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Conserved ranch looks to future

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At the end of 2020, a conservation easement that had been in negotiation for more than five years came to fruition. Sunfire Ranch, over 1,200 acres near the confluence of the Crystal River and Thompson Creek, sold a $10M conservation easement to Pitkin County Open Space and Trails (PCOST). Support also came from Great Outdoors Colorado.
The process was led by PCOST Acquisition and Special Projects Director Dale Will. In an interview, Will said, “Our goal is to look at the conservation values of a property, which break down into four potential categories: habitat, agriculture, scenery and sometimes recreation. The big ticket on the Sunfire Ranch, from the open space perspective, is the habitat. There’s 1,200 acres there and a lot of it’s up on those hillsides that are critical winter range for deer and elk right at the mouth of Thompson Creek Canyon.”
While the Roaring Fork River Valley has a lot of public land, it’s often at high altitudes, as the valley bottomlands were largely privatized during the homestead era.
The Sunfire Ranch conservation easement is one of the most complex that Will has ever worked on. A typical model for PCOST is when the landowner wants to conserve their ranch for agricultural use, with small carve-outs for homesites for their descendants. In the case of Sunfire, however, while the ranch has been in the Sewell family since the original homestead document was registered in 1893, the Sewell family themselves have not actively ranched in about 50 years. Current farming on the property is done by lease-holders, Wild Mountain Seeds, and cattle-grazing activity is also performed by lease-holders. The Sewells sought with this conservation easement to build in entrepreneurial flexibility that gives them, and future generations, choices for how to be economically viable: from an outfitting operation, to an event venue, to an education center, to a gravel operation, to expanded farming and ranching activities.
“What Jason inherited is a lot of beautiful habitat with a relatively small amount of irrigated pasture, so he really had to be more creative,” explained Will. “None of us can really predict what this valley is going to be doing in 50 years or 100 years.”
For PCOST, a big motivator in purchasing this easement was to protect wildlife habitat from development. In the 70s, Bob Sewell subdivided the ranch into 29 lots. That subdivision took place before Pitkin County adopted zoning for the Crystal Valley, a tool that is now used to guide development into concentrated urban growth boundaries. Each of the 29 lots had rights for 5,750 square feet of residential development.
“If you picture the development pattern like at Brush Creek Village up above Cozy Point, where you’ve got houses and lights all strung up and down the sides of the hillsides, something like that could have happened with that whole mouth of Thompson Creek Canyon if we hadn’t gotten this land under the conservation easement.” Will continued, “You would have been able to see the lights up on the hillside from Carbondale.”
In addition to merging the subdivided lots to prevent development on the hillsides, the easement tied the ranch’s Thompson Creek water rights to the property. The family did reserve the right to sell six small residential lots down near highway 133, but not visible from the road.
Now that the conservation easement is done, the Sewells are looking at next steps. They plan to invest some of the purchase price into new businesses approved in the easement.
As Sewell said, “We’re transitioning into implementation of our master plan. Through the conservation easement we had to dream up all the possibilities. That process was really a 30,000 feet, 125-year view, looking long-term. Now we’re stepping back and saying, okay, how do we implement this big dream in a responsible way? And what do we actually want to try to accomplish in the next 10 years?”
Consultant Connor Coleman of Resiliency Lands, who helped shepherd the project, explained, “Selling a conservation easement to Pitkin County was an approach that we took to develop capital, but how do we continue to use that capital to make money? We want to be an example to other private ranches — here’s how you can be profitable on a ranch, as times are changing… Diversifying, doing things like agritourism, events, is what is going to be necessary to be sustainable, keep it in the family and not sell it off because you just don’t have any options.”
Jason Sewell continued, “I think that all of the family ranches eventually face some of these hard economic questions for long-term viability and the capital that’s available through land sales… I hold the ethos that I’m just borrowing it from my grandkids and so it’s my job to manage it the best way that we can in our time here.”
The easement does not include any public trails or public recreation opportunities, and some in the community have expressed confusion at such a large investment of public funds into protecting private land.
“If people want to breathe and drink and eat, then they need to be concerned about the protection of open lands,” argued Will. “Whether agriculture is happening on private land or public land, we think that achieving as good of local food reliance in this valley as possible is good for all of us. A few years ago there was a shutdown on I-70 and within about one day there was no fresh produce left in the grocery stores. I think we need to protect every scrap of functioning agricultural land in the valley that we can. Fifty years from now we may not be able to truck food around the way we are now.”
When asked what he sees as the next conservation priority, Will remarked, “Aspen Valley Land Trust has done some mapping showing where the most valuable farmland in the Roaring Fork Valley is — it tends to be downvalley. It’d be nice if Garfield County had land use policies that were geared more to protecting agricultural land. I know they’re trying, but their zoning is still fairly lenient about subdivision.” Will continued, “The irony is that the most valuable unprotected farmland in the Roaring Fork Valley tends to lie in the one county that doesn’t have a funding mechanism for acquiring the conservation easements or buying the land.”
Footnote: The author would like to acknowledge that according to the Carbondale Historical Society, the land that is the subject of this article was once part of a Ute Nation reservation, until their removal by the United States government in 1880.

Tags: #conservation #Dale Will #History #Pitkin County Open Space and Trails #Sunfire Ranch
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