Terrorists, economic crises and politics notwithstanding, the year 2009 ends on a high note for Southwest Colorado with
news that the East Fork Ranch will be protected by conservation easements. The arrangement preserves a valley at the
center of controversy for more than 20 years.
The ranch is in East Fork Valley on the west side Wolf Creek Pass at the headwaters of the east fork of the San Juan
River, about 20 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs. It is largely surrounded by the San Juan National Forest.
The easement was worked out by the Southwest Land Alliance, working with The Conservation Fund, Great Outdoors Colorado
and the owners of the land, the McCarthy family. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but GOCO makes conservation
grants using state lottery money.
Conservation easements allow property owners to keep their land, while selling the development rights. The landowner
gets some cash, while the land is preserved for nature, wildlife, clean water and views.
The valley had been targeted as the site for a major development first proposed in 1999. Called Piano Creek Ranch, it
would have been a 2,800-acre private club and was to include ski runs and a golf course. The plan was to sell roughly
300 memberships at up to $750,000 apiece.
The scheme garnered a certain notoriety, in part because its investors were said to include former astronaut Neil
Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and auto racing great Roger Penske.
More than anything, though, it attracted opposition. The San Juan Citizens Alliance, Save our San Juans, the Sierra
Club, the Wilderness Society, the Colorado Coalition and Colorado Wild together formed Friends of the East Fork to
The ensuing fight followed a familiar arc. Opponents fought a Army Corps of Engineers permit needed to modify wetlands
in the valley to build the golf course and called for a full environmental impact statement covering the entire
The developers called those stalling tactics. They claimed Piano Creek Ranch would have a minimum impact and threatened
that further delays would only force them to develop more of the valley.
They also pointed out that the largest ski area in North America had once been planned for that valley, including 2,655
residential units. The Piano Creek developers wanted to rely on a 1986 Environmental Impact Statement done for that
But more than 800 public comments came in on the wetlands permit. And the developers scrapped plans for a needed road
after the Forest Service said it would require an EIS.
By the fall of 2001 the project fell apart. One of the developers cited lack of sales. But at the same time the
majority owner of the land, Dan McCarthy of Skokie, Ill., apparently grew uncomfortable with some of the environmental
impacts, saying he had changed his mind on both the golf course and ski area.
Speaking of the property, McCarthy said, In a way, my family and I have come to like it, over the 31 years I've owned
it. I don't want to see it change too much."
He credited his longtime friend and neighbor, the late Betty Feazel, for his change of heart.
And now his wishes - and Feazel's - will be honored.
Not a bad ending for a controversy, or a year.