Open lands forever – together

Open space has always been a defining feature of Routt County – one of its core attributes that is embedded in our identity, culture, and outdoor lifestyle. 

It’s the first thing that greets us as we crest Rabbit Ears Pass, instantly shaping our perceptions of the area before an abrupt 2,500-foot descent to the valley floor below. 

The wealth of open land here is easy to take for granted, but Yampa Valley Land Trust and other conservation groups have spent decades working to keep this characteristic tethered to Northwest Colorado.

We urge you to take a step back and remember how Routt County has held onto its distinctive rural character – and a moment to reflect upon what it might look like now if our community had followed a different path 20 years ago.

The open landscapes we still enjoy today are the byproduct of a collaborative conservation movement that gained traction in the 1990s.  It took a herculean effort among land trusts, public and private landowners, and Routt County citizens who sought to preserve the elements that make this area so unique: its scenic vistas, pristine watersheds, open agricultural lands, proximity to outdoor recreation, and an abundance of critically-important wildlife habitat. 

While it’s not necessarily obvious at first glance, if you dig beneath the surface you may notice the profound impact land conservation has made throughout our valley.  The results are all around us, from isolated dirt roads to Routt County’s primary travel arteries.

You can get a firsthand look at these conservation efforts starting at the foot of the Sleeping Giant north to Hahn’s Peak, where YVLT has permanently protected more than 8,800 acres in the Elk River Valley.  Conservation projects line both sides of Highway 131 from Oak Creek to Yampa, where rolling pastures and hay meadows dominate the scenery all the way to the foothills of the Flat Tops.  Or follow County Road 14 past Stagecoach State Park and you will see five consecutive miles of the Yampa River conserved by YVLT, gluing together the riparian landscape and preserving downstream water quality.

All of this was possible because of a decision Routt County voters made over 20 years ago to maintain open space using a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program; a revolutionary concept that was among the first of its kind in Colorado.

Routt County PDR began with a vision to protect large tracts of open land using a local funding source to incentivize conservation.  The program compensates willing landowners for voluntarily limiting the development potential of their properties by way of conservation easements.  Land trusts like YVLT then “hold” the conservation easements and steward the protected lands in perpetuity.

This unique conservation tool gave ranchers and other individuals with significant land holdings a viable alternative to subdividing or selling their properties altogether, keeping open lands intact and sustaining the important natural functions these lands provide.

The PDR program is supported by a 1.5 mill property tax (one “mill” is $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value).   Routt County voters approved the program in 1996 and reaffirmed their commitment to open lands in 2005, renewing it for another two decades through 2025.

Over 50,000 acres have been permanently protected using PDR funds – that’s about 46 square miles, or roughly 4.5 times the size of the City of Steamboat Springs.  The availability of PDR and other funding mechanisms positioned YVLT to conserve over 30,000 acres throughout Routt County, along with nearly 15 miles of the Yampa River to date.

Credit is also due to other conservation organizations working in the area, including The Nature Conservancy, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Colorado Open Lands.  With the aid of PDR funding, YVLT and other land trusts are steadily building toward a critical mass of conserved land in Routt County; helping to ensure that open landscapes always remain a quintessential part of the Yampa Valley experience.

Most importantly, credit is due to the great people of Routt County, who have expressed unwavering support for conservation and the protection of open lands through the voter-approved PDR program.  This circles back to our motto at Yampa Valley Land Trust: “Open lands forever – together.”

That said, there is still much work to be done in order to realize a better future for the Yampa River Valley.  YVLT can’t do it without your support.  Will you join us in leaving a conservation legacy in Northwest Colorado?

Bryce Hinchman is a Conservation Associate at Yampa Valley Land Trust, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit land conservation organization based in Steamboat Springs.