The gamble for open space

by Nelson Harvey, Special to the Aspen Daily News

Gambling, as it turns out, has been a good investment for Pitkin County.

As millions of Coloradans have bought scratch lottery tickets and played Powerball, MegaMillions and other Colorado Lottery games over the last 20 years, the county has gotten about $11.7 million back from the lottery in the form of grants for open space preservation, public parks and other amenities.

The money comes in the form of grants from lottery-funded groups like Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), which receives half of all lottery proceeds each year, as well as the Conservation Trust Fund, which gets 40 percent, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, 10 percent.

In Pitkin County and neighboring Garfield County, grants from GOCO in particular have played a linchpin role in several recent public projects.

“Pitkin County isn’t necessarily a hotbed of players, but the proceeds that have gone into the county over the years are substantial,” said Brooke Christopher, marketing and communications manager for the lottery. “Aspen is a place that has utilized a lot of lottery funds.”

Between 2009 and 2012, Christopher said, retailers in Pitkin County sold around $2.5 million in scratch tickets, less than 1 percent of the lottery’s statewide proceeds for that period. (Scratch tickets are far and away the lottery’s most popular product, accounting for around 70 percent of sales).

During that same four-year period, open space and recreation projects in the county received nearly $3.4 million from GOCO grants alone, according to the lottery group’s records.

Of that amount, $600,000 went toward the purchase of the 145-acre Saltonstall property in Emma in 2012. The property, which lies just outside of Pitkin County boundaries and was purchased in partnership with Eagle County and the town of Basalt, contains riparian areas, trail access to the Crown recreation area, and roughly 50 acres of irrigated pasture where a caretaker now raises alfalfa.

“Pitkin County is going through a planning process on how they want that property to be used, and they’ll be asking for public input on that,” said Josh Tenneson, GOCO’s open space manager. “It’s a valuable piece of agricultural property.”

In 2011, GOCO pitched in $2.5 million to help preserve the 845-acre Sky Mountain Park between Buttermilk and Snowmass Village. The total cost of the project was $17 million, and Pitkin County contributed $11 million, with Snowmass Village, Aspen and the Aspen Valley Land Trust paying the rest. 

The lottery was founded in 1982. This past year, it earned $545 million, gave away nearly $350 million in prize money and put $123 million toward grants across the state.

Although many states use their lottery proceeds to fund causes from education to road improvements, Colorado puts a particularly high proportion of its funds toward the outdoors.

“We’re fairly unique as a state in that regard,” Christopher said. 

The distribution of lottery funds stems from a voter-approved 1992 amendment to the state constitution. Since then, GOCO alone has contributed more than $773 million in lottery proceeds for nearly 3,500 projects in all 64 counties throughout the state, according to the group’s website.

Projects are evaluated based on their urgency, the level of public support and the ability of local governments to support them going forward.

Pitkin County and the city of Aspen have a built-in advantage in the grant application process, since each has a 1.5 percent tax (a property tax in the county, a sales tax in the city) whose proceeds go toward preserving open space.

“From an open space perspective, not every community has dedicated funding that comes from local sources,” said Tenneson. “When we see that, it allows us to leverage our money further.”

Although the most recent round of GOCO grants, announced in early June, didn’t include any projects in Pitkin County, neighboring Garfield County made out pretty well.

GOCO announced it will contribute $28,000 to Rifle Gap State Park to defray operating costs, and the group also donated nearly $400,000 to the Aspen Valley Land Trust to help the nonprofit purchase a conservation easement on 528 acres of the West Elk Ranch north of New Castle.

That 1,000-acre property lies between the Grand Hogback and the Flat Tops Wilderness, and consists largely of irrigated agricultural land, according to Tenneson.

“What’s the public benefit of protecting that land?” he asked. “Tens of thousands of tourists pass that property every year on their way to state parks nearby, so it’s valuable just to preserve those views.”