Citizens' group works to preserve Colorado's open land

The 3,200-acre site, a 40-minute drive west of here, holds some of the state's most beautiful land. Not too long ago, however, it was threatened with what, in Colorado, is high-density development. Pressure was building to turn Evans Ranch, acquired by the second territorial governor of Colorado in the 1860s, into two-acre homesites.

Colorado's population is growing at three times the national rate and is expected by the turn of the century to top 3.5 million in the front-range areas alone -- from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins. That's about 170 new residents a day moving into front-range communities from now till the end of the century.

In response to this growth and to Gov. Richard D. Lamm's Front Range Project -- a study to identify major issues facing the state in the next 20 years -- a group of businessmen set up an innovative citizens' group called Colorado Open Lands (COL). A nonprofit foundation, COL seeks to preserve open space in the state.

Last year the group bought the ranch from the heirs of John Evans, using borrowed funds from a private source. A method was then created for high-level preservation of the land through a thoughtfully crafted, minimal-development plan.

The overall ranch land was split into five ranches, each containing 560 acres. Each of these smaller ranches includes a 40-acre homesite for the owner, located to provide maximum beauty, privacy, and proximity to streams.

The homesites were carefully selected on moderate south-facing slopes in lightly forested settings. Each site is surrounded by superb natural beauty without being visible to one another. Also, they do not infringe on valley meadows or ridgeline vistas.

The remaining acreage in each of the 560-acre ranches is preserved for the benefit and enjoyment of all five owners through common-use covenants and cross-easements.

This unusual plan allows use of the property (except for the 40-acre homesites) for fishing, riding, hiking, cross-country skiing, camping, and other popular outdoor activities. Cattle-grazing operations also can be continued.

A portion of the total ranch acreage will be reserved for the historic Evans Ranch headquarters which will serve as the center of management operations and as a security checkpoint. Each of the five owners will have a 20 percent ownership interest in the association, which, in turn, will own the ranch headquarters property. Individual owners will also own 20 percent of the water rights.

The open and visually undeveloped character of the land will be assured by the use of protective covenants, agreed to by each ranch owner. Instead of driving into the mountains past miles of two-acre homesites, they will enjoy the same natural beauty and open mountain scenery their parents and grandparents enjoyed.

Three of the five individual ranches have already been sold. When the final two ranches are bought, Colorado Open Lands will have its invested funds returned and will then be in a position to acquire other selected land parcels.

A special tax benefit could accrue to each ranch owner who elects to preserve the total ranch property as an open-space and wildlife habitat which would render the land permanently free of any future development. This type of conservation easement could make it possible for the donor to take a charitable deduction against federal income taxes.

``The preservation of ranch land and wildlife is an integral part of the state's natural heritage,'' says Governor Lamm. Don Walker, president of COL, says the project proves that ``preservation can be achieved with private dollars.''

It could become a model program for groups in other states who are looking for a workable plan to preserve key open space within their states.

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