By Deborah Olsen
Passion for the wild places of Northwest Colorado fuels the fire in Susan Dorsey. Actively conserving open land, whether for wildlife, ranching or public recreation, has kept her flame stoked for more than 30 years in the Yampa Valley.
“I was born a naturalist, with a deep love and passion for the natural world,” Dorsey says. Although she grew up in Southern California, her grandmother owned a ranch farther north, along the craggy coast of Mendocino County. “By age 7, I had my life planned,” she quips. “My father, who proposed to my grandmother that he purchase his birthplace, would then bring me on as the ‘rancher’ while he attended to his demanding career as an engineer.” Unfortunately, Dorsey’s grandmother later decided to sell the property, “to keep the siblings from quibbling.” Soon after, the remarkable coastal hay, cattle and timber ranch was subdivided and developed.
“Interestingly, it’s the exact story I now experience as the executive director of the Yampa Valley Land Trust, played out time and time again in Northwest Colorado,” Dorsey says.
She first came to Steamboat Springs in 1974 to ski and enjoy the outdoor lifestyle of the Yampa Valley. Even as a 20-something, she recognized the precarious future of the local landscape.
By the 1980s, the community was embroiled in the controversy surrounding a proposal to develop Lake Catamount into a year-round resort including a ski area, golf courses, marinas, hotels and 10,000-resident community in Pleasant Valley.
Strife and division marked the community throughout that era. Catamount proponents pointed to Summit County, Aspen and Vail, each boasting multiple ski areas with diverse terrain. They spoke of economic development, employment opportunities and the potential of doubling the number of annual visitors to the valley. A Wall Street Journal real estate article proclaimed that the Colorado Highway 131 corridor between Steamboat and Wolcott was the hottest real estate corridor in the nation and would become as densely populated as the I-70 corridor through the Vail Valley.
Catamount opponents cited the costs and impacts of development and inadequacies related to transportation and basic services such as housing, education and public safety. The loss of wetlands, pastures, ranches, open space and wildlife habitat was bemoaned by many Yampa Valley residents, including ranchers. Dorsey recalls a bumper sticker from the era that summed it up for her: “Community vs. Commodity.”
Hundreds of people turned out at public meetings about Catamount. “Everybody was talking about it; I wanted to do something about it,” Dorsey says. “There was a proposal to take the pleasant out of Pleasant Valley – the Catamount development was a proposal that would create irreversible and negative impacts on the rest of the Yampa Valley. What more motivation was needed?”
Dorsey smiles now at the naiveté that served her so well back then. She recalls being inspired by the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
“At some point in time we are all young idealists who believe we can change the world – and sometimes we can help change even our small corner of the world.” Dorsey says. Her strategy was to move forward with creating the Yampa Valley Land Trust, and one of the nonprofit land conservation organization’s first projects was negotiating for the acquisition of Catamount. “It was definitely a David vs. Goliath situation. As Catamount was so divisive, when YVLT was first getting off the ground we had to be extremely low-key and quiet,” she says. YVLT was able to secure $12.5 million in pledges for the acquisition, but not enough for the $25 million asking price.
The developers chose, instead, to sell to a group of investors led by Tim Mueller, Lyman Orton and Nick Schoewe, all of whom had local interests, for $14.75 million. Mueller was the owner of the Okemo Ski Area in Vermont. YVLT’s strategy to resolve Catamount was begun anew and restructured with the new property owners.
With more than a dozen years dedicated to the resolution of Catamount, the controversy came to an end in 1999 when the new owners donated conservation easements on 3,296-acres to YVLT and relinquished their ski area permit, effectively ending any possibility of high-density resort development in Pleasant Valley. Today, the duplex cabins and 40 large residential parcels around the reservoir comprise what was a 99% reduction in the proposed development. “Although we were vying for a more conservation-oriented outcome, it’s better than the 3,700 residential and 1,000 lodging units that were proposed,” Dorsey says.
The Catamount turmoil brought about creativity – and a decade of slow-but-steady pre-Internet-era research. Ultimately, the fruits of this labor were abundant and included discovery of several avenues for land conservation that were then introduced to Routt County, including land trusts, conservation easements, purchase of development rights, transfers of development rights, right to farm and ranch programs and other land planning options.
“These were land planning tools, none of which Routt County was taking advantage of, and most of which were voluntary and doable,” Dorsey says. She continued as a volunteer to launch and chair the Routt County Open Lands Plan, along with other conservation driven efforts and committees. The Yampa Valley was a small rural community with limited financial resources and the conservation efforts were grassroots. “A multitude of land conservation and planning tools launched nearly simultaneously, not only for the benefit of YVLT but other conservation organizations that follow. This made a huge and positive impact on our community.”
Although it might seem at first like an environmental organization and cowboys would be at odds, such is not the case for the Yampa Valley Land Trust. “We’ve had the opportunity to work with many of the long-time ranchers,” Dorsey says.
She attributes that to the early and continued involvement of now-retired veterinarian Dr. Bill Baldwin. “He has a connection with almost every single rancher in the county. He is a real blessing, so ethical and admired by many,” Dorsey says. “He advised me, ‘Be fun, but keep the doors open.’”
In the early days, when Dorsey explained the land trust’s vision to the local agricultural community, one North Routt County rancher told her, “If you want it done, you’re going to have to do it. We’re so busy running our ranches.”
Rancher Bill Gay echoes that sentiment, noting that the family has been running cattle on Green Creek Ranch for 116 years. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been here every single one of those days.”
One of YVLT’s early conservation easements was on Green Creek Ranch, which would have been the Catamount Ski Area’s closest neighbor in Pleasant Valley had the development gone through. “It really was an outgrowth of the Catamount hearings,” says Gay. “I was talking with Catamount (developers), and I told them if you will, we will do likewise. We’ve had a good, long working relationship with them ever since. Old adversaries can become good neighbors. I think you can say worthwhile causes make for strange bedfellows.”
Dorsey defers much of the limelight to the landowners and organizations who helped make YVLT’s work such a success: the Rossi family in South Routt County, which was the first agricultural conservation easement in the state to be funded by Great Outdoors Colorado; The Nature Conservancy, with which YVLT worked to place a conservation easement on the historic Carpenter Ranch in Hayden; the late Vernon Summer, who preserved his family’s Centennial Ranch; Dr. Baldwin, who helped lead the YVLT board since its early days; and the dedicated Emerald Mountain Land Exchange committee, which worked with the Bureau of Land Management and State Land Board to protect more than 4,000 acres behind downtown Steamboat.
“You have to have the right people to make that work, people just like Susan,” Gay says. “She really got involved in conservation in Steamboat, going back to Catamount. I think that’s what lit her fire and it continues to burn brightly.”