The Pitkin County commissioners next week will consider authorizing the purchase of a conservation easement covering 1,222 acres of ranchland at the mouth of Thompson Creek in the Crystal River Valley for $8.9 million and the $1 million purchase of a 36-acre agricultural parcel in Emma.

The purchase of most of the iconic, 1,240-acre Sunfire Ranch at Thompson Creek would eliminate potential development on the ranch’s high ground — the ranch has 29 existing development rights established in the early 1970s — where important wildlife habitat exists, and protect agricultural resources, says a press release from the county’s open space and trails program.

“Rather than 29 lots spread across the heights of Thompson Canyon, we would end up with six lots clustered in a location that is outside critical habitat and shielded from view along Highway 133,” said Dale Will, the program’s acquisition and special projects director, in the release.

Helping fund the potential purchase would be $1 million from Great Outdoors Colorado and $100,000 from the Aspen Valley Land Trust, which would co-hold the conservation easement.

The county has been negotiating the Sunfire Ranch conservation easement since 2015, Will said.

“The Sunfire Ranch easement would rank among other significant conservation deals to protect large ranches in Pitkin County,” he said. Others include the Grange Ranch near Basalt, Cold Mountain Ranch in the Crystal River Valley and Crown Mountain Ranch in Emma.

The actual purchase of the easement would occur after the landowner secures approval of an open space master plan for the property from both the open space board and county commissioners. That action is anticipated this summer. The basic terms of the master plan, along with the price of the easement, have already been established, Will said.

While the approved master plan will finalize the details of allowed development on the ranch, the terms that have been negotiated allow six free-market homesites on 15 acres that can be divided off the ranch and establish an 18-acre gravel-extraction area for an existing operation. The contract allows the county to eliminate the gravel operation and replace the homesites with a single, 10-acre family compound for an additional $2.2 million.

Within the compound, five homes, each with an accessory dwelling unit and each limited to 4,000 square feet in total, would be permitted. Under this scenario, the family compound would remain on a single parcel that would be owned in common with the ranch as a whole.

The $1 million Emma land purchase involves the Payne parcel off Emma Road, which, if approved, would add to the roughly 1,100 acres of agricultural land in the immediate vicinity that have already been protected through a combination of open space land purchases and conservation easements, including the 10-acre Grace Open Space parcel adjacent to Grace Church. The county finalized that $600,000 purchase on Tuesday.

The irrigated Payne parcel is adjacent to BLM lands at the foot of the popular Crown recreation area and serves as winter elk habitat.

“In fact, a herd of elk was spotted on the Payne/BLM border when the open space and trails board visited the property on Jan. 3, and it was evident the animals had bedded down on the property,” the release says.

The land is also next to the Crown Mountain Ranch conservation easement, which protects 559 acres of private property. The open space department intends to analyze the Payne property’s habitat values and may then seek an agricultural lessee to use the land in a manner that is sensitive to wildlife needs. The ordinance to be considered by commissioners also allows the county to consider selling the property to an adjacent ranch, but with a conservation easement in place to eliminate development and restrict use of the parcel to habitat and agricultural purposes.

The commissioners will discuss the purchases on Wednesday. For more information, contact Will at dale.will@pitkincounty.com or 970-618-5708.