The Blossoming of an Open Space Project

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by Kristine Crandall, Roaring Fork Conservancy

In the heart of the Roaring Fork Valley, near Basalt, sits what is affectionately called the “Duck Pond,” a naturally occurring wetland alongside the Roaring Fork River. The combination of open water, wetlands, and cottonwood and willow habitat provides a haven for an array of wildlife, ranging from water birds to bald eagles to beaver. The value of this place was self-evident to the Roaring Fork Conservancy, a non-profit watershed conservation organization based in Basalt. But what wasn’t so clear in 1998, when the Conservancy started looking at approaches to protect the small area, was that the project would nurture itself, growing upward and outward from the wetlands centerpiece.

The Emma Open Space, which was completed in 2000, includes not only wetlands and river corridor, but an old town dump and an upland property representing the definitive link in a wildlife migration corridor between two public lands. The historic town site of Emma, which is still marked by a few remnant buildings, was located just down valley from the open space, and provided the perfect name for a project that identifies with the natural and cultural history of this part of the Roaring Fork Valley. After all was said and done, the project turned into a 74-acre, $1.75 million open space initiative.

What allowed the blossoming of the Emma Open Space was a strong set of project partners, a variety of leveraging tools, a landowner committed to conservation, community-focused visions for the open space, and a lot of hard work. In the atmosphere of incredibly fast-paced development of the Roaring Fork Valley’s river bottomland, the Emma Open Space project also carried a sense of urgency, a calling that brought these many partners and forces together.

The project partners represent a full gamut of interests and abilities. The Trust for Public Land assisted the Conservancy in formulating the project, negotiating with the landowners, providing the legal expertise to deal with the contracts, and pitching the project to other prospective partners. With this solid beginning, the Town of Basalt brought a new element to the project: the in-kind contribution of a parcel it owned, adjacent to the Duck Pond. The parcel turned out to be an old town dump — making for some unexpected and interesting environmental questions. It is perched directly uphill from the wetlands, providing an excellent overlook. Future plans are to undertake restoration activities and turn the overlook into a wildlife viewing area easily accessible both to school groups and the community at large. The significance of the Town’s involvement in the project’s evolution was the creation of an in-kind match, which would help garner funding.

After some additional discussions with the major landowner of the wetlands, the Conservancy learned that the same landowner held title to the large agricultural upland parcel just across the highway, which happened to represent a key piece of valley floor that has been historically used by deer and elk to cross between the public lands on both sides of the valley. This piece became the next addition to the project, allowing the landowner to fulfill the dream of leaving a legacy in the Emma area. The open space is dedicated in the memory of landowner’s father, Leonard Moorhead Thomas.

Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, a property-tax supported open space program, took a strong interest in the project, which fulfilled many of its priorities including preserving agricultural operations on the upland parcel, creating an open space buffer between the rapidly urbanizing hubs of Basalt and El Jebel, and protecting the deer and elk migration corridor between the Bureau of Land Management’s Light Hill and a Colorado Division of Wildlife’s State Wildlife Area. The project also provided the open space program with its first chance at a project in the mid-valley area.

During the period of time that Pitkin County was mulling over its involvement, grants to the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund and CDOW’s Wetlands Initiative were in being written. Pitkin County’s eventual financial commitment toward the project helped convince GOCO of the project’s viability and community support. Together with funding from GOCO, Pitkin County, CDOW, and Eagle County, all the necessary resources were packaged together to facilitate the final deal. Since the project was finalized, the wildlife migration corridor has been enhanced through significant improvements to the Highway 82 wildlife underpass — a vision that was presented during the land acquisition process to stimulate further interest in the project.

It is remarkable to think about how a grassroots effort, initiated in this case by a local non-profit conservation group, grew into a common cause embraced by local governments, a well-established national land trust organization, the state’s lottery fund, wildlife authorities, and landowners who originally were approached about protecting a few acres of wetlands on their properties. Any land conservation effort, no matter how small, takes a tremendous amount of dedication, hard work, and investment of resources. In the case of the Emma Open Space, the starting point of a duck pond sparked opportunity that appealed to various interests, and in the end created a project that paid off both in terms of value for the effort, and most importantly in the benefit gained for the natural environment and the community.