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Saving the Old West

CO - Drive down White Hill Road in Carbondale and look east. You’ll be treated to a beautiful vista, reminiscent of the Old West and uninterrupted by the signs of development that have become common in this part of the state.
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Saving the Old West


Breaking traditions

Drive down White Hill Road in Carbondale, CO, and look east. You’ll be treated to a beautiful vista, reminiscent of the Old West and uninterrupted by the signs of development that have become common in this part of the state. Stretching before you is Carbondale’s East Mesa – 3,000 acres of working ranchland and wildlife habitat that connect to the public lands at the base of snow-topped Mount Sopris.

Perched on this mesa hanging over Carbondale, is the cattle ranch of John Nieslanik; land that has been in his family since 1957 and ranched since 1890. Mr. Nieslanik’s ranch was important enough to the Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT) that the organization broke with its 38-year tradition of only accepting donated easements and purchased the easement on the ranch for $1 million. The easement, which represents 5 years of hard work by the land trust and the family, preserves 166 acres for ranch and open space.

John Nieslanik and his four sons
John Nieslanik (center) and his four sons
Photos courtesy Aspen Valley Land Trust

Why did the land trust break their tradition and purchase the easement? Suzanne Fusaro, a project specialist with AVLT explains, “We’ve always done extremely well with donated easements. Neighbors talk to neighbors and work with us to assemble a critical mass of conserved land. This was a unique circumstance, because if the Nieslanik land was developed, there was a good chance that all of the 2,500 acres of private land on the mesa would be developed.” The agricultural viability of the East Mesa depends on all of it being available for ranching. 

Assessing the mesa’s fate

Although the East Mesa is divided into multiple ownerships, its fate must be addressed as a whole. If one property were to be developed the agricultural viability of the remaining properties would be seriously jeopardized.

The money for this project has been raised by a number of sources, including grants from the U.S. Department of Agricultures Farm and Ranchland Protection program, Great Outdoors Colorado, the Colorado Conservation Trust, The Environment Foundation of the Aspen Skiing Co. and River Valley Ranch homeowners.

Joining together to protect communities, way of life

Conservation easements are playing an increasingly important role in helping ranchers and farmers hold on to their land in Colorado. Faced with soaring property values and intense development pressure, land owners are turning to easements as a way relieve tax burdens and keep land in families. In 2005 AVLT completed 40 conservation projects which protected 3,600 acres. AVLT calls it “domino effect conservation” – neighbors joining together to place significant parcels of working ranch land under protection. Once one piece of land is protected, others fall into place, preserving land important to the community, as well as its way of life.

This is exactly what land trusts have long strived to do, bring local people together to protect the lands that are significant in their own community. To find a land trust near you, be sure to visit the Land Trust Alliance’s Find a Land Trust section of their website.

According to Fusaro, AVLT goal is to help ranches stay operational.  “We’re hoping to give them the best shot possible by keeping the agricultural community intact,” she says.

by Mary Ellen Kelly

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