A 1975 photo of Bear Creek Canyon with Telluride Town Park in the foreground. (Photo courtesy of the San Miguel Conservation Foundation)
This week, take a moment to wish Bear Creek a happy birthday.
On Jan. 23, 1995, ownership of the 320-acre parcel that stretches south from Telluride Town Park, formerly a patchwork of mining claims and private lands in lower Bear Creek Canyon, passed to the then-newly formed San Miguel Conservation Foundation (SMCF) and, ultimately, the Town of Telluride.
The move formally created Bear Creek Preserve, protecting the land from future development.
The story of how Bear Creek Preserve came to be, though, stretches even farther back than 1995, according to Gary Hickcox, a former executive director of SMCF and wearer of many hats over the years for the Town of Telluride, including town manager and Open Space Commission member.
“I think it’s fair to say that back in the 1970s and definitely through the acquisition of the Valley Floor in the mid-2000s, open space preservation was at the top of the list of community priorities, both citizens and town government alike,” Hickcox said. “We had been trying to figure out a way to acquire Bear Creek all through the ’80s.”
For instance, Hickcox recalled a time when, as town manager, he, then-mayor John Micetic and town council member Bucky Schuler travelled to Cortez to meet with then-owner Jack Hawkins to try to structure a deal.
Said Hickcox, “The 10 lots adjacent to the cemetery had for a number of years been envisioned as property to be traded to Jack for his land in Bear Creek. Like several other efforts, that one failed to materialize. When Jack sold the property to Larry Ragland in 1986, we were all concerned that we might be dealing with a potential developer, but fortunately Larry had no such plans. The sale, though, did have the effect of accelerating the sense of urgency to do something to deal with Bear Creek.”
That sense of urgency was also felt by Rich Salem, who had found his way to Telluride in 1987, and who had an affinity for Bear Creek.
“I had this epiphany,” Salem recalled. “I knew my family and I had to be in Telluride, that we had to undo our roots on the East Coast and move. That epiphany occurred in Bear Creek. Bear Creek struck me as such a stunningly spectacular place that it all made sense.”
Back then, Bear Creek was the same popular spot for hikers, bikers, snowshoers and skiers that it is today. At that time, though, it was also vulnerable to potential development.
As Salem pointed out, privately owned Bear Creek was located outside of town boundaries, meaning that there was nothing then to stop the construction of up to nine gated 12,000-square-foot homes plus secondary structures in the lower canyon.
Salem added that the owners, Larry and Colleen Ragland, also had the water rights for Bear Creek itself, a tributary that provides roughly two-thirds of the minimal water flow for the San Miguel River.
“Crazy,” he said of the possibility that the invaluable water from Bear Creek could have been diverted for development in the canyon or elsewhere.
A native of New England, Salem spent substantive time on Nantucket, in Massachusetts, where two-thirds of the island is set aside as open space, which, he said, contributed to his intense and growing interest in land conservation.
“We’ve an opportunity and even an obligation to save these special places,” Salem said.
Salem quietly entered into discussions of his own with the Raglands. Reluctant to talk with government entities, the couple was willing to deal with an individual, he said. After a little over a year of confidential negotiations, they ultimately agreed to sell their 320-acre parcel to Salem, who founded the SMCF to facilitate the sale and financed the $4 million purchase with his own money.
“I convinced the Raglands that they could do well by doing good,” Salem said. “I had the money to do it and so I did it.
“Coincidentally, I also met with the Valley Floor owners back then and we started talking. I was trying to convince them of the virtue of conservation, too. They basically challenged me and said ‘If you think this, then go and do Bear Creek and show us it’s doable.’”
While preservation of the Valley Floor would take another 12 years and an entirely different route, SMCF was able to work quickly with Town of Telluride officials to place a conservation easement on the land and convey ownership of the parcel to the town.
Subsequently, another 100 acres of mining claims were added to the preserve.
Hickcox praised Salem’s contribution and remarked that it was a reflection of the commitment to preservation of the Telluride community as a whole — something Salem echoed.
For instance, Hickcox pointed to the 1994 ordinance passed by Telluride voters that set aside 20 percent of all unencumbered town revenues for the acquisition of open space.
“The establishment of this funding mechanism would be key to our ability to accomplish our goals,” he said. “The measure passed with an overwhelming majority, and I would guess that on a per capita basis, this might have been the biggest commitment to open space preservation in the state, if not the country.”
Around this time, the Town of Telluride also formed the Open Space Commission.
“We all believed that with the inevitable growth and development of the Telluride region, it was critical to be proactive to insure responsible development patterns in a way that honored not only the visible and sensitive landscape, but access and protection of key parcels for future public use,” Hickcox said.
Now, 25 years later, Bear Creek Preserve remains one of Telluride’s most popular — and heavily used — amenities.
Current SMCF Executive Director Chris Hazen noted that, in addition to an impending beetle infestation and the threat of motorized vehicles, one of Bear Creek’s most pressing challenges is its popularity.
“I would say that one of the biggest challenges facing Bear Creek is the heavy presence of hikers and bikers sharing the same trail,” Hazen said, adding that an event to mark the 25th anniversary of Bear Creek’s preservation will take place in early summer.
As for Salem, he lauded the work of SMCF, which has gone on to preserve over 8,000 acres in the region.
Is he glad he was able to bring about the preservation of Bear Creek?
“Absolutely,” Salem said. “The majesty of that area is so spectacular. I still take more from it than I ever gave. I’m happy our community has this asset and that it’s preserved in perpetuity.”