Peak & Prairie
December 1999 / January 2000
Piano Creek Ranch Luxury Resort Threatens Wild San Juan Valley
by Mark Pearson, Chapter Wilderness Chair
A private luxury club is the latest threat to one of Colorado’s last, undeveloped valleys. Out-of-state developers propose an exclusive resort featuring memberships for $500,000 apiece in the San Juan River’s East Fork Valley. Called the Piano Creek Ranch, the proposed luxury club offers its 395 members a golf course, luxury bungalows, trophy homes, private ski runs, tennis courts, and other comforts in the privacy and seclusion of the last, best place in the San Juan Mountains.
Local residents and conservationists are appalled by the development plans. Rancher and long-time conservationist Betty Feazel fears the impact on wildlife. Pagosa Springs resident Kathryn Nelson believes the infusion of wealthy elites will greatly increase the cost-of-living and drive out average residents. Bayfield resident Dan Johnson compares the East Fork to Yosemite Valley before it was overrun by development.
The private club is slated for a 2,800-acre private inholding entirely surrounded by the San Juan National Forest. Currently accessible only a few months each year via a narrow dirt road, the East Fork Valley is a haven for wildlife and those pursuing primitive recreation. The valley’s sweeping meadows and wetlands invites comparisons with Yellowstone’s dramatic Lamar Valley. East Fork serves as the linchpin to a major elk migration corridor. The valley is the site of the last, wild lynx sighting in the San Juan Mountains ten years ago, prior to this past year’s release of transplanted lynx from Canada. And the last grizzly bear in Colorado was killed just a few miles south of the East Fork Valley in 1979.
The $100 million development plans to turn this uninhabited valley into a year-round community. Developers propose to widen and straighten the dirt road, initiate avalanche control in winter, and plow it for year-round access. Converting this empty, uninhabited valley into a bustling center of human activity will devastate native wildlife.
Readers might recall the East Fork Valley was once the site of a massive proposed ski resort, owned in part by American Express’s Balcor subsidiary. The ski resort prompted the Sierra Club to adopt a boycott of American Express. Since then, American Express sold its ownership interest to an investment group led by real estate developers from Southern California and Park City, Utah.
The developers have lined up an eclectic group of wealthy investors and members. Most notable among members is astronaut Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon. The developers tout Armstrong’s involvement as a selling point, but opponents ask how someone so intimately familiar with the finite nature of Earth’s resources can participate in the destruction of the last undeveloped valley in the San Juan Mountains. Surely Armstrong, of all people, realizes there are no more valleys like East Fork once all succumb to development.
Original investors in the ranch include Roger Penske of Penske auto racing, Jacqueline Mars, heiress to Mars Candy, Walter Cruttendon of on-line banker E*Offering, and other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
The Piano Creek Ranch developers tout their proposal as “saving” the valley from development because their club creates less impact than the previously proposed East Fork ski area. Opponents ask how a golf course, 10 private ski runs, 100,000 square-foot lodge, 15 trophy homes, dozens of condos, a 50-acre lake and employee housing seems like “saving” the valley from development? The club also includes plans for a private helicopter pad, sewage treatment plant, and natural gas co-generation electric plant.
Confounding the issue is the fact that most of the East Fork Valley once resided in public ownership. Until two land exchanges in 1933 and 1943, the East Fork Valley was owned by the American public and managed as part of the San Juan National Forest. Opponents to Piano Creek Ranch club argue the valley should be returned to public ownership and forever spared devastating development.
The land exchanges reserved some rights for the public, including the use of public trails across the proposed Piano Creek Ranch as well as access for fishing along the East Fork river. Last summer, the developers attempted to block public use of these trails, and strung electric fence across the Quartz Ridge Trail. The Forest Service ultimately cited Piano Creek Ranch for illegally blocking public access and fined the developers. However, Piano Creek Ranch continues to deny public fishing access as required by the 1943 land exchange.
Fortunately, the proposed Piano Creek Ranch – named after some made-up cowboy story and not any local stream – is in the very beginning stages of development. It must obtain numerous permit approvals from the Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Archuleta and Mineral Counties, Colorado state agencies, and others. This offers the public numerous opportunities for public comment.
Take Action! Help stop the most destructive development in the San Juans:
1) East Fork Road: The developers want to widen and improve East Fork Road, plow it for year-round vehicle access, and increase traffic by hundreds of vehicles per day. The Forest Service is analyzing the potential impacts of this vastly improved road. Write to District Ranger Jo Bridges, P.O. Box 310, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147 970-264-2268 and demand an Environmental Impact Statement to analyze the impacts on existing winter recreation, the impacts to wildlife like elk and lynx, and the impacts to the East Fork’s water quality.
2) Existing Trail Access: When the United States issued patents to the East Fork Ranch in 1933 and 1943, it reserved rights-of-way for existing trails for public foot and horseback use. These trail reservations include foot access for fishing for over one mile of the East Fork on the ranch, plus along Quartz Creek. Contact the Forest Service (see above) and insist they defend the public’s access rights.
3) Contact investors and members of Piano Creek Ranch and urge them not to participate in destroying the last undeveloped valley in the San Juan Mountains.
Addresses for some of the club members:
Mr. Roger Penske
Chairman, Detroit Diesel
13400 Outer Drive West
Detroit, MI 48239
Walter W. Cruttendon III
Stuart Tower, 4th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105
Neil A. Armstrong, Chairman
AIL Systems Inc.
455 Commack Road
Deer Park, New York 11729-4591
For additional information about the proposed development, visit the web at www.sanjuancitizens.org.
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