STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - Drive away from the ski area on County Road 29, and you will find yourself shaded by cottonwood trees growing along the rushing Elk River. After a few miles the narrow gorge opens out to a view that may be unique so close to a ski area in the West.
As far as you can see - five miles across the valley and its rolling uplands - verdant hayfields spread beneath hills of gambel oak, aspen and spruce. A few ranch buildings dot the landscape.
But there are no subdivisions, no vacation homes. If the ranchers of the upper Elk River Valley have their way, there won't be. Ever.
"At night you drive around the corner at the schoolhouse, and you look up here and you see one light," says Jay Fetcher, sitting on his porch and looking south across his parents' 1,300-acre ranch. "If we can maintain or eliminate that one light 20 years from now, that would be pretty nice. And it's possible."
How? With conservation easements, which allow ranchers to sell the right to develop their land. His efforts have won the affable and articulate Fetcher a "Smart Growth" award from Colorado Governor Roy Romer, and have mobilized some local ranchers and politicians against the wave of development emanating from one of the state's busiest ski resorts.
Yet success is far from assured. Though the valley's ranchers recently signed an unusual voluntary compact which could protect the valley from developers who want to carve the land into ranchettes, little land is protected yet. And some ranchers are balking at the specifics of the plan as they, like other ranchers in Routt County, struggle with the idea that preserving their way of life means forgoing some property rights.
A ski resort is born
Ranchers first settled the Elk River Valley in 1881. In 1949, John and Criss Fetcher arrived from Philadelphia and bought their property. When John teamed up with three partners in the 1950s to build ski runs on what is now the Steamboat Springs ski area, he started an avalanche of growth that ended in a sobering irony for the Fetcher family. The growth spawned by the resort they began now threatens the very ranching culture they want to preserve (see story page 10).
With homegrown Olympian Billy Kidd, the dashing, cowboy-hatted downhiller, as its poster boy, the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. has become a regional economic force. Today the company counts more than a million skier days annually. Housing prices in Steamboat Springs, where half of Routt County's 14,000 residents live, are heading the way of Vail and Aspen. Average three-bedroom homes sell for well over $200,000.
Still, Routt County maintains a healthy ranching community, with 50 full-time ranchers and 16,000 head of cattle. Ranch-related activities comprise a small but solid 6 percent of the local economy, and residents and tourists alike seem committed to maintaining them. Nine out of 10 people surveyed in 1993 said they believe that ranch meadows and grasslands with grazing cows and horses enhance their lives.
The seeds of private land conservation were sown in the early days of a real estate boom which started in the late 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Steve Stranahan, an heir to the Champion sparkplug fortune, bought 4,000 acres in the Elk River Valley to protect his 500-acre Home Ranch - now one of the most luxurious and spectacular dude ranches in the nation.
"Once we built the ranch," says his partner, Ken Jones, "we realized a lot of the quality of the ranch had to do with the aesthetics of what people didn't see here: lots of homes."
But Stranahan couldn't afford to buy the valley floor's remaining 8,000 acres. He approached the Fetchers with an idea they had talked about a decade earlier - limiting land use with conservation easements. Then he introduced the family to Marty Zeller, president of Denver-based Conservation Partners Inc., one of the most experienced conservation planners in the West.
Giving up condos for cows
During a year of discussions facilitated by Zeller, landowners quickly discovered a strong common bond: Everyone wanted the valley to remain essentially unchanged.
The details of achieving their goal fell to Washington, D.C.-based American Farmland Trust, which introduced the ranchers to the two central truths of conservation easements: Donating an easement strips land of its development potential and keeps it in agriculture. But it also strips it of a good deal of its market value (see story page 13).
This is a frightening prospect to ranchers, who customarily see their property as their retirement fund.
If conservation easements sound like they have overtones of elitism, they do. If they appear to neuter the rugged individualism of the Western rancher, they do. But their benefits extend beyond saving scenery and lifestyles. In the Fetchers' case, conservation easements would cut the estate taxes owed by Jay and his three siblings upon their parents death from $325,000 to zero. This is because the appraised value of the ranch would drop from $2.1 million to $1.07 million.
With the Fetchers leading the way, the Elk River ranchers produced the "Upper Elk Valley Compact." The non-binding, one-page vision statement proposes "protective development" to preserve the valley's ranching heritage.
It encourages landowners to reserve a few low-impact building sites for future sales, and to place the rest of their property under conservation easements. The few building sites - perhaps 50 in the whole valley - will be more valuable than ranchettes because the overall landscape will stay intact. If a rancher wants to sell, the compact encourages him or her to find like-minded buyers. The document also calls for new, affordable housing for ranch employees near the Clark Store, in the center of the valley.
All parties agree that the voluntary nature of the compact is critical. But at this point, common ground is more prevalent than protected ground.
The Fetchers have donated an easement on their property, and Steve Stranahan has done the same on the 900-acre Whitmer Ranch, but landowners who once indicated they would give easements are hesitating. Even Stranahan is holding back on The Home Ranch and the 2,000-acre Murphy-Larson Ranch.
Fetcher estimates easements are likely on about 5,200 acres of land - roughly half the valley floor. He's not sure about another 2,800.
