Vail Valley’s Hardscrabble Ranch open space deal also means recreation | SummitDaily.com

Vail Valley’s Hardscrabble Ranch open space deal also means recreation

Randy Wyrick and Krista Driscoll
rwyrick@vaildaily.com

EAGLE — Toby Sprunk is nervous these days.

Sprunk is Eagle County's open space director and is riding herd on the Hardscrabble Ranch purchase. It's close, but could still fall apart if a $3.1 million Great Outdoors Colorado grant doesn't happen. GOCO is expected to announce its decision on June 15.

The project took a huge step forward at 3:30 p.m. Friday when a complicated water rights deal was confirmed, said Tom Macy with The Conservation Fund.

Sprunk is optimistic, but still nervous.

Eighty days away

The 1,540-acre Hardscrabble Ranch went under contract with The Conservation Fund on Jan. 9 and is 80 days from closing, Macy said. The county enlisted the real estate, engineering and legal expertise of The Conservation Fund, a national conservation organization, to handle all of the moving parts of the deal — and there are a lot of moving parts.

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Macy and Christine Quinlan with The Conservation Fund have been working to hammer out the water rights. They've been up the Brush Creek Valley before, when they negotiated the East and West Brush Creek extensions for Sylvan Lake State park.

"The water rights are complex and very technical. It's especially complex in the Brush Creek Valley. There's a spider web of ditches," Macy said.

The water rights for Hardscrabble Ranch go back to the mid- to late 1800s, Macy said, and they are quite valuable to the land and its future as a productive ranch. The land is only worth its $15.5 million price tag with those water rights. Now that the rights have been secured, the next key step is the GOCO grant. GOCO receives proposals from all across the state, and this one is for $3.1 million. GOCO turned down Eagle County during the last funding cycle, but invited it to resubmit this time around.

"If the GOCO grant comes through, we're rolling on toward the closing, which is July 31," Macy said.

The Eagle County commissioners this week gave the green light to spend the county's entire open space fund to purchase the ranch — $9 million. Sprunk said it replenishes at around $4 million a year.

Macy said the town of Eagle has pledged $600,000 and the Eagle Ranch Wildlife Committee is kicking in another $700,000. That totals $10.3 million.

Though the funds from GOCO would potentially be committed on June 15, the actual money wouldn't come through until the end of the summer or later, Macy said. That's where The Conservation Fund again comes in, providing the remaining $5.2 million to get the pot up to the purchase price, closing on the property and temporarily holding the title to the ranch.

Once The Conservation Fund has worked with the Eagle Valley Land Trust to establish a conservation easement on the land, it will collect the $3.1 million from the GOCO grant, along with another $2 million from various organizations such as Eagle County Wildlife Impact Fund, Eagle Valley Land Trust, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and others, to cover its loan and convey the title to the county.

Voila, a big, beautiful ranch conserved as open space for your children's children's children.

Macy said he is impressed with the local support for the project. Eagle is committing its entire open space fund for the next several years. So is Eagle Ranch.

"It's important for local people not to sit around and wait for government to do everything," Macy said.

The plan

Hardscrabble Ranch has been a working ranch since the late 1800s, when the area was homesteaded. Unlike most of the open space fund's other big ranch acquisitions, you'll be able to run and jump and play on Hardscrabble.

Not everywhere, mind you, because it will still be a working ranch.

"We're buying a ranch. That's first and foremost," Sprunk said.

If the stars align and this deal gets done, then Sprunk said the county would spend 2018 working out the kinks with a rancher, who will lease the property. The recreation part will follow throughout the next few years.

There will be hiking and biking trails, some picnic areas and some fishing access. The fishing access will be limited because Brush Creek is a big deal, but not a big creek.

"It's not like there are thousands of fish per mile like there are on the Colorado River," Sprunk said.

The land is winter range for deer and elk and includes 2.5 miles of riparian habitat. Recreation trails through the area would be closed in the winter, as they are in many of the county's open space parcels.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Timeline for acquiring Hardscrabble Ranch

• Tuesday, May 9 — Eagle County Commissioners approve $9 million in open space funding

• Friday, May 12 — Water rights for the property are secured

• Thursday, June 15 — Great Outdoors Colorado announces grant decision

• Monday, July 31 — Hardscrabble Ranch closing

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