An ‘ambassador’ for the larger conservation mission: Aspen Valley Land Trust’s protection of historic ranch anchors a unique habitat, speaks to future open space needs @AspenJournalism

An ‘ambassador’ for the larger conservation mission
AVLT’s protection of historic ranch anchors a unique habitat, speaks to future open space needs. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Curtis Wackerle):

The next decade is seen as perhaps the most critical yet to determine how much of the remaining unprotected lands in the Roaring Fork watershed will be preserved to support biodiversity, open space and public access, in the face of increasing pressure from climate change and development.

At 141 acres, the acquisition in August of Coffman Ranch, located east of Carbondale off County Road 100, stands out for the kind of preservation effort that the environmental community hopes to see going forward, exemplary as it is of remaining intact lands and critical conservation values.

The property, sold at a discount by longtime ranchers Rex and JoAnn Coffman to Aspen Valley Land Trust for $6.5 million, has been a working ranch for more than 100 years. Although about 80 acres of the property consists of irrigated meadows used in the spring and fall to raise cattle by local rancher Bill Fales, much of the rest of the site is more wild in character, with 35 acres of wetlands. It includes three-quarters of a mile of Roaring Fork River frontage along what AVLT Philanthropy Director Jeff Davlyn described as the most uninterrupted, biodiverse riparian corridor between the river’s confluence with the Colorado and Aspen’s North Star Nature Preserve.

An ecological inventory conducted on AVLT’s behalf lays out a total of five vegetative communities and two wetland types identified on the ranch property, supporting a wide array of plant, animal and fish species. While evidence of the impact of grazing is evident, the riparian habitat is still found to be in “excellent condition,” according to a draft of the study.

“The uniqueness of the property is the spatial distribution and mosaic of productive habitat types based upon vegetation communities and the extensive edge habitat they create,” says an ecological assessment from Carbondale-based firm DHM. “The combination of riparian forests, shrublands, grasslands/pasture and wetlands provides a surprisingly high richness of wildlife (particularly avian species) for the size of the property.”

AVLT — which remains in the midst of a yearslong fundraising campaign to secure a total of $14 million to cover the purchase price and development of a management plan, as well as to fund ongoing improvements and operations — sees Coffman Ranch as an “ambassador” for a larger conservation and public-engagement mission, according to Suzanne Stephens, director of the nonprofit.

“It’s manifest of where we are needing and wanting to go. It’s a big step,” she said of the acquisition of the site, which is located roughly 1.5 miles east of downtown Carbondale and can be accessed via the Rio Grande Trail.

The irrigated pasture of Coffman Ranch, shown here in August, has extensive and senior water rights. That’s one of the reasons Pitkin County helped fund the purchase with $2 million in open space funds.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Bringing the public over the fence

Although habitat protection, open space and continued agricultural production are the key values driving the acquisition, public access for limited managed recreation and educational use are also important components.

How these values and uses play out will be subject to the prescriptions of the management plan, a process expected to take at least until mid-2023. A conservation easement held by Pitkin County guarantees some form of recreation access no later than 2025. While there is currently no public access to the site pending the development of the management plan, AVLT staff is arranging tours for those interested in taking a look. Land-trust officials have discussed the potential of establishing a recreational trail that could be open for hiking and nordic skiing, accessing the river and other portions of the property, but subject to seasonal closures. It is also expected that the parcel will be used as an outdoor classroom serving 26 schools located within 15 miles of Coffman Ranch.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

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