If it can be said that it takes a village to raise a child – meaning that it takes more than just the parents to develop a young person into a happy and productive adult – the same could be said for protecting our natural environments. It takes more than just one organization or one community to protect our open spaces and river environments – it requires a collaboration that accepts many hands.
In the Eagle Valley in central Colorado, American Rivers has partnered with the Eagle Valley Land Trust to expand and protect key open space lands along the Eagle and Upper Colorado Rivers. One of our valued partners in that effort is Matt Stern, the Land Stewardship Specialist at the Eagle Valley Land Trust. We recently were lucky enough to grab a few minutes of Matt’s time to learn a little more about the Eagle Valley Land Trust (EVLT) and the great work they do to protect rivers and open space in Eagle County.
Matt, thanks for taking the time to talk with us and thank you for your involvement in protecting the Eagle River corridor. I wonder about your background – did you spend a lot of time outside as a kid? What drew you to the work that you now do for the Eagle Valley Land Trust?
I grew up exploring western open lands and rivers in the West with my family. We were always looking for a new river to fish, a lake to paddle, or a mountain to climb. This enjoyment of wild places, coupled with a degree in Environmental Studies from Montana State University, inspired me to pursue a career in protecting rivers, agricultural lands, and open spaces.
That sounds like a great way to grow up! I can see how that would shape your interest in conservation. What do you do for EVLT and how does that fit into the conservation landscape of Eagle County?
Over 7,000 acres of open space in Eagle County has been preserved in perpetuity by the Eagle Valley Land Trust (EVLT) and its many partners. The Eagle Valley Land Trust itself currently has four properties under easement, protecting around 600 acres adjacent to the Eagle River. In total, we are protecting nearly 4 miles of the Eagle River corridor, ensuring that the Eagle will continue to welcome access for recreation, while supporting habitat for beavers, river otters, bald eagles and a local winter elk herd.
These places are what define our community, our economy, and our way of life.
Long-term protection of conserved land into the future is central to the mission of any land trust, and with each conservation project success there comes a permanent responsibility for preservation of those lands. One of the most beautiful and challenging aspects of land conservation is that the land is constantly in motion, changing with the seasons and the years, ever evolving. New noxious weeds sprout up, fencing deteriorates, floods change the course of rivers and streams, animals inhabit new areas, and social trails develop. It is a constant process and EVLT helps landowners address these complex problems to preserve their property. My position provides a toolkit of information and guidance for landowners in the face of these ever-changing conditions.
I know river recreation is very popular in Eagle County – how have you used recreation as a tool to build support for your conservation work?
Public access to our rivers and streams is a priority for our community. EVLT’s work supports recreation on public lands, particularly those owned by towns and Counties. Because the public can recreate on places like the Eagle River Preserve or Miller Ranch Open Space parcels, they support our conservation work. Our active, outdoor lifestyle in Eagle County and the Central Rocky Mountains revolves as much around our waterways as it does around our mountains. The Eagle River is a hub of activity for our residents and guests, and the river serves as a prime economic driver for our local outdoor recreation and tourism-based economy. Whether your passion is fly fishing, paddle-boarding, boating, rafting, kayaking, tubing, berry picking, bird watching, or simply enjoying a leisurely stroll while listening to the sounds of rushing water, there are some wonderful stretches of land and hidden gems that have been protected forever along the Eagle River. It is vitally important that we continue to protect and preserve access to our Eagle River for people – for ourselves, our future generations and our economic well-being.
I imagine that protecting a lot of these parcels takes coordination among many different stakeholders. How do you work with your community and elected officials to engage them in recreation and conservation initiatives?
Several marquee conservation projects led by The Eagle Valley Land Trust, in partnership with Eagle County’s Open Space Department, local municipalities, and our philanthropic investors, have preserved important lands along the Eagle River for the benefit, education and enjoyment of our locals and guests. EVLT and our conservation partners are excited about our positive and successful work to save the natural spaces and special places that provide public access to our rivers, creeks and streams.
Although Eagle County’s current leaders also care about permanently conserving important land to benefit the public, the Land Trust has no formal relationship with the County. The County and the Land Trust occasionally come together to collaborate on conservation projects in a couple of ways.When the County uses its dedicated open space funds to purchase land for conservation, the County may seek out a contract with EVLT in the same way that we may contract with a private property owner, because that contract ensures the land will be conserved in perpetuity.
How do you work with private landowners to protect parcels of land?
