Trust Our Land: Conservation is for Everyone
By Keri Inouye
The words “community” and “conservation” are two of my favorites in the English language. Individually, they represent many of the values that I (and I suspect many of you) hold dear: social engagement, interconnectedness, shared purpose, cultural heritage, nature, wildlife, open space, and scenic beauty. Put these two words together, however, and we get something even more powerful.
“Community conservation” is the vision for a present and future in which the benefits of land conservation are directly experienced by all in our community. It’s a movement, gaining momentum in land trusts across the country, with the bold mission to reconnect people from all walks of life to nature. For much of our history, the benefits of conserved open spaces – fresh air, clean water, healthy soil, and natural areas in which to play and find solace – haven’t been felt by all in our society. Many of our nation’s protected lands have been perceived as unwelcoming, and this has led to important segments of our community feeling disconnected from the outdoors. For those of you who have ever experienced the magic of a float down the river, or the spellbinding power of a hike at sunset, it may be difficult to imagine not having this deep connection to the land. Yet this is a reality for many right here in Eagle County.
This is where community conservation comes in – the collective effort to forever protect the lands we love and take active measures to make them safe and inviting to people of all backgrounds. Authentic, enduring relationships between humans and the land are critical for ensuring healthy, thriving communities, and these relationships will be incomplete unless they include those who have historically been underrepresented in the outdoors. Public open spaces must be welcoming to all, and community needs must be met with thoughtful and inclusive conservation solutions.
This is community conservation, and this is the work of Eagle Valley Land Trust (EVLT). It’s the passionate effort our team puts in every day to ensure that conserved lands are places that build community, value and embrace diversity, and distribute the benefits of conservation equitably.
Incidentally, EVLT’s commitment to community conservation is what lured me away from my home state of Arizona and brought me to Colorado to become the organization’s new Community Engagement Manager. (The stunning landscapes and cooler summer temperatures also helped.)
Conservation and Public Access
At this point, you may be wondering if community conservation means that all conserved lands will be open to everyone in the community. The short answer is no. Many of the properties that EVLT has conserved forever are owned by Eagle County or the various towns, and they offer a myriad of opportunities for public recreation, including hiking, mountain biking, fishing, horseback riding, and picnicking. But many of EVLT’s conserved properties are privately owned and, as such, do not allow public access. So do these private properties really benefit the community? The short answer here is a resounding yes! Land conservation has numerous tangible benefits that go far beyond just public recreation.
Let’s take our conserved ranches as an example. These privately owned lands embody the rugged western heritage that have captured our imaginations and inspired our spirit of adventure for generations. Just as importantly, these working lands support the livestock that feed our community and serve as critical habitat for everything from ospreys and bald eagles to elk and black bears. While the vast majority of us won’t get the opportunity to visit these properties, their conservation ensures that traditional ranching and agriculture will continue and that the wildlife we love will forever have a protected space to call home. This benefits all in our community.
As another example, let’s examine private properties that conserve scenic ridgelines and breathtaking viewsheds. Perhaps you’re one of the more than 15,000 people who travel along Interstate 70 between Glenwood Springs and Dotsero each day. If so, you’ve likely enjoyed the sweeping vistas of aspen, oak, and mountain meadows afforded by Golden Bair Ranch, a privately owned property. Or maybe you’ve spent time in the Lake Creek Valley and have marveled at the achingly pristine view along the West Lake Creek Trail. This postcard-perfect vista, as well as the public access to the trail, are ours to cherish forever thanks to the conservation of the Casteel Creek property, another privately owned parcel. Conserved lands like Golden Bair and Casteel Creek also provide crucial refuge for fish and game species such as elk and deer. Their benefits to our community – scenic, economic, cultural – are concrete and substantial, despite the fact that most of us will never set foot on them.
As enormously impactful as land conservation is in its own right, community conservation goes a step further and encourages all members of our community to share their voice in discussions around conservation. What land should be protected? How can lands with public access be made truly accessible to everyone (e.g., people with disabilities, people of color, seniors, families with young children, folks new to the outdoors)? What programs can we offer that will surprise, delight, and inspire current and future generations of conservation advocates? These are complex questions, and this is why Eagle Valley Land Trust needs to hear from you, our community.
Conservation does not happen in a vacuum, and to ensure that its benefits are felt by the entire community, EVLT is investing in building relationships throughout the valley – not just with landowners and government agencies, but with nonprofits, schools, coalitions, community leaders, families, visitors, and residents of all backgrounds and perspectives. Community conservation is grassroots-level work with landscape-level impact, and it’s most powerful when it reflects the full diversity of our incredible community. Land conservation is forever, and with inclusion at the forefront of our mission, its benefits will truly be for all.