Replacing the pick and hoe
By Caroline Dunmire
Dove Creek over the Fourth of July holiday observed its 50th anniversary this year.
Pick ’n’ Hoe celebrates the uranium miners and bean farmers of the Dove Creek area. Who are the workers that will be celebrated 50 years from now, and which resources will they be developing?
The economy of Southwest Colorado is shifting from traditional land-based resources such as logging, mining, and agriculture to a service/tourism base. What are the resources that support this new economy? And could they explain some of the recent demographic trends that the area is experiencing, such as “amenity migration”?
Instead of people moving here for a mining job or to return to the family farm, people are immigrating because this is an affordable place to live — and beautiful to boot. Scenic beauty and world-class recreational opportunities have become more than a side benefit of life in Southwest Colorado — they are actually drawing people to the area much as uranium mines and farmland once did.
Now, for the first time in our history, we must manage our land use and development to preserve and protect these resources or our community may not have cause to celebrate them in the future.
From picks and hoes to TDRs
As these new resources have very different characteristics than ore deposits or farmland, developing and managing them requires different tools than a pick or a hoe.
Existing land-use planning and zoning regulations can protect some of these resources by limiting the types of development allowed in certain areas.
However, scenic beauty and recreation are not usually listed as specific land uses worthy of protection. The closest local regulations come to that is provisions in land-use codes that protect a landowner’s “solar access” and prevent a neighbor from building a tall structure that would shade surrounding properties. So new tools had to be created to manage these new resources.
Transferable Development Rights (TDRs) limit development in the Dolores River Valley and will help to preserve those sweeping riparian vistas. Conservation easements held by Montezuma Land Conservancy preserve agricultural land uses and the pastoral views area residents have grown to love.
The local bike club and gun club are working together to manage state and federal land to accommodate a shooting range and mountain-bike trails.
Community-based planning groups such as the McPhee Recreation Plan Committee and the Dolores River Dialogue are evaluating water-recreation resources.
This diverse set of efforts has one common theme – they are all grassroots, community-based initiatives that were instigated jointly by concerned residents, landowners, and government officials.
“Bringing a diverse group of interests together can create polarization,” said Mike Preston, Montezuma County Federal Lands Program coordinator and the facilitator for many of these community planning groups.
“However, if you get them working to find and protect common interests, they will discover innovative solutions together.”
Preston has found that the key to using a community-based approach for resource management is to include the whole spectrum of interests and ideas in the process. He said diverse working groups have several advantages:
- They get people talking who would normally not interact.
- They allow new ideas, alliances, and common interests to unfold so that participants can discover innovative solutions.
- They build a strong base of support for the resulting recommendations or solutions.
Saving the Dolores River Valley
An example of community-initiated planning that resulted in an innovative solution for protecting scenic beauty as well as water quality is the Dolores River Valley Working Group.
The group was made up of concerned landowners in the Dolores River Valley who spent most of 2003 searching for a way to manage development in the valley while keeping agriculture and protecting property rights for landowners.
Although the members considered amending county zoning regulations, according to Preston, who facilitated the group, “Zoning was rejected because variances could adjust desired land-use patterns and would not necessarily compensate landowners for preserving scenic beauty and nondevelopment.”
After more than a dozen meetings, the group decided on a solution that met most of their common interests and allows development in the river valley: the use of Transferable Development Rights.
The working group developed a plan that provided one development right per 10 acres in the valley. In other words, a single home could be built on 10 acres; someone who owns 50 acres has the right to five homes, and so on.
If someone owns more land than he wants to develop, he can sell (transfer) the development rights to someone else. Thus, a person with 100 acres could theoretically sell 10 TDRs. That would mean the original landowner could not then develop those 100 acres, but the buyer could put 10 additional homes on his land.
Fundamentally, TDRs cap development in the Dolores River Valley at an average of one home per 10 acres. TDRs protect scenic beauty in the valley by compensating landowners who choose not to develop their property but rather to preserve the existing open viewscape. They also help keep farmers and ranchers because they create another asset that can be traded or sold if they keep their land in agricultural production.
TDRs became part of the Montezuma County Land-Use Code in 2003.
Donating scenic beauty
Landowners in Montezuma and Dolores counties have been voluntarily preserving scenic beauty since the late 1990s by donating conservation easements to the Montezuma Land Conservancy.
Nina Williams, co-director of the MLC, has found that “voluntary land conservation is a good fit in our community because is it not regulatory, it respects private property rights by keeping conserved lands in private ownership, and the land stays on the tax rolls.”
Chuck McAfee, a Montezuma County landowner who donated a conservation easement on his family’s acreage, recognizes easements as a way “to maintain and nurture the preservation of agriculture and open space in the region.”
Williams explained that a conservation easement is a contract between a landowner and qualified easement holder such as a land trust or other organization like the Rocky Mountain Elk foundation that conserves land in perpetuity. The easement specifies permitted uses and restricted uses on the property.
For example, the easement might specify that the property could not be subdivided or that no roads could be built. Rather than transfer development rights to another property, conservation easements extinguish development rights to protect conservation values such as farm and forest land, scenic open space and natural habitat.
No two conservation easements are alike, and the specific details depend on the landowner’s interests and the physical characteristics of the property. As a charitable donation, conservation easements have state and federal tax benefits for the landowner. The value of the donation is appraised according to the difference in the value of the property if it could be developed and the value if it cannot.
In Colorado, landowners who donate conservation easements receive an income-tax credit based on the value of the donation. As this can result in a sizable tax credit that may be larger than the landowner could use, the state allows landowners to sell this tax credit to other individuals or businesses looking for a tax break.
