|A view of River Trails Ranch
from County Road 250. A recent biological survey of the
property stated that building 800 units on this parcel would
not adversely impact threatened or endangered species./Photo
by Todd Newcomer.
Early this year, Wolff and Wessman forwarded
a plan for 800 homes on the 245 acres formerly known as the
Kroeger Ranch. Seizing on the New Urbanism approach, the plan
calls for a variety of housing types immediately north of Durango
and off County Road 250. The development plan also contains
space for businesses, schools, parks and open space in the Animas
River floodplain. Currently, Wolff and Wessman are seeking city
approval to bring the ranch within city limits. The City Council
is set to begin consideration of that request on Sept. 2.
No smoking gun
Presently and in prior incarnations, like the 67 units approved
for the parcel by La Plata County last year, River Trails Ranch
has drawn a great deal of criticism. One consistent charge against
development of the acreage has been that it would destroy pristine
wildlife habitat and reek environmental havoc on one of Durango’s
key attributes – the Animas Valley. Wolff and Wessman
said they wanted to answer this charge, and consequently went
beyond city regulation and retained Ecosphere Environmental
Services to conduct a biological assessment on the 245 acres.
“We invented this,” Wolff said. “The city
didn’t ask us to do it, and it’s never been done
for a city project before.”
The results of the draft assessment were filed with the city
in mid-May. The general conclusion of the report is that River
Trails Ranch would not adversely impact threatened or endangered
City Planner Greg Hoch said: “I’ve looked through
the survey, and there’s no smoking gun here. They’ve
taken a fairly broad look and concluded that there’s nothing
that would violate federal wildlife regulations.”
In spite of the absence of a smoking gun, the report called
for 51 recommended steps to mitigate impacts of the development.
These range from maintaining migratory corridors for deer and
elk and managing the quality of storm water to creating public
transportation and requiring dark sky lighting.
“We’ll be following all of the guidelines,”
Wolff said. “There are also places on the property where
we’re going to enhance wetlands and one piece where we’re
going to try to double the size of wetlands. We’ll also
have standards that are approved by the Division of Wildlife
for fencing and garbage. Vegetation will also be regulated.”
Mike Fitzgerald, president of Ecosphere, characterized the
River Trails Ranch parcel as being only average in terms of
quality habitat. In this way, he said the vacant land resembles
the remainder of the Animas Valley, which has been generally
denuded by grazing. However, he said that River Trails Ranch
does contain some quality chunks of habitat along the Animas
River and pieces along Spring Creek, which bisects the 245 acres.
“We’ve got some nice, small patches of habitat,
but nothing expansive,” Fitzgerald said. “That can
be said for most of the Animas Valley.”
With respect to the parcel’s elk herd, Ecosphere tried
to take a historic look at the animals’ presence in the
“We felt like it was important to give people a historic
perspective of elk and their utilization of the valley,”
Fitzgerald said. “We went back to the day when elk predominantly
wintered on the south sides of areas like Animas Mountain and
the Hermosa Cliffs.”
|An oxbow in the Animas River
floodplain south of
River Trails Ranch. The recent study argues that this kind
of riparian area has the greatest wildlife
value./ Photo by Todd Newcomer.
Fitzgerald said that the existence of elk in the valley is
a combination of the creation of easy grazing on agricultural
land and a longstanding drought. “Because we’ve
had four years of not much winter, there’s actually a
resident herd of about 150 animals staying in the valley year
Still, Fitzgerald said that there would be impacts by River
Trails Ranch on the elk herd, specifically from the proposed
extension of the Animas River Trail through the property’s
floodplain. “We’ve certainly acknowledged that elk
will be affected in the floodplain area, particularly if you
extend a year round trail through it,” he said. “How
many elk will be affected, we don’t know.”
The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher
Studies are still ongoing on one species, the Southwestern
Willow Flycatcher, a bird placed on the federal Endangered Species
list in 1995. Several of the birds already have been documented
in preliminary surveys. However, Fitzgerald said coming weeks
will determine if there will be a problem.
“We’ve finished two out of five surveys,”
he said. “We had some migrant birds in the second period,
and that’s normal for the area. But if we spot birds after
June 30, those will be the endangered ones.”
Should the endangered birds be encountered, Fitzgerald noted
that the most detrimental part of the development proposal to
the species would again be the trail in the floodplain. “I
would say that with River Trails Ranch as it’s proposed,
the big factor that could affect the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher
is the trail. The river corridor is really the most critical
area of the project to any species.”
The draft assessment verifies that the core of the development
would not necessarily impact the birds. It even notes that historic
practices of grazing are more detrimental to Southwestern Willow
Flycatcher and several other species of bird than urban development.
It states, “ 85 the proposed River Trails Ranch development
may overall negatively impact riparian bird populations in the
Animas Valley, though some species may benefit from the conversion
of pasturelands to urban landscapes.”
Attorney Dick Emmett is a member of the Friends of the Animas
Valley, a group that has been outspoken in its opposition to
the development of River Trails Ranch. Emmett also lives next
to the parcel and disputes the claims that threatened and endangered
species would not be affected by 800 new homes.
“I can’t say for certain that there are any willow
flycatchers on the property, but I’d be glad to show them
a picture of two to three eagles roosting in the cottonwoods
on my property across the fence,” he said.
Emmett goes on to name the peregrine falcon as another endangered
species that was not listed in the assessment but of which he
has firsthand knowledge. “I know that peregrine falcons
frequent the property from time to time, and there was no mention
in the assessment,” he said.
Emmett eventually concluded: “Obviously, there’s
going to be significant impacts on the winter range of wildlife.
This assessment doesn’t really speak to that.”
However, Fitzgerald countered that the assessment speaks to
the impacts in 51 different ways. He noted that not only have
Wolff and Wessman offered to mitigate impacts, they have offered
to go one further and improve existing habitat.
“I don’t recall the city ever doing a biological
survey and certainly not to this level,” Fitzgerald said.
“Even if you’re opposed to the project, you can
agree that it’s a good thing that the developers did this.
They could have easily just said it’s pasture and gone
ahead and developed it.