History of AVLT
Establishing Aspen parks
Colorado’s oldest land trust has evolved since its founding in 1967 to meet the changing needs of the growing conservation movement. Aspen Valley Land Trust, originally named Parks Association, was created by a group of citizens led by John Doremus, Eve Homeyer and Francis Whitaker, who were interested in preserving the natural environment of Aspen and the surrounding area. The group planted flower gardens, initiated a city clean-up campaign and began an Arbor Day tradition by planting 50 trees along Main Street in Aspen. At the same time, the Parks Association established a separate legal entity, Park Trust, Ltd., in order to receive and manage gifts of land.
One of the key purposes of Park Trust was to provide an independent non-government organization to own and protect park lands within the City of Aspen so that these lands could not later be used for other purposes. It was instrumental in promoting the creation of well-known Aspen parks such as Glory Hole and Iselin Park, and still owns Henry Stein Park, Freddie Fischer Park, Aspen Alps Park, Verena Mallory Park, Emilee Benedict Park and Red Butte Open Space – all donated to AVLT in its first decades and beloved by the public ever since.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Parks Association devoted most of its resources to the development of an Aspen and Pitkin County trail system. During this period, Hal Clark, former city planner, was named the first part-time director and managed the construction of Ajax Trail and several sections of what’s now known as the Rio Grande Trail. The organization was also instrumental in persuading the U.S. Forest Service to purchase the lower Hunter Creek Valley, helping Pitkin County purchase the North Star Nature Preserve, and in establishing an Aspen-Pitkin County open space advisory board.
Refocusing on land conservation
In 1978, George Stranahan donated the first conservation easement in Colorado to the Trust for Public Land to conserve a series of mining claims around the historic town of Lenado. That easement was later transferred to AVLT. In 1981, Stranahan donated a second conservation easement – and the first easement ever donated to AVLT – to protect the agricultural lands of Flying Dog Ranch near Carbondale.
In 1990, the Parks Association funded and ran the campaign to create an open space tax in Pitkin County. With public funding available to purchase land and easements, the Park’s board had to reassess the role of a non-profit conservation group. The board decided to focus less on political advocacy and parks and to concentrate on the conservation of private land. It also expanded its operations to include the entire Roaring Fork Valley and west into the Colorado River Valley. In 1992, Park Trust Ltd. unofficially changed its name to Aspen Valley Land Trust to better reflect the work and service area of the organization, and began educating landowners and professionals about the benefits of donating conservation easements. During Chuck Vidal’s tenure as Executive Director, he shifted the organization’s focus from direct fundraising to commission-based conservation transactions. During that time, AVLT secured Great Outdoors Colorado funding for the purchase of Windstar Conservancy, and by the end of the decade had conserved more than 4,700 acres in Pitkin and Garfield counties.
Former Pitkin County Manager Reid Haughey was hired as AVLT’s first full-time staff member and director in 1999. During his tenure, AVLT became involved in the Laurence Ranch project and worked with a local development company to prevent the ranch from being subdivided into 35-acre lots. AVLT also helped acquire funding for the purchase and protection of Rock Bottom Ranch by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
All told, AVLT has worked with landowners and public agencies to conserve nearly 40,000 acres across five counties making a real and lasting difference to the landscape of Western Colorado.
Expansion throughout the Roaring Fork and middle Colorado River watersheds
In 2002, former newspaper publisher Martha Cochran was named AVLT’s fourth executive director. About the same time, in response to rapid population growth and the loss of agricultural land, the State of Colorado created a tax credit program to encourage private land conservation. In 2003, AVLT merged with the Western Colorado Agricultural Heritage Fund, an organization formed to help conserve agricultural land after a local ranch was subdivided for the development of River Valley Ranch. This merger strengthened AVLT’s ties to the agricultural community, and over the next ten years the amount of open space and ranchland conserved through AVLT increased to over 28,000 acres.
In addition to private land conservation, AVLT partnered with Pitkin County on two important land exchanges to convert two historic properties from private home sites to public land in the 2000s. AVLT purchased the ghost town of Independence and 150 surrounding acres in 2001 and, through a congressional land exchange, transferred the land to the U.S. Forest Service in 2003. A similar transaction in 2006 resulted in the prized 35-acre Ryan property, threatened with development near the historic ghost town of Ashcroft, being transferred to the Forest Service along with two AVLT-owned mining claims in the Hunter Creek Valley.
AVLT also helped protect the historic coke ovens in Redstone by buying the property in 2003 and securing its historic designation, thereby allowing the Redstone Historical Society to secure state funding for the project. The RHS then acquired and donated the property to Pitkin County, and the two organizations have since restored and stabilized the ovens, which are a popular stop on West Elks Scenic Byway. AVLT now holds a historic conservation easement on the property.
Land conservation = water conservation
Over the last decade, protecting water quality and water resources for the region has become an increasingly important part of AVLT’s work, which has resulted in the protection of more than 67 miles of river corridor and nearly ten percent of the water rights in the Roaring Fork Valley through inclusion in conservation easements. AVLT has also partnered with municipalities and counties to conserve many publicly-owned properties for public use, such as Sky Mountain Park in Snowmass and the Silt River Preserve.
Today AVLT continues to pursue conservation of agricultural land and wildlife habitat, as well as scenic corridors and recreational properties from the Continental Divide on Independence Pass to the high country west of the Roan Plateau near De Beque.