the eagle nest buffer zone were Katie and Jay Willoughby, who hope to build a retirement home in land currently located in the buffer. They said they don’t want to have a negative effect on wildlife, noting that they formerly lived in Alaska.
“We got to see eagles every day. We love eagles,” said Jay Willoughby.
They supported the applicant’s contention that the buffer zone could be removed without harm.
Commissioner Samson urged the audience not to attend the site visit because it would hinder the ability of him and Martin to get their questions addressed. He noted that the meeting is open to the public, but the public would not be able to make comments or ask questions. The commissioners will only collect information, not share their opinions, he said.
Samson also asked that representatives of CPW be available throughout that hearing to provide testimony and answer questions. He asked staff to try to get a representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to attend the hearing. The federal agency indicated it would provide written comments on the issue but didn’t submit anything, according to county staff members.
The public hearing will start at 1 p.m. on Oct. 11.
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