A Success For Public Lands In Marble

A coveted piece of ground in Marble has been preserved in perpetuity for deer, elk, beaver, birds and other wildlife thanks to the efforts of multiple organizations.

A conservation easement on 55 acres of wetlands, forests and meadows was recently handed over to Aspen Valley Land Trust. The property is on the south side of the Crystal River and stretches from the river’s confluence with Carbonate Creek on the west to south of Beaver Lake on the east.

The easement bans permanent development and ensures that the public can continue to walk an established trail on the property. AVLT officials identified several different qualities that make the parcel special.

“The primary conservation value is the wildlife habitat,” said Erin Quinn, conservation director for AVLT.

AVLT Executive Director Suzanne Stephens said the property includes close to one-half mile of Crystal River frontage and it is covered with wetlands created in large part by beavers doing their thing.

The property also provides “a flat hiking trail,” which is a rarity in the steep landscape around Marble, she said. An existing two-track road that provides vehicular access to private property via the property also serves as the hiking route. The route connects to Yule Creek. The trail provides access for people fishing the river and streams.

“People walk on it and ski on (the trail) frequently,” Quinn said. A resource management plan will ban motorized uses and make adjustments if the public acquisition of the property spurs use by people.

The property provides a critical link to a string of other public lands. Beaver Lake State Wildlife Area is held by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. National forestland is also adjacent to the property. The trailhead to the popular Raspberry Loop hike is on the land recently secured.

“The property represents an intact and undeveloped private acreage providing an open space and habitat buffer for public lands,” said an ecological baseline report prepared by a company called Rare Earth Science LLC. “The conservation easement on the property supports the Trust’s strategic conservation plan by protecting the region’s special places and unique landscapes to ensure they remain forever vital for wildlife and community, and by preserving wetlands and riparian areas to protect habitat and water quality and quantity.”

Extensive work by beavers has covered about 25 acres of the property in water and create excellent habitat for nesting birds, according to the report.

The conservation effort almost didn’t happen, but then a string of events led to a partnership among numerous entities. The prior landowner, Pam Hepola, needed to dispose of the land and preferred to go the conservation route. Former Marble resident Alex Menard had alerted the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association about Hepola’s desires and the 50-year-old citizens’ group launched efforts to get the land in public hands.

But gifting the land wasn’t easy because a portion of it had a mining legacy in the form of a slag pile. The Hoffman Smelter and Refining Co. opened a smelter in 1897 and processed ore from regional mines, according to the Marble Historical Society. The smelter failed and closed in 1901.

The presence of a slag heap nixed initial conservation efforts. Nobody wanted to take on potential responsibility for remediating the site.

“Everybody had given up on it,” said John Armstrong, president of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association. “CPW and AVLT both had cold feet about the smelter site.”

As time was running out for the sale or gift of the land in 2021, CVEPA officials frantically sought a way to get the site cleaned up and were directed to the Trust for Land Restoration, a Ridgway, Colorado-based nonprofit that remediates abandoned mine sites and gets land into public ownership. The trust worked with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to investigate the extent of the work needed. The relatively small level of remediation convinced the Trust for Land Restoration to take ownership of the site.

Trust Unlimited raised the funds for the remediation work, which was performed in the summer of 2022, Armstrong said. The slag pile was capped with “clean” dirt and was fenced off. Portions of the slag pile had been scattered and that was also covered. The fill from the slag pile was distinctive.

“It looks like obsidian. It’s shiny and hard and doesn’t break easily,” Armstrong said. But it wasn’t found to be a threat to water sources and the surrounding landscape.

The town of Marble also played a role as a fiscal agent in the cleanup. AVLT agreed to hold the conservation easement once the site received a clean bill of health. The goal of the Trust for Public Land is to get the property into the town of Marble’s hands. It would sell tax credits from the conservation easement and give some of the proceeds to the town to help with expenses in maintaining the property, according to Quinn.

AVLT’s Stephens and CVEPA’s Armstrong both said in separate interviews that they were proud of so many entities working together to conserve the Marble wetlands.

“It was such a great co-op,” Armstrong said.

A sale to a private buyer could have resulted in a house being built and the property being shut to the public.

In addition to all the ecological wonders the property holds, it possesses another cool quality. Armstrong recalled touring the area decades ago in his hippie youth and being amazed at the stacked marble forms that had been created. They remain on the property.

“The locals call it Marblehenge,” Armstrong said.

Courtesy of the Aspen Daily News