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Conservation easements to protect East Fork Ranch

While area residents debate the potential merits — or negative impact — of a proposed development at the Wolf Creek ski area, one large parcel of land nearby will remain untouched by development, in perpetuity.

Southwest Land Alliance Executive Director Michael Whiting announced late last week that the SLA, the Conservation Fund and Great Outdoors Colorado completed the first of three conservation easements on the East Fork Ranch. Located on the upper reaches of East Fork of the San Juan River and just 2.25 miles south of the Wolf Creek ski area, the almost 2,800-acre ranch owned by the McCarthy family has been contracted for conservation easements.

What this means is that the McCarthy family has agreed to preserve the natural integrity of the ranch, and the easement will permanently protect the land from commercial or residential development.

“Places like East Fork (Ranch) are special places that almost no one wants to see developed, so in the back of our minds, we worry about them. But here in southwest Colorado, we believe strongly in private property rights. So, when a landowner voluntarily steps forward to preserve their land forever, we breathe a little sigh of relief,” said Nancy Cole, SLA Board Chair.

Closing on about 1,000 acres of the ranch, the easement is the first of a three-phase contract that will, over the next two years, eventually include the entire property.

The East Fork Ranch is the second “Cornerstone Ranch” to be protected in the SLA and the Conservation Fund’s “Upper San Juan River Watershed Project” in the last 12 months. Previously, the SLA negotiated a conservation easement for the 6,200-acre Alpine Cascade Ranch, south of Pagosa Springs. The SLA closed on that easement this fall.

“I think it’s a big deal given what’s going on three miles away,” Whiting said, alluding to the proposed Village at Wolf Creek. “There will be no commercial development on the East Fork Ranch. The scenery, as you see it now, will remain that way forever.”

East Fork Ranch will continue to operate as a private ranch and family retreat, with no public access allowed. The benefit to area residents is that the scenery will be preserved, and miles of river habitat will be protected.

According to Whiting, the McCarthys had been approached twice for ski resort development during the past 25 years. Both times, the McCarthy family declined. “Now,” Whiting said, “all of that has been eliminated by this conservation easement. There will be no ski resort, no commercial development at all.”

“This removes the threat (of future development),” he added. “People can rest easy about the ranch.”

Founded in 1981 by local ranchers, the SLA works with private landowners to create conservation easements and has so far created 47 easements to the tune of about 25,000 acres preserved. However, the SLA also works with the Town of Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County on broader land use policy issues, as well as parks, trails and outdoor recreation.

However, Whiting feels the East Fork Ranch conservation easement is a major accomplishment for the SLA. “It (East Fork Ranch) has really high conservation values,” he said. “It’s a property more suitable for conservation than development.”

The property was acquired by Dan McCarthy in 1969 and the land has been held by the family ever since. According to Todd McCarthy, Dan’s son, the family has always sought to preserve the natural beauty of the land.

“As a child, I spent my summers up there. All the kids did. My wife and I got married on the land in 1993,” he said.

“Our generation (including Todd’s sister Kerry and cousin, Tom) — as well as my father — wanted to keep the land as it was,” McCarthy said, adding, “We just wanted to do the right thing for one of the most beautiful pieces of land in the west.”

Although the East Fork Ranch is in Mineral County, many locals consider the area west of Wolf Creek Pass to be “Pagosa Country” — far removed from Creede, South Fork or the rest of Mineral County. McCarthy concurred, saying, “We’ve really tried to maintain our ties with the town of Pagosa Springs.”

While a few residents may question the wisdom of eschewing development, it’s safe to say that many more will appreciate that one more portion of our beautiful landscape has been secured forever, from the blight of block-style condos or kitschy chain restaurants.

“This (East Fork) is what can happen when a landowner puts people and place ahead of profit,” Whiting said, “and we owe the McCarthy Family a great debt of gratitude for this gift. In the end, our only lasting legacy, and ironically, our ongoing prosperity, are embodied in that which is preserved, not that which is built”.

jim@pagosasun.com