By Randi Pierce
A letter written by the Colorado Field Supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking to prevent Archuleta County from obtaining grant funding to develop the county’s 95-acre park located along U.S. 84 — home to the endemic Pagosa skyrocket.
Now, Archuleta County is fighting back, in the form of a letter disputing Fish and Wildlife’s claims.
The initial letter, dated Sept. 10 and written by Susan Linner, Fish and Wildlife’s Colorado Field Supervisor, was sent to Jackie Miller, the local government program manager for Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), the program through which the county is seeking grant funding.
That letter states, “Specifically, we are concerned with Archuleta County’s plans to develop a 95 acre parcel of land with over half of all the world’s known Pagosa skyrocket (Ipomopsis polyantha) plants.”
The letter also asks that those with expertise relating to threatened and endangered plant species be included in any review processes concerning the application.
“Pagosa skyrocket was listed as endangered on August 26, 2011 and critical habitat was designated on September 12, 2012. The species is known from only two populations near Pagosa Springs, in Archuleta County Colorado. Approximately 89 percent of known plants and their habitat are on non-federal land (private and local government). Plants are not provided protections under the Act on non-federal lands unless there is a Federal nexus associated with a project, such as Federal permitting or funding. Actions occurring on non-federal lands do not receive oversight to ensure that those actions adequately avoid, minimize, and/or mitigate impacts to threatened or endangered species.”
Further, the letter states, “The number and density of Pagosa skyrocket plants varies considerably between areas across the species’ limited distribution area, and compared with all the known sites, the County property has especially high numbers and high densities of Pagosa Skyrocket. Over half of all the known Pagosa skyrocket individuals in the world are located on this property, with an additional 20 percent on the adjacent property that is included in the Master Plan. This property is extremely important to the recovery and conservation of the species.”
The letter continues to state that the skyrocket population on the property would suffer from fragmentation if the property were developed, and the remaining populations would be subject to higher levels of use than they currently experience.
According to the letter, skyrocket exists on about 45 acres of the 95-acre property, with the county plan showing facilities atop 18 acres of that habitat and over 38 acres of the entire property.
“Conservation of the Archuleta County property could lead to the recovery of the Pagosa skyrocket. If the species were recovered it would be removed from the list of species protected under the Act and therefore, other private landowners would not face regulations associated with the Act when needing Federal permits or requesting Federal funding,” the letter states.
“Due to the possible loss of plants and suitable habitat as a result of development on the County property, other private land sites will become more important for conservation of the species. This will place a higher conservation burden on other landowners with Pagosa skyrocket on their property if and when they receive Federal funding or require Federal permits.”
Attached with the letter is a map of the 95-acre site that includes known densities of the plant.
Archuleta County, however, is disputing the claims in the letter with a letter of its own, dated Sept. 26 and signed by all three commissioners.
The letter, also directed to Miller, states, “We strenuously object to and deeply resent the unwarranted interference of the USFWS in our project application with GOCO.”
The letter highlights Fish and Wildlife’s lack of jurisdiction, quoting the Fish and Wildlife Service’s letter and adding emphasis to point out that there is no jurisdiction over private property unless there is a federal nexus.
“As the USFWS admits in the letter, there is no federal nexus regarding the County’s property. Our development of the property and the uses described in our GOCO application are all rightfully permissible and legal uses entitled to the County as owner of the property. We would like to be treated like any other private property owner without undue interference.
“To be clear, the USFWS has no present jurisdiction or standing to regulate any activity on the County’s property,” the letter asserts.
Included in the letter is background information, in which the county states it has worked with Fish and Wildlife for over a year, as well as gone through a public planning process to come up with the development plan for the site ( anticipated to be approved in October).
“We feel we have worked in good faith with the USFWS and been extraordinarily sensitive to the Pagosa Skyrocket. We have allowed the representatives of the USFWS onto the property to allow for a survey and inventory of the Skyrocket — something we were not required to do. In addition, we took data gathered on our property from the USFWS and adjusted our Master Plan to avoid impacts as much as possible to the higher density areas of the Pagosa Skyrocket.”
Further, the letter states that the county set aside about 30 percent of the property’s total acreage as a preserve for the skyrocket, though not required to set aside any land for preservation.
The letter then indicates that, prior to the county’s 2010 purchase of the property, it was intended to be a housing development, with the higher-density area slated to be a golf course.
“Needless to say, our Master Plan for the property is dramatically less impactful than prior plans for the property,” it states.
“To also correct the USFWS letter, we are not only avoiding the wetlands simply to reduce our regulatory burden, but to also preserve an important environmental feature of the park. Also, there is good sustained evidence, and somewhat ironic, that disturbance by construction and large animal overgrazing has had a distinctly positive effect on the plant’s proliferation.”
Rounding out the county’s letter is a statement that the county’s property is not Fish and Wildlife’s to regulate and is, “clearly out of bounds.”
“We recommend in the strongest terms that GOCO not establish an unadvisable precedent of allowing a regulatory review where there is no legal basis for it. We just want our application to be judged on its merits like any other application with a legally and community supported purpose.”
In discussing the approval of the letter at their Oct. 2 meeting, commissioners and county staff reiterated the views included in the letter, stating they had, “acted in good faith” with Fish and Wildlife and altered the park’s plans to accommodate the plant.
“It’s all perfectly acceptable for a landowner to suggest,” said County Administrator Greg Schulte, also stating it was, “not correct and inappropriate,” for the federal service to insert themselves into the GOCO process.
Schulte noted that 31.25 percent of the property had been set aside as a preserve for the endemic flower.
County Attorney Todd Starr stated that he felt the letter was, “masterful.”
“I never thought I’d be on the business end of a scolding from a conservation group,” Commissioner Michael Whiting said, stating his belief in the project’s transparency, planning process and balanced use of the property.
In his comment, Commissioner Steve Wadley called Fish and Wildlife’s maneuver a, “gross overstep,” and stated that, if Fish and Wildlife wanted the property, it could have bought it when it was for sale.
Commissioner Clifford Lucero agreed with the overall sentiment, calling Fish and Wildlife’s letter, “unfortunate and unnecessary,” noting that it had, “muddied the grant process totally.”
If and how the letters play into GOCO’s decision about funding the county’s $350,000 request remains to be seen, with the county not expected to hear the outcome of the grant request until early December.