As the real estate boom swept downvalley from Aspen in the early 2000s, Billy Grange’s phone was ringing off the hook.
His family’s cattle ranch near Basalt had been handed down from his grandfather, who bought it in 1916, and has been kept more or less in the same condition since. Valley residents would recognize it as the cow-pocked pasture along Highway 82 just west of the Big-O-Tires complex.
Developers had been eyeing the ranch as an ideal subdivision site, and lobbying Grange to sell it.
One eager buyer, from California, had pressured him so much that, in frustration, Grange named a price he thought was so astronomical it would get the developers off his back. Instead, the next morning, a limo pulled into the Grange driveway, parked outside of Billy’s barn, and the man from California emerged with a check made out to Grange for $5 million.
It may have seemed like an offer he couldn’t refuse for the 246-acre cattle ranch, but Grange did. He opted instead to place the land in a conservation easement and keep it as a working ranch. Pitkin and Eagle counties, the town of Basalt and Great Outdoors Colorado through its lottery ticket-funded open space program, bought the easement for $5 million, which the Granges used to buy another ranch and expand their operations.
“I wish conservation easements had caught on 20 years ago,” Grange said, adding if he had sold out, the pasture along Highway 82 would be filled with houses built by an out-of-town developer. “Maybe we could save some more of the ranches.”
An easement is a legal agreement that allows land to stay under private ownership and control, while it assures the land will be conserved in perpetuity. The Grange easement is held by Pitkin County and the Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT), which won’t be selling to any limo-driving, check-wielding developers.
The Grange story, and dozens like it, are retold in the new book, “Our Place, Too: More People and Conservation in the Roaring Fork and Colorado Valleys,” written by AVLT director Martha Cochran with photographs by Castle Creek resident Lois Abel Harlamert.
Easements have kept some of the most historic ranching families from Aspen to Eagle working the land. The land itself also often tells a gripping story: the prehistoric rock art on a Silt ranch, the coke ovens of Redstone, the untamed acreage surrounding the Ziegler Reservoir where more than 4,800 prehistoric fossils were unearthed in 2010 — all preserved through conservation easements.
Founded in 1967, AVLT is the oldest such trust in Colorado. The nonprofit organization has helped landowners preserve over 34,000 acres of working family ranches and open spaces in the Roaring Fork and upper Colorado River watersheds. The group has aided conservation efforts in Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle, Mesa and Gunnison counties. AVLT is funded through grants and donations.
Up and down the Roaring Fork Valley today, conservation easements provide the boundaries where development ends and where much of the public’s open space begins. Cochran points out that the sprawl of Basalt ends at the Grange ranch, for instance, and that the Stein family’s easement provides the stopping point for development on McLain Flats Road.
Cochran argues that the unique easement approach to conservation is effective and mutually beneficial to the public and to private landholders — allowing landowners to retain control of their land for uses like ranching, compensating them for not selling to developers, while preserving open space for wildlife habitat and scenic values.
The strategy proves less pricey than outright land purchases for taxpayer-funded programs like Pitkin County’s open space fund and the proposed Garfield County open space program that’s going to voters next month. With easements, they don’t have to compete directly with developers.
“Our Place, Too” tells both the stories of the land itself and of the often colorful families who have worked it.
The book is a sequel to 2008’s “Our Place,” also featuring stories written by Cochran and photos by Harlamert. The new book tells new stories — 45 in all — of people, many of them ranchers, from families that have been on their land for generations.
“The roots are deep and their stories are vast and varied,” Cochran writes.
As she learned about the history of these families and their land, stretching back into the 19th century in many cases, Cochran said she was amazed by how interconnected the people of Colorado and the Roaring Fork Valley once were. While today the Rifle and Aspen’s communities rarely mix — and even Glenwood Springs and Aspen can seem divided — ranchers had neighbors and tight-knit relationships spanning mountain passes.
“We think about ranches being isolated now,” Cochran said. “But they really never were at all.”
These families had — and many still have — tight-knit relationships from trips on horseback rather than by highway.
“The ties between communities are often limited by political divisions or social differences,” Cochran writes. “But for those who lived here 50 to 70 years ago or longer, there was much more interaction. They considered everyone in the region their neighbors, and they regularly traveled throughout the valleys to visit and do business.”
The books actually spawned from Harlamert, who pitched the idea to AVLT and has spent the last six years logging thousands of miles to meet the people and shoot the land that’s been conserved through easements.
After “Our Place” came out, the AVLT board made the shrewd decision to give a copy to every office in the area with a waiting room. So, valley residents waiting for an eye exam or a knee scope often end up learning why huge swaths of local land are still home to cows instead of subdivisions.
The books’ publications were both underwritten by Obermeyer Asset Management, owned by AVLT board president Wally Obermeyer. Sales of the book support AVLT.
Their hope is to expand the conservation ethic in the Roaring Fork and Colorado watersheds by telling the story of the land and the people who chose to leave it alone.
“Those who make the choice to conserve land do so because they care about the future and they care about the land — for them, the two are inseparable,” writes Cochran.