Ranch protected from future development

Yampa Valley Land Trust acquires additional land for agricultural conservation

— The Yampa Valley Land Trust has added two more pieces to the expanding quilt of conservation easements in the Yampa and Elk river valleys. The 261-acre Higby Ranch adjoins the previously conserved Warren Ranch along the mid-range Elk River on County Road 52E. And Hitchens Island is a highly visible parcel in the heart of Steamboat Springs.

The Higby Ranch fills in one more piece in a growing pattern of conserved agricultural lands along the Elk River north of Steamboat. The ranch is known for a classic western barn and has historically been used for hay production and grazing. It also includes a significant riparian corridor between the Elk and the Little Elk rivers (the old riverbed of the main stem of the Elk). It provides habitat for bald eagles, nesting sandhill cranes, great blue herons and other waterfowl.

The red barn was formerly the headquarters for the McDermott Ranch, which once encompassed several of today's working ranches in the valley. The Higby family purchased the ranch in 1983.

The purchase of the conservation easement for the Higby Ranch utilized a combination of public funds, supporters of the land trust and Bill Higby's donation of a portion of the value of the easement, Land Trust Executive Director Susan Dorsey Otis said.

The public portion of the easement purchase involves $261,550 generated by property taxes collected by the Purchase of Development fund. Routt County voters approved a small tax increase in 1996. The funds generated by PDR are overseen by a citizens advisory board that makes recommendations to the Routt County board of commissioners. To date, PDR has helped to fund conservation easements on 1,658 acres.

The easements do not bring private land into the public sector. Instead, they shield them from future development.

The Hitchens conservation easement did not involve PDR monies. Otis said Mel Hitchens' donation of the easement on his land will ensure the highly visible island will remain open land.

The island is seen by hundreds of commuters each day as they approach downtown Steamboat.

"Mr. Hitchens was born in Milner 78 years ago and has seen stupendous growth over the years," Otis said. "These changes eventually led him to pursue a conservation easement for his horse pasture. He wanted to save this parcel of land from any potential 'monuments to bad land development' down the road."

The downstream portion of the land is already owned by the city of Steamboat Springs, and a pair of pedestrian bridges spanning two channels of the river link it to the Yampa River Core Trail. The island is referred to by many locals as "Snake Island."

Hitchens' upstream end of the island preserves a pastoral look reminiscent of another era in Steamboat, with its grazing horses, a pair of antique farm trucks and a red shed.

The Yampa Valley land Trust, established in 1992, holds 22,904 acres in 42 conservation easements. An additional 11,940 acres in Routt County are under conservation easements held by six other organizations.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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