Tiny Ophir works to preserve its beauty

The residents of Ophir, Colo., love their mountain views so much they’ve managed over the years to turn prime real estate into permanent open space.

Now the Ophir Valley Project is seeking to preserve another 1,200 acres of private mining claims scattered in the hills above town before developers have a chance to swoop in and change the nature of this scenic valley.

“Working to preserve these claims has been a grassroots effort that the whole town is behind,” says Ophir Mayor John Gerona. “The mining already scarred the land once, and people’s opinion up here is that putting residences on those sites is not an improvement.”

The town is getting a big boost from the Trust for Public Lands, a national conservation organization that taps the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which comes from oil and gas revenues, to buy private land and return it to public open space. An initial buyout is expected to close soon, officials report, and then the land purchased will be conveyed to the Uncompahgre National Forest. Purchasing the 1,200 acres is expected to cost between $2.5 million and $3.5 million and will likely take several years to complete.

Today the secluded town of Ophir is blissfully missing the hotels, restaurants, mansions, art galleries and coffee shops crowding the streets and hillsides of nearby Telluride.

In fact the town is all residential and has no commercial zoning. But it does have a nearby post office, conducts regular town meetings and features world-class backcountry skiing and rock-climbing.

It also sits along the popular Ophir Pass four-wheel-drive route, and has easy access to Highway 145.

For the future, it is literally what’s on the horizon that worries residents.

Privately held mining claims perched on the valley sides can be hot property for second homes and swank vacation villas, the new gold rush for the West.

But the hustle and bustle that accompanies construction and development threatens the scenery and simple mountain living that Ophir’s 175 residents cherish.

“We see on mesas elsewhere where people put up fences that keep people out and keep animals from migrating freely. To us it doesn’t seem right to build houses on these mining claims that are surrounded by wilderness,” Gerona says.

Growth is always a concern in mountain communities. Telluride — a ski lift away, as the joke goes — is booming, expanding its ski resort ever closer to Alta Lakes, right next door to Ophir.

“We definitely feel that pressure,” Gerona said. “We’re in a quiet little valley that is a 20-minute commute to Telluride, and that looks pretty good to people considering land prices over there.”

Ophir also has grown, going from 35 people in 1989 to 175 today. But it is their collective conservation ethic that has kept the area pristine. Financial and volunteer support for open space, even outside town boundaries, has kept the valley free of ridgetop homes that mar local views and block access to public lands.

“Ophir has an active open-space program, funded with town tax revenues,” said Nancy Craft, former open-space director for the town. “It is an important issue for us.”

The open-space money was used to purchase wilderness in Waterfall Canyon, in cooperation with willing landowners and a local land trust, the San Miguel Conservation Foundation.

Before agreeing to sell that land for open space, owners had considered building mansions and opening a private ski hill there, complete with a helicopter for a lift. That vision didn’t sit well with locals, who regularly hike that terrain and ski down.

“The people of Ophir do not want to see development on these claims, so the town itself has been buying them up for the last 15 years,” Craft said. “These 1,200 acres are the last big stumbling block, because the town is small and could never afford to buy all these claims. That’s why it is so wonderful that the Trust for Public Lands is interested in brokering the deal to the Forest Service. They’re like an altruistic realtor.”

The agency is hard at work in the San Juan Mountains because of a mining legacy that left private inholdings strewn throughout. The Ophir Valley Project is one of a few ongoing programs in the area and it is making good progress, said TPL project manager Hillary Merritt.

The first purchase involves 111 acres adjacent to town that have been identified as the most vulnerable for development because of old mining roads in the area and level terrain, she said. Negotiations for that Phase 1 purchase price are moving forward, pending ongoing appraisals.

“It is our intent to get the best deal for the public as possible, but we also pay fair market value,” she said, adding that funding looks positive for the initial purchase.

Most of the 1,200 acres are owned by Glen Pauls, a local who has expressed willingness to conserve his land by negotiating a price with the Forest Service.

“Ophir has had a good relationship with the Pauls,” Craft said. “They feel preservation is the best use for their land and that is very admirable.”

Such “conservation sellers” are ideal for federal buy-out programs, Merritt said. Other mountain towns are not as lucky, often battling inholders selling out to the highest bidder, or who hold the land hostage for outrageous exchanges for public land elsewhere.

To control this trend San Miguel County recently created a high-country zone in its land-use code to limit home size on mining claims and prevent road-building to remote ones.

In Ophir, it is the long-term commitment by residents to protecting the environment that made the difference, Gerona said.

“It takes years, decades, but we got a lot accomplished because of volunteers. And once it gets going, more and more people realize why this beautiful valley is worth saving.”

From -September 2007.