With a war chest of a quarter-billion dollars, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails looks to the future with local agriculture and enhanced biodiversity.
Environmentalist, visual storyteller and hometown hero Peter McBride shot these stunning images of the Elk Mountains.
Dale Will is effusive, his arms spread wide, like the famous Christ the Redeemer statue outside Rio de Janeiro. “This is the future of open space in the valley,” he verily roars.
Will is not hiking along the popular Rio Grande Trail or sitting next to the Roaring Fork River sipping a cold cerveza. He is not standing in the middle of an expansive tract of terra firma that has been spared from development by the prescient insight and big bank account of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, for which Will has worked for 19 years.
He is, rather, knee-deep in a potato field located within the boundaries of the 105- acre Wheatley Open Space, acquired by OST in 2015.
It is an impressive potato field, to be sure. But a few acres of spuds, destined to be used to make vodka at the Woody Creek Distillery, do not meet the stereotypical image most people have of institutionalized open space.
But to Will, the notion of incorporating food production into OST’s operational philosophy is but one example of forward-thinking enlightenment that has defined this taxpayer-funded program since its inception in 1990.
“The landscape has fed humans throughout their history,” says Will, OST’s acquisition and special projects director. (He used to be the director, but “promoted” himself to a lesser position because he wanted to spend more time in the fi eld and less time behind a desk.) “Th e National Young Farmer’s alliance now says one of the biggest obstacles to young people getting into farming is access to land. Open-space programs can address this issue by acquiring land and making it available to local agrarians. As for the voters, feeding people off of a conserved landscape gives them a ‘two-fer’—their bodies and their spirits are nourished by it.”
“OST must be doing something right on both the functional and public relations fronts as its funding—to say nothing of its very existence —was resoundingly reauthorized for 20 years by Pitkin County voters in 2016, to the tune of a quarterbillion dollars,” says Will. That reauthorization underscored a fundamental social reality: The concept of dedicated open space is as intertwined with the social DNA of Pitkin County as are skiing, classical music concerts, lectures by Nobel laureates and fi ne dining.
Will is of the firm belief that the future of OST will be defined to a large extent by existential realities that, while applicable to the Aspen area, will not be exclusive to it.
“The population of the Roaring Fork Valley is expected to increase significantly in the next 20 years, same as the rest of the world,” he says. “We see a greater percentage of the population living without automobiles and getting around on our trails, one of which will run from Carbondale to Crested Butte and another from Aspen to Ashcroft. I think use of electronic bikes will become more widespread on some open-space trails as people try to economize their transportation.”
Will is of the opinion that the farm-to-table movement will become a bigger culinary reality in Aspen’s restaurants as more open-space acreage is dedicated to food production.
“One of the original purposes of the open-space program was the protection of agriculture,” Will says.
At this point, OST manages 680 acres of leased agricultural land spread over six parcels—numbers sure to increase in short order.
Agricultural land, according to Will, tends to be high-value, irrigated bottom land along two of the Valley’s major rivers: the Roaring Fork and the Crystal.
Will predicts greenhouses will eventually become part of the open-space landscape to extend a relatively short high-altitude growing season into the winter months.
Tim McFlynn, a member of OST’s board of trustees, thinks that, in addition to an increased focus on agriculture, much of the organization’s future lies along the front lines of the science of biodiversity.
“In 2016, we adopted a strong biodiversity policy that, during the reauthorization process, was made into a mandate,” McFlynn says. “Now, everything we do is governed by the effects our various programs might have on the natural world. As the valley grows, there will be more human impact. We hire ecological consultants who make sure all our decisions are science-based—everything from trail building to seasonal closures to protect wildlife. Part of our charter is the building and maintenance of trails, but not at the expense of our biodiversity.”
According to McFlynn, OST’s original mandate was based to a large extent on the prospect that if some entity with deep pockets did not step up to the plate, the entire Roaring Fork Valley would one day be wall-to-wall development.
OST’s historic mission is facing something of a conundrum: Sometime in the near future, there won’t be any more significant parcels left to add to the inventory.
At that point, OST will likely focus more on linking parcels to establish continuity and wildlife corridors. “We might see wildlife migration bridges built over Highway 82,” McFlynn says. “I don’t think we will deviate from our original mission, though, and that is to protect view corridors and agricultural lands from becoming housing developments and golf courses.”
“Open space is so important because land is sacred,” Will adds. “We have a common interest in seeing it healthy, and the private marketplace is dismal at protecting it. Having a community fund to save the important elements of the landscape is a hallmark of an advanced society.”
Will understands there are people who think OST is at least partially responsible for the high real estate prices in the Roaring Fork Valley because it locks up so much land that could otherwise be developed into housing projects.
“Would those same people think we should build wall to wall?” he asks rhetorically. “The land is finite and the finiteness creates the high value. The question is whether we save some of it before we hit the limits.”
PHOTOGRAPHED BY PETER MCBRIDE