One of the ways a conservation project can come to our attention is when a property owner approaches the land trust with area parcel of land they are interested in protecting with a conservation easement, and an assessment is made about the conservation values that exist on that land. “Conservation values” has a specific legal meaning defined by the IRS and falls into four categories:
- Open Space
- Historic Preservation
The Land Trust evaluates every project a landowner may bring to us using these four criteria. If we find significant conservation values do exist and determine they are compelling to protect and preserve for our community, we will begin working with the landowner to apply protections to that land. We work with some landowners who may want to provide public access, and other landowners who don’t – either is okay.
EVLT has a number of privately-owned parcels along the Eagle River, including The Miller Ranch Community Open Space, which provides public access on 32-acres and over a mile (that’s more than 17 football fields!) of river frontage along the Eagle just east of Edwards. Additionally, the Eagle River Preserve is a 72-acre open space oasis in the heart of Edwards which boasts over a half-mile of public river access for our community.
In some cases, EVLT has helped landowners preserve their private ranches and farms, for the purpose of helping produce more local food. The results of this approach is that the community’s food is grown closer to home, is fresher and requires less energy to produce, and is holistically more sustainable. Preserving these farms also reduces water demands, increasing opportunity for our rafting and fishing experiences, while diversifying our local economy by retaining these sectors as population grows and development pressure increases. By protecting private land, EVLT and the community can continue to preserve its roots in ranching and other important local history into the future.
Is there a specific project that EVLT has worked on that highlights all the key components of furthering conservation and recreation goals?
For those who have travelled in Colorado along Highway 24 to and from Leadville, the wetlands habitats to the west of the highway (a few miles north of Leadville and just north of the old closed down gas station) are areas that will forever be protected.
The Taylor City Conservation Easement represents two different conservation values rolled into one. First, Taylor City represents a 19th century mining town that was part of the historic mining and railroad past of Colorado. This storied past is gone now and in Taylor City, as in other forgotten towns of Colorado, there are only a few foundations, relics and mining pits to remind us of what once were the “boom towns” that brought to our state many of the residents who helped create the Colorado we know today. Second, this conservation easement protects over 30 acres of land that includes the headwaters of the Eagle River and associated wetlands. The total acreage protected by the Taylor City Conservation Easement is 62 acres was conserved in 2003 through a collaborative effort of the Eagle Valley Land Trust and the Eagle River Watershed Council. Funding was obtained through Great Outdoors Colorado, Natural Resource Damage Funds and private funders.
The Taylor City conservation easement land is best described by its owner, Marjorie Westermann, who said:
I have lived on Tennessee Pass since 1978. I now have the opportunity to fulfill a dream by placing the entirety of Taylor Hill Placer under a conservation easement. I asked the Eagle Valley Land Trust to spearhead this preservation. The wetlands are a riparian paradise – home to busy beaver, muskrat, pine marten, ermine, mink and a host of birds including mallards, green-winged teal, lesser scaup, red-tail hawk, ptarmigan and owl. Until the ponds are snow-covered and frozen, brook trout look like a hailstorm at day’s end, catching bugs until dark when the bats take over. German brown trout swim gracefully in the ever-changing channels and chest-deep holes of pure streams. This is a watery landscape and feeding ground for elk and deer, where black bears are occasional visitors but still enjoy a drink. Coyotes howl from the abandoned railroad tracks across the meadow and fox are often seen playing, catching mice or looking in our windows.
Taylor City is one of several conservation areas held by the Land Trust that is under private ownership. While it is not accessible to the public with physical access to the property, as the headwaters to the Eagle River, it provides an incredible incubation environment for the river. It also helps provide the scenic panoramas and “visual access” that we all value so highly in Eagle County. Taylor City is an in-holding in the National Forest, and as a conservation easement, will remain preserved as an asset to the surrounding National Forest property in perpetuity.
There are nearly 1,700 land trusts nationwide doing exactly what we are doing. Over the decades, these land trusts have preserved over 50 million acres nationwide, an area about the size of Nebraska. By working together, groups like the EVLT and American Rivers have been successful at preserving open space, our heritage legacy, and clean water for wildlife, recreation, agriculture, and communities for future generations.
Thank you, Matt for taking the time to chat about the great work you are doing for the Eagle River – one of my favorite tributaries of the Colorado.
Do you have other questions to ask Matt? Interact with us on the community forum and get your questions asked there!