Summit County’s open space program remains aggressive |

Summit County’s open space program remains aggressive

Summit County acquired 129 acres of Mayflower Gulch, pictured here, back in 2009 as part of its ongoing Open Space & Trails program. In 2016, three properties have already been purchased through this same means, with more projects already in the works to protect the area's mountain characteristics.
Bob Berwyn / Summit Daily |

A primary reason for living in Summit County is almost certainly the picturesque scenery and vast recreational options. Even if you don’t live here, the same surrounding natural beauty is more than likely what motivates a visit.

This premise is what acts as the guiding principal for the origin of Summit County’s Open Space & Trails Department, now into its 20th year. The goal of the program is to protect and preserve the natural habitat and backcountry mountain personality to provide all those one-of-a-kind experiences and activities that keep bringing people here. The program’s roots stem from merely wanting to sustain what makes the region so special.

“We were basically killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” said Brian Lorch, director of the county’s Open Space & Trails. “You’d go out, and that trail you were using since you’ve been here has got a fence across it. People also saw the pace in which development was happening. Our environment is what our entire economy is based on, the ability to go out and recreate.”

Annually, this department, in partnership with a citizen-appointed Open Space Advisory Council, locates some of the top available pieces of land throughout the county to recommend for purchase, on which the Board of County Commissioners then reviews and takes action. On a yearly budget of approximately $1.25 million as funded by a mill levy that allocates property taxes for this sole purpose, the county acquires an average of a property per month, pursuing residents’ mandate to maintain the place they live, work and raise their families.

“They understand the importance of preserving the mountain character that we all call home,” said County Commissioner Thomas Davidson. “It’s not just the need to protect the environment, that habitat, but also our ability to guide where development doesn’t happen. That was probably a big part of why this was so popular and why voters have renewed the funding for us several times over the years.”

present projects

In 2015, the county spent more than $400,000 on 20 transactions that netted nearly 90 acres of land for designated protections, for wetlands, recpath easements and permanent public access points. And in 2016, with several projects still under ongoing negotiation, three purchases totaling about 67 acres have been made for $280,000.

Specifically, those three projects are: the Northstar Mountain Claims near Hoosier Pass (24.25 acres, $121,000); Terrible Lode on the front side of Baldy Mountain (5.16-acre mining claim, $40,000); and most recently Jumbo Lode northeast of Montezuma in the backcountry off Peru Creek Road (38.79 acres, $119,000). Purchases like these are made to provide continued trailhead access to hikers, bikers and so on, sustaining panoramic views by precluding construction by private landowners and cleaning up abandoned mine sites to prevent metals and debris from entering nearby waterways.

Often in joint efforts with the town of Breckenridge, which has a robust Open Space & Trails program of its own, acquisitions are recommended to the county commissioners and made based on seven criteria: access, agricultural and cultural, buffers, extensions, recreation, uniqueness and visibility.

“It really is just kind of protecting the character of Summit County, the scenic backdrop,” said Lorch. “The goal to make sure someone doesn’t put up a ‘No Trespassing’ sign on these favorite trails that people would believe are on national forest but are not. It’s a struggle in a lot of these mountain communities that were mined because that’s the way they laid out the mountain landscape.”

But in essence, if its land with access to trails or other public recreation points, contributes to the community’s past or identity, that connects presently owned parcels and/or scenic quality that contributes to the distinctive nature of the area, the county wants it. The properties are also occasionally viewed as assets to trade with the U.S. Forest Service for other open spaces and overall land-management strategies that benefit both entities.

“The issue is that the Forest Service land-trade process, the last one took about 12 years,” continued Lorch. “The Forest (Service) can’t go and buy properties; they just don’t have that ability, with a few exceptions. So we’re creating that ability for them to. It’s a way to kind of recycle the money and meet two goals at the same time.”

In the two decades of the open space program’s existence, it has secured more than 100 trailheads around the county. While that may not seem like that many given the amount of time, in neighboring counties such as Park and Grand — which are similar to Summit in that upwards of 80 percent of the area is made up of federal lands — that don’t have open space programs the number of trailheads can be counted on one hand because large public areas are not accessible due to being closed off by private properties.

Tricks of the trade

To make land available, the open-space program is also equipped with the ability to put on conservation easement agreements with willing landowners. That is, if a private owner does not want to sell their property but wishes for it to remain as is in some capacity, or needs to offload some amount of the land for whatever reason — property taxes, other costs, etc. — the county can offer notable tax breaks to ensure a portion is accessible for public use.

A primary example of this approach includes Shadow Creek Ranch in the Lower Blue region of Breckenridge. The owners desired developing a portion of the 5,500-acre parcel of land — the largest ranch in all of Summit County — but also wanted to preserve the natural habitat. As a result, a conservation easement was made with the landowner, and significant tax credits were provided to them, with the county gaining the benefit of entry points for its needs.

Sometimes the county will do this through Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) grants, which come from the state’s lottery funds. Doing so requires permanent protections of these lands, but accomplishes the same goal to simply safeguard long-term access.

Other times the county will work with a land trust organization such as the Continental Divide Land Trust (CDLT). This nonprofit works with landowners through donations and fees for its services to create similar conservation easements so all may use the property for recreation and the like. How the land gets designated really just comes down to how the landowner wants to handle the property.

In the occasional instance, the county will also undertake what is known as a bargain sale. In this rare circumstance, an appraisal comes in much higher than, say, the county believes it is worth (or at least is willing to pay), so the owner accepts the lower price and donates the other portion of the value for tax breaks.

However the county has to accomplish its aims, it is willing to explore all avenues to acquire or shelter the spaces that make Summit County what it remains today. Doing so preserves pristine lands, provides access to a vast (and growing) system of trails, and ensures protection of both wildlife and rare vegetation.

“Look around you,” said Lorch, “this is what the people like and what the people want. Here is the outdoors, and, if there were a light and a home on every one of these mining sites, it’d be a different place. A lot of the wildlife values would be gone, you’d see a lot of homes and lights, and it wouldn’t be the same thing that we’ve all come to love.”

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