Owners of the 4,000-acre Chew Ranch at the head of the valley say they simply can't afford to donate easements.
"There's an initial excitement about these things," says Zeller, "and then (comes) the reality of the tough issues each of these families has to address."
Fetcher acknowledges conservation easements are a tough pill for many ranchers to swallow. "The people most interested in conservation easements are deep-pocketed people from outside the state," he admits. "There is a stigma there."
Still, Fetcher insists his fellow ranchers need to consider what they want the land to look like in the future and whether they want to give their kids a chance to continue ranching. "We've got to realize that one of our property rights is the right to give some of them up," he says.
As for rich outsiders, says Fetcher, they will inevitably be players around resorts, "so you might as well find those with good intentions who want to save the land."
The county steps in
Following on the heels of the Elk River Valley's work, Routt County undertook a land-use planning effort for the entire county. The plan, yet to be fully adopted, recognizes the same hard truth the Elk River ranchers are wrestling with: The bottom-line in land preservation is money.
If the public wants open space preserved, it has to compete for it on the market, often against developers. The most effective way to do that - a technique that a few, more urban areas like Boulder County, Colo., have begun to use - is to purchase development rights.
The county's draft land-use plan estimates Routt County needs to raise $1.25 million to $1.5 million annually for 10 or 20 years to have a shot at meaningful preservation of open space through purchased development rights. Whereas open land in south Routt County sells for $700 an acre, land threatened by development near Steamboat Springs goes for $10,000 an acre and up. The development rights are the difference between the appraised value at the current maximum zoning and the appraised value as agricultural land.
To an outsider, the idea that the public should subsidize a handful of ranchers just to keep them on the land might seem ridiculous. Why should the public spend money protecting land they can look at - but not touch?
"I really think the public looks at ag as their recreation and open space," says Jay Fetcher. "We need to be compensated for that."
Why shouldn't the county simply buy the land outright?
For starters, says Zeller, maintaining land is expensive. Ranchers will often do a better job of keeping down the weeds and maintaining the property than a public agency. Also, buying development rights can often be much cheaper than buying title to the land, he says.
Paying a rancher a handsome sum of money for his development rights can also have a ripple effect in the local economy, says Zeller.
"Most ranchers don't take their (development rights) money and run to Florida," he says. "They plow it back into their operation; they pay off debt, buy new equipment or build a barn. This benefits the local feed store owner, the veterinarian, the equipment dealer. If you lose that critical mass of ranchers, these other guys will be gone too."
But more important, says Zeller, many people in rural counties in the West, who already have vast tracts of public land in their back yards, are adamant about maintaining private lands in private hands.
"Keeping a working landscape says something about your community and its commitment to quality of life," Zeller says.
Whether the public is willing to pay to preserve land remains to be seen. The question will appear on the local ballot in the fall of 1996. Possible funding sources include property or sales taxes, a tax on land sales profits, and a development impact fee.
In the meantime, both the city of Steamboat Springs and Routt County have put up $125,000 for a pilot project to buy development rights. Zeller says he hopes the state will match the $250,000 with money from lottery proceeds.
Zeller says $500,000 could buy development rights from two ranchers and let ranchers and other residents "give it the smell test." If the aroma is pleasant, Zeller hopes more funding will follow.
"If we could buy development rights for 15 ranches in Routt County, that would really send a message," he says. "It would change people's perception that development is inevitable."
The county's plan goes beyond buying development rights to protect open space. Routt County commissioners approved in June a "land preservation subdivision" law to fight ranchettes. If a landowner agrees to cluster development, meet special design criteria and keep the balance of the property in open space, he or she will be allowed to build one extra house per 100 acres.
Under the new law, the city of Steamboat Springs recently acquired two parcels of land totaling 115 acres that will remain undeveloped forever.
Routt County seems to have all the tools needed to save its ranching community: some forward-thinking ranchers, planners, a deeply concerned and affluent public, and the support of the major economic force in the area, the ski resort.
But will these be enough to prevent it from becoming another highly developed Aspen or Vail? Routt County planner Ellen Crain says a number of Californians have recently moved to the area; Aspen refugees have also been poking around.
"It becomes a less desirable place if all you have is the billionaires and the people who don't speak English in the kitchen," says Crain. "If you've got to import the cowboys for the rodeo every Friday and Saturday night, you've lost something."
In the Elk River Valley, ranching may go on, but despite the desire to avoid change, change will come. The homes to be built among the hayfields will be expensive and exclusive, which bothers Jay Fetcher. Some of the ranchers themselves may turn out to be tenants, working their cows on a costly vacation property held by an absentee owner. Elsewhere in Routt County, some lands will be preserved even as others are subdivided, creating a patchwork where there now is open space.
It won't be perfect, and it can't be what it is now. But it will be less of what it might have been, because some people tried to look ahead and agree on where to go.
"People ask me why I didn't sell out and move to Nebraska," says Jay Fetcher, as a sandhill crane stalks slowly across a distant field. "I don't think you can run away from it."
Hal Clifford writes from Aspen, Colorado.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:
- Rancher John Fetcher recalls his years of ranching in the Elk River Valley