Easement should settle Hidden Valley issue

The U.S. Forest Service’s consideration of a new, private access road through Hidden Valley makes one wonder what “forever” is for.

The adjoining private property for which the access is requested was protected “forever” by conservation easement in 1990. (This easement was granted to La Plata County prior to the 1992 formation of La Plata Open Space Conservancy, and is still held by the county.) A conservation easement is a grant of development rights to a qualified holder (land trust or governmental entity) and is designed to benefit the public (not the landowner) by protecting specific conservation values, such as wildlife habitat, archaeological sites or scenic open space. Limiting development to one designated homesite protected the subject private parcel’s wildlife habitat. Given the acreage of and existing access road to the parcel, multiple homesites might otherwise have been developed. Since conservation easements are permanent, relocating the homesite and/or access road requires an approved amendment. Easements can be amended; however, a qualified, reputable easement holder won’t allow an amendment unless it can be proved to strengthen the easement’s conservation purposes and provide even greater public benefit.

Hidden Valley, once private land slated for a large residential development, was acquired by the Forest Service in 1992 to protect its significant wildlife, archaeological and scenic values forever. The acquisition resulted from a grass-roots effort to convince Congress to appropriate public funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for a Forest Service purchase. This campaign, spearheaded by the newly formed La Plata Open Space Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, was successful only because of the hundreds of individuals, organizations, and governmental entities that worked to educate Congress on the enormous public benefits of the acquisition.

Now the Forest Service is being asked to allow a new access road and utility easement across its Hidden Valley to serve private interests on adjoining “forever protected” property. The only relevant question is, “Is this in the best interests of the public?” The answer should be obvious.

Katharine Roser, La Plata Open Space Conservancy founding director

Durango

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