A $4.5 million grant
At the end of 2004, MLC had assisted landowners with almost 5,000 acres in donated conservation easements. But, as Williams observed, “As a relatively undeveloped region of Colorado, there is a unique opportunity in Montezuma and Dolores counties to protect prime properties, not just what is left over after development.”
This opportunity was recognized by Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), which recently granted MLC $4.55 million as part of a larger grant designated for land conservation and recreational improvements along the scenic 236-mile San Juan Skyway.
The MLC plans to leverage the GOCO grant to acquire conservation easements on properties in the Dolores and Mancos River valleys that have important riparian habitat and good agricultural land, and are adjacent to public land or private land with development restrictions on it.
The GOCO grant has expanded the MLC’s options for acquiring conservation easements to include purchase rather than relying solely on donations. Currently, the conservancy is in negotiations with five landowners regarding conservation easements with a total value of approximately $11 million.
The GOCO grant will only bring the MLC halfway to the potential purchase price. The conservancy plans to raise matching funds to make up part of the deficit and to work with the landowners to purchase the easements at “bargain” prices. In essence, even with the GOCO grant, the landowners will be donating a good part of the conservation easement.
“MLC is a quality partnership between its members and landowners,” Williams said. “Landowners give a great gift to the community when they donate their conservation easements and MLC members support this work through annual contributions.”
The Four Corners area is blessed with a multitude of recreational opportunities, including hiking, skiing, biking, fishing, and boating. Just as some ore deposits are richer than others, there are rich deposits of world-class recreation in this area.
World-class, in this case, refers to recreational opportunities that are considered among the best in the world because of difficulty, uniqueness, scenic beauty, or proximity to population centers.
There are several major mountainbiking areas in Montezuma County, and the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir offer high-quality water recreation. Like scenic beauty, these resources are being developed and managed by partnerships between local recreation groups and federal, state, and local land managers.
Moab isn’t the only place on the Colorado Plateau with world-class mountain-biking. The greater “Dolorezuma” area with single-track trail systems such as Phil’s World, Sand Canyon, and Boggy Draw is consistently listed in the top mountain-biking destinations for Colorado and the Southwest.
Why would anybody ride their bike at a place called Phil’s World? Because, according to a review in singletracks.com, “There is nothing exceptionally technical, just really fast and fun. . . This is a great track, and more than worth the drive from Durango.” And if you peruse the license plates on the vehicles parked at Phil’s World on a warm spring weekend, riders are coming from a lot further than Durango.
Phil’s World trails are located on land managed by the Colorado State Land Board and BLM. The Kokopelli Bike Club, a local mountain-bike club headed by Dani Gregory, holds the recreation lease on the State Trust Land and is responsible for fencing and maintaining this area.
How did a small-town bike club come to hold the lease on a premiere mountain-bike property? By working with the gun club, of course.
Guns, rims, and steel
Shooting and cycling are not normally considered compatible uses for land unless you are experimenting with some new form of biathlon.
But that isn’t the case with Phil’s World. Located at the base of the popular mountain-biking area is the shooting range for the Four Corners Rifle and Pistol Club, another State Trust Land leaseholder.
According to Gregory, one key to the bike club’s success in obtaining a State Trust Land lease and creating a safe, “fast and fun” trail system was the members of the bike club who are also members of the gun club.
“They acted as liaisons between the groups and allowed us to understand the lease boundaries and how we could cooperate to best manage the land for both uses,” she said.
Gun-club and bike-club members worked together on routing the mountain- bike trails and fencing the shooting- range boundaries to create the necessary buffer zones between the two.
As neighboring leaseholders, the bike club and gun club have similar interests in seeing that State Trust Land is well-maintained and respected so both recreation uses can continue.
The Kokopelli Bike Club also works with the U.S. Forest Service and BLM to develop and maintain the other mountain- bike trail systems in the area that are on federal lands, such as the Boggy Draw area north of Dolores. The club helped with trail-mapping for the Boggy Draw Trails Project and commented on the management plan.
“We have tried to eliminate the ‘us versus them’ attitude when working with government planners,” Gregory said. “We are lucky to have some really talented people in the region and they are doing the best they can with very limited planning resources.”
The future of water recreation
Two groups, the McPhee Recreation Planning Committee and the Dolores River Dialogue, are working hard to come up with ideas for developing sustainable water recreation.
Economic-development reports for Montezuma County nearly always include a recommendation concerning the “under-developed water recreation resource” at McPhee Reservoir, the second- largest reservoir in Colorado. The McPhee committee set out to address the situation.
According to its recommendations report, the MRPC is “a collaborative group of public land and resource agencies, citizens and local governments working to improve recreation on and around McPhee.”
The group’s primary goal is to “ensure that a viable marina is operating at McPhee.” By pooling resources, the MRPC funded a marina feasibility study completed by a national consulting firm and is working to implement those recommendations as well as the group’s.
The Dolores River Dialogue started as a roundtable discussion group with representatives of every conceivable water interest, including the Dolores Water Conservation District, which manages McPhee Dam and the associated irrigation project, other irrigation companies, the state water board, wildlife managers, federal land managers, recreation groups, environmental groups, and other government officials.
The group agreed to a “Plan to Proceed” that creates two research groups that are considering water availability and scientific analyses for options to improve environments in the Dolores River downstream of McPhee. These research efforts are nearly complete, and the DRD will be exploring options later this year.
New party games?
With all these new resources being discovered, it may be time for some new events at local celebrations. Escalante Days features both a chainsaw competition and a mountain-bike race. Who knows? Maybe the 51st Pick ’n’ Hoe celebration will include a photo contest.
Carolyn Dunmire is a resource economist who has been part of the community for 10 years. A resident of Dolores County, she is a member of the DRD representing local boaters.