The work done by the Continental Divide Land Trust can be seen throughout Summit County - you just might not realize that you're looking at it. A private, non-government organization, CDLT works to preserve open space and natural land in Summit County through preservation agreements, stewardship and public education.CDLT is a nonprofit organization that has been around since 1994, when a group of residents got together with the aim of conserving the natural area around the county from development. One of the main ways it does this is through stewardship of conservation easements.A conservation easement is when a landowner, whether a private individual or an entity such as a town or county government, sells or transfers over developmental rights to a qualified organization, such as CDLT. "The land stays under private ownership of that particular land owner, but they've given up certain of their property rights - their ability to further subdivide the property or mine it or commercial timber it," said CDLT executive director Leigh Girvin. "Each property's different, so each property has different conservation values."In order to become a conservation easement, the land in question must demonstrate "significant conservation values," which CDLT helps to determine based on rules laid out by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is involved because of the varied tax benefits available to a landowner who grants a conservation easement.Scenic views and preservation of surrounding natural beauty are of high consideration."If we don't protect the beauty and the natural resources of our county and this beautiful place that we live, then why will other people want to come here?" said Howard Carver, CDLT board president and full-time Silverthorne resident. "So it's not just the aesthetics, but I think there's an economic element to what we do in that if we don't keep this as a viable good place for people to come, then how do people that live here prosper?"Another factor is wildlife habitat and wildlife migration corridors, whether for large animals like moose and elk or smaller creatures like foxes, weasels, birds and insects. This undeveloped, natural land also provides a place for natural vegetation to grow, such as wildflowers. "Natural land is where flowers grow that the pollinators need, it's where water is absorbed that replenishes our aquifers, it's where trees grow that provide oxygen that we breathe. We need natural land," Girvin said. CDLT is currently in charge of 14 easements, totaling 2,600 acres. Some of the easements allow public access with trails, while others are on private land and closed to the public. However, each of the easements, whether private or public, provides a benefit to everyone, said Girvin, whether by bolstering wildlife through habitat preservation or by offering beautiful scenic views, among others.
Another important focus of CDLT is providing education to landowners and the community at large about the tools, options and reasons for conserving natural land and open space.In the past, CDLT has offered professional education courses on conservation easements. One class focused on water rights, which are sometimes a part of the responsibility handed over to CDLT with an easement. Another educational component CDLT provides is walking tours of easements."It's a very important part of our mission," Girvin said, of education. "People aren't going to care about protecting open space and natural lands if they don't know about them. So one of the things that we do is we offer tours to connect people to the land."The next tour, scheduled for Saturday, will take interested parties around the Cobb and Ebert Placer, an easement east of Breckenridge and part of the Golden Horseshoe area. CDLT has determined that it contains the densest concentration of natural resource value within the area."It's intact," Girvin said. "It's a wetland (with) beaver ponds, willows. It's what the French Gulch Valley looked like before the dredge boats came through and destroyed everything. So it helps us re-create, in our mind, what that whole valley might have been like."Anyone can join the tour and dogs on a leash are welcome. After this, the next tour is planned for March 23 at Iron Springs, an area near Summit High School.
Like any organization, CDLT faces obstacles that make it difficult to attain its conservation goals. The main one, according to Girvin, is lack of resources."There are never enough resources for land conservation. Whether it's land that you want to buy to protect it because it has some important natural quality, or to be able to hire additional staff because you want to engage youth, or you want to get involved in bird habitat, or whatever," she said.According to Girvin, CDLT is supported entirely by private donations. The events and classes they sponsor help bring in some money but most of it comes from the generosity of individuals. Another obstacle faced is the pace of development in Summit County. Open spaces are constantly in competition with housing and commercial developments, roads or other related expansions. The Iron Springs easement, for example, is facing one such challenge, in which the Colorado Department of Transportation has expressed interest in Highway 9 exchanging places with the recpath that runs through the middle of the easement. This development is still in the negotiating stage, with nothing yet confirmed and tentative plans for a public open house in the summer, but Girvin said that a positive outcome seems possible. "It's looking like it's going to be able to move forward as a win-win, for the community and the open space and the recreation experience," she said.
To really see the impact of the work of CDLT, one has to know where to look. The organization does not post any signs at its conservation sites or easements, so there is no man-made aspect of any kind to indicate that a particular part of land is protected by the CDLT."One of the challenges about our work is that it's what you don't see. It's what isn't there," Girvin said. She gives the example of an easement in Frisco near the reservoir and Water Dance. "You don't see condos, because they're not going to be there. You see the wetlands, you see the reservoir. That's an impact of our work."