Canyon among land trust’s interests |

Canyon among land trust’s interests

A canyon featuring rock art is a unique addition to the conservation easement holdings of the Aspen Valley Land Trust.

But Oni Butterfly’s property sits in the middle of an area that has been an intense focus of the Carbondale-based group’s efforts to protect land from development.

The reason is that the whole Dry Hollow/Divide Creek region south of Silt has some of the last big ranch properties in Garfield County that haven’t already been converted into housing developments.

Martha Cochran, executive director of the AVLT, said the trust has been acquiring easements in that area for about six or seven years. It has about 1,000 acres under protection there and is working on about five more deals that will increase that figure to about 1,500 acres.

Unlike most of that acreage, Butterfly’s canyon isn’t ranchland.

Instead, it’s a unique canyon in the midst of these agricultural parcels, with small ponds in it and Divide Creek running along its mouth.

“And it is just so pristine and untouched as a feature there,” Cochran said. “But the clincher was the petroglyphs.”

The rock art in the canyon makes it extra-special, but Cochran said it’s also unusual to find land that’s untouched. It hasn’t been plowed up, and its vegetation is still native.

“There’s been a few cows in there but otherwise it’s been as it always has been,” Cochran said.

The canyon offers the pinon and juniper trees typical of land of around that elevation ” 6,000 feet ” in western Garfield County.

The canyon also is a kind of inverted island of tranquility in an area being heavily drilled for natural gas. While the canyon is protected by a surface use agreement from being drilled, Cochran said gas development on a property doesn’t rule it out from being protected under an easement.

Such development is temporary and the land can be reclaimed, she noted. Things such as housing have a more permanent impact.

Besides being active south of Silt, the AVLT has been acquiring several easements up Canyon Creek west of Glenwood Springs, and the Spring Valley/Missouri Heights area.

Some major easements it has acquired include the Stout Ranch south of New Castle, where 1,300 acres are protected, and the Carter Jackson ranch south of Glenwood Springs. The latter easement, on 292 acres, serves as a break between development in Glenwood Springs and along the Roaring Fork River Valley south to Carbondale.

The Stout Ranch easement is contiguous with the 13,000-acre Garfield Creek State Wildlife Area, and the AVLT also has an 80-acre easement on an inholding within that area. Being contiguous increases the value of all this protected property as unbroken habitat for animals.

The AVLT has acquired easements to 33 properties in Garfield County in the last three years.

It has more than 4,500 acres in easements in Garfield County and another 7,500 acres on 62 properties in Pitkin County, and also some easements in Gunnison and Eagle counties. Altogether, more than 12,300 acres is under AVLT protection.

Garfield County has 10 times more private land than Pitkin County does, which Cochran said helps explains the AVLT’s downvalley focus. Pitkin County also has another avenue for acquiring easements ” its open space tax.

“We work with them a lot, but they’re kind of acquiring what they need to acquire at this point,” she said.

The land trust does its work through monetary contributions and donated easements. However, it is working on buying its first easement, on John Nieslanik’s property on East Mesa near Carbondale.

Cochran said the tax benefits a landowner receives from placing a property under an easement are significant. But they lose the ability to make considerable money by developing the land or selling it for development. And the easement process can cost a landowner $10,000 to $15,000.

Sometimes the AVLT is able to help a property owner cover those processing costs. But landowners don’t come out ahead financially by going the easement route, Cochran said. They do it because of their desire to protect their property for posterity’s sake.

Butterfly, for example, would have been better off financially if she had developed her land for housing. Cochran is glad she chose a different route.

“This is a really beautiful property and it was a really generous gift and something important to preserve,” Cochran said.

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