Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT) has recently published a 10-year strategic plan which lays out the organization’s ambitious goal of conserving 40,000-50,000 acres in the next 10 years.
AVLT was the first land trust in Colorado and, in its 55 years, has helped conserve 69 square miles of land from De Beque to Aspen. The nonprofit also helped to form Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, which has become a key partner with a common mission.
Conservation easements are “a tool that land trusts use to protect land while also allowing for continued private ownership and management,” explains a brochure. These non-governmental, voluntary agreements between a land trust and land owner restrict how a property is used into perpetuity. If sold or transferred, the legally-binding agreement, once established, runs with the land title.
Property owners negotiate parameters that allow for certain uses, like agriculture, while essentially preventing the land from being subdivided and developed. “Land conservation is meant to keep treasured places open and natural and to protect our region’s land, water, wildlife and culture,” reads the same brochure.
With land prices soaring, AVLT recognizes that human habitat often coincides with the most fertile lands for agriculture and biodiversity. While clarifying that they are not “anti-development,” and work in strategic partnership with municipalities for “smart growth,” AVLT sees a dire need to preserve open space.
To incentivize protecting land with public values, like food production, recreation and habitat, the state and federal governments treat a conservation easement as a charitable gift and offer tax credits. In the state of Colorado, this tax credit is 90% of the value of the land prior to conservation subtracted by the assessed value once conserved. The federal government, meanwhile, offers a non-transferable tax deduction.
In order to cash out on the state tax credit, it may be sold at a discount (typically around 85% of its value) and transferred. Erickson called this opportunity a “tangible lifeline to farmers and ranchers” who may invest the capital back into their operation.
AVLT is part of a larger movement of land trusts around the state and country. Early in 2021, the Biden Administration announced its goal of conserving 30% of the country’s land and water by 2030, doubling the amount of protected private land within a decade. Already, protected private land constitutes 61 million acres in the United States, more than all the national parks combined.
Statewide, the movement has been dubbed “Keep It Colorado” by land trusts and partners (including Great Outdoors Colorado, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trinchera Blanca Foundation and the Gates Family Foundation). The collaboration acknowledges that 60% of land in Colorado is privately-owned. In AVLT’s service area, 35% of the land is private, surrounded by public lands, national forests and wilderness.
AVLT’s 10-year strategic plan is based on three years of outreach. The nonprofit is sensitive to the need for housing and not competing with growth and development. Rather, their focus is on conserving greenbelts between communities. Within the context of a changing climate, local food production contributes to community resilience, while wildlife corridors allow animals to migrate unimpeded in response to environmental shifts.
As land trusts, alongside other facets of society, reconcile with systemic inequality, the focus on improving access to natural resources for all people is given priority along with landscape-scale conservation within the selection approach for projects. Community-enhancing projects are also eligible for state funding, in the form of Great Outdoors Colorado grants provided through lottery tax revenue, for example.
In regards to community-driven conservation, Stewardship Director Dave Erickson referred to AVLT’s humble beginnings. The organization was founded in 1967 to save pocket parks from development in Aspen, beginning with Freddie Fisher Park at .13 acres (see the humble park’s musical namesake in action as Colonel Corn at www.bit.ly/FreddieFisher).
The recently-acquired, 141-acre Coffman Ranch will serve as AVLT’s “ambassador land,” a working ranch owned by the organization with elements of habitat restoration and new public access to the Roaring Fork River. A master plan detailing how the property will serve for outreach is currently in process.
Upcoming opportunities to engage with Aspen Valley Land Trust:
Springfest, May 22, BBQ picnic at Strang Ranch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Cocktails at Coffman Ranch, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 22, and again on August 18.
Learn more at www.avlt.org