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A closer look at Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

Locations: News Published

“If you want to walk in the grocery store and buy something that was grown locally, that tastes good, then you’ve got to invest resources in protecting the land base.”
This is the vision and mission of Acquisition and Special Projects Director Dale Will, with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails (OST).
In two decades of conserving vital landscapes in the Roaring Fork Watershed, Will has facilitated over $100 million in conservation projects. OST protects 20,000 acres from development and manages over 80 miles of trails built since voters established the open space program in 1990. The benefits of OST were reaffirmed in 2016, with voters reauthorizing a property tax to continue funding programs and acquisitions through 2040.
A decade into his work with OST, accelerated growth and development of the valley pushed against Will’s own personal values — born of mountains and valleys, of human connection to ecosystems, sustenance, and community. Will’s relationships have grown not only with land owners, farmers and ranchers, but with the agrarian landscapes he has come to know and care for.
“The focus of the open space program included preservation of ‘ag,’ but they were thinking of it more in terms of ‘scenic.’ People wanted to see green pastures and hay bales and cowboys in the valley,” says Will. “The primary tool for accomplishing that was conservation easements and the notion was, if we’re going to preserve these working ranches, we want to leave the ranchers on the land and just buy the development rights.”
That standard model assumes a family wants to stay in place, wants to preserve the natural and rural qualities of their land, and are willing to sell their development rights to do so.
“Once in a blue moon, though, the program would come upon agriculture property with irrigated pastures, but the landowner didn’t want to keep it. So the property was either going to get developed — or we’d have to buy it outright,” he says. “I realized Open Space had been approaching ag land indirectly. I’d be thinking in the back of my mind, Well, we can get this and then lease it. But we didn’t have an explicit policy that charged us — empowered us — to do that, in and of itself.”
During Will’s undergrad years at UC Santa Cruz, he had encountered the work of Alan Chadwick, a charismatic and obsessed master gardener whose methods in biodynamic and French intensive growing systems galvanized the organic food movement in California. Not only did Chadwick make an impression on Will, but on a whole generation of gardeners, farmers and chefs.
Will’s rubric for assessing the characteristics and value of open space necessarily began to expand.
“If there’s a little piece of high-value farmland that’s on the market that could get developed — in the past, we asked, Is it scenic? Does it have habitat value? Does it have recreational potential? And if the answer to all those questions was no, we might overlook it,” he says.
Locals connected to horticulture, farming, or John Denver have heard stories of the legendary folksinger’s 957-acre Snowmass environmental experiment, Windstar. For three years, Will lived in community; farming, stewarding the land, and “growing” himself alongside many others who have gone on to make names for themselves in the valley through energy, conservation, architecture, landscape, and community building.
The inseparability of land, food, and quality of life are a core concept in Will’s personal life — in stark contrast to the scale of real estate development consuming the productive landscapes of the Roaring Fork watershed.
He commissioned a study: How much arable land is left, and if we put every one of those acres into production, how many people could the valley feed?
Will turned to local systems analyst Malcolm McMichael: twelve thousand bellies. OST had work to do.
After Windstar, young Will returned to California to study environmental law, settling his new and growing family in Village Homes. Like Chadwick’s biodynamics, this planned community functions in sync with the natural systems of the planet. Every aspect of it was ecologically, sustainably designed to leverage nature and foster connections. Communal gardens, food-centric landscaping, community chicken coops and apiaries connected residents to food and land. Passive solar homes housed them amidst an emphasis on trails, green pathways, and common space over roads and cars. Green-engineering captures water, recharging soils, leading to a unique verdancy — a simple walk was a sensorial trip through a Garden of Eden: nuts, plums, pomegranates, citrus hanging from every branch, low-hanging nourishment — every day abundance for man woman child.
“I remember being deeply affected by succor,” Will recalls. Today, his own yard in town is filled with apples, cherries, grapes, and pears. Roaming hens fertilize and aerate native plantings that offer habitat to all the tiny creatures, allowing for larger creatures like deer or black-capped chickadees to flourish.
Quantifying the production capacity of remaining arable land helped Will frame OST’s 2011 annual board retreat. Could local food production be an end unto itself, he asked. In defining the “why” and the “how,” the Board seeded a new program: Agriculture Leases.
The lease program tackles the most significant hurdle to farmers, acquiring land, by placing farmers and ranchers on OST parcels and easements throughout the Roaring Fork and Crystal River Valleys. It also tackles one of OST’s heaviest burdens, stewarding their acquisitions regeneratively so they continue to flourish and add to the quality of life in the valley.
That’s no small feat.
Will’s strength is in acquisitions and real estate law. OST hired Agriculture and Conservation Administrator Paul Holsinger to pilot the program. It’s a constantly evolving and iterative process, so Will and Holsinger work closely together at the program level. Their genuine friendship helps them navigate challenges to maximize opportunities.
Holsinger interfaces directly with each of the farmers and ranchers, wearing many hats.
“I do everything,” he chuckles. “Sometimes I feel like a therapist.”
As the growing season ramps up this spring, The Sopris Sun will tag along with Holsinger, visiting the various farmers, ranchers and land parcels under OST’s umbrella. This new series seeks to deepen the connections between the community, the open spaces around us, and the “succor,” as Will calls it, that healthy landscapes offer humans.

Tags: #Dale Will #Pitkin County Open Space and Trails
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