Preserving a precious piece of Steamboat | SteamboatToday.com

Preserving a precious piece of Steamboat

— Now that we’ve rounded the corner of Dec. 1 and the last month of 2001, it’s not too early think about what lies ahead in 2002. As eager as I had become for this week’s snowfall, November’s hikes up Emerald Mountain in record warmth will help sustain me through a winter that could last into May.

A growing legion of locals are making frequent hikes or bike rides up the back side of Howelsen Hill to Emerald Mountain. From its shoulders, they gain views of Mount Werner that resemble what one would see out the window of an airplane. It’s hard to imagine that all that stands between Emerald Mountain and development is a small group of local volunteers and elected public officials who serve on the Emerald Mountain Partnership.

One thing that’s become abundantly clear as we near the end of 2001 is that there is fresh hope in the year ahead for the community’s efforts to conserve Emerald Mountain. Further, there are encouraging signs the residents of Routt County shouldn’t have to go it alone if it becomes necessary to spend $17 million to get the job done.

It was almost exactly a year ago that the members of the Emerald Mountain Partnership heard the news that the State Board of Land Commissioners had voted to accept its bid to spend the next four years searching for ways to protect the 6,400 acres that lie just to the southwest of the city of Steamboat Springs.

The land board manages 3 million acres of public land granted to Colorado by the federal government upon its statehood in 1876. The lands are dedicated to generating revenue for the state’s schools. The land board has a constitutional mandate to manage the lands to maximize revenue for the schools. But in fact, the $30 to $40 generated by the public trust funds represents just one-half of 1 percent of state appropriations for public schools. And state appropriations are just half of school budgets statewide.

Historically, the state lands were leased for grazing, but unlike other public lands, the leases on the state school trust lands excluded public recreation. Escalating real estate prices in Colorado have changed what constitutes profitable use of hills covered with grass, sage, aspen and scrub oak, and the land board began to see that livestock grazing does not represent the highest possible yield from the land.

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In some cases, it has sought to sell tracts of land near resort areas like Steamboat and use the proceeds to purchase larger parcels elsewhere for traditional grazing.

Recognizing this trend, the voters of Colorado acted in November 1997 to amend the state’s constitution to set aside 10 percent of the school trust lands in a “stewardship trust” intended to protect some of the most desirable open space in the land board’s portfolio from development. Emerald Mountain was placed in that trust. But Amendment 16 didn’t afford full protection; instead, it raised the number of votes needed to sell the stewardship lands from three of five commissioners to four of five.

It turned out Emerald Mountain wasn’t as safe as we would have hoped.

Late this year, the land board’s practices in carrying out land transactions have been revealed to be puzzling and inexplicably favorable to developers at best.

In at least two cases in Eagle County, and other cases in Pueblo and Chaffee counties, the land board sold public parcels to developers for far less than the going rate.

One case in Eagle County went to the Colorado Supreme Court before Gov. Bill Owens was able to find an obscure statute that allowed his administration to kill the deal.

How ironic is it then that the land board is demanding a not-for-profit group of conservation buyers in Routt County pay the full appraised price for a precious piece of open space in the heart of one of the state’s busiest resort areas?

The good news received by the Emerald Mountain Partnership last November was that it had been granted an option to purchase the 6,400 acres.

If that was the good news, the bad news was that the land had been appraised in 1998 at $17 million. The local not-for-profit was going to have to find a way to come up with that money to stave off any plans by the land board to sell the dramatic tract of land overlooking Steamboat Springs for development.

Things have changed in the past 12 months.

First, people at the highest levels of state government are now aware that the State Board of Land Commissioners is badly in need of reform.

Second, two members of Colorado’s congressional delegation are pushing a bill that would expand the permissible uses of state trust lands all over America to include preservation of open space.

And finally, Colorado voters approved Referendum A this year. It allows Great Outdoors Colorado to issue up to $115 million in bonds to act promptly to preserve key pieces of Colorado’s undeveloped lands, before the opportunity is lost forever.

The Emerald Mountain Partnership bought precious time when it secured a four-year option to buy the public lands on Emerald Mountain.

But the political landscape has changed in the past year. And we should be in no rush to seek deals that would allow limited development on Emerald Mountain to help the partnership shoulder the unrealistic burden of leveraging $17 million.

Hold on, help is in the offing.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.