In what’s believed to be a first for Colorado, an entire town has been placed under a conservation easement to preserve an area highly prized for its scientific, educational and environmental values.
The historic mining town of Gothic, near Crested Butte, has been home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory since 1928. The conservation easement, announced Thursday by RMBL and Colorado Open Lands, a private land trust, will preserve the 270-acre site high in the Elk Mountains for research and education in perpetuity.
“It’s sort of the capstone to just years of conservation efforts that run up the valley from Gunnison all the way up to Crested Butte and into the town of Gothic,” said Tony Caligiuri, president of Colorado Open Lands.
The lab has been involved in conserving land in the region for a while. Ian Billick, RMBL executive director, said the organization worked on The Nature Conservancy’s first project in Colorado, the establishment of the Mexican Cut Preserve. The RMBL manages the site about five miles northwest of Gothic where scientists have studied flowers, pollinators and acid rain in alpine lakes.
The lab was also a partner in a successful effort by The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land to place nearly 4,400 acres of the Trampe Ranch between Gunnison and Crested Butte under a conservation easement in 2018.
Conservation easements permanently restrict uses of the land, provide tax benefits to owners and are usually tailored to specific needs and objectives.
The Gothic conservation easement is valued at approximately $2.8 million, although a final appraisal hasn’t been completed. Billick said RMBL will donate about half of that value and be reimbursed for about half through Colorado’s tax credit program.
A grant from the Gunnison Valley Land Preservation Board will help cover the transaction costs.
Gothic was a ghost town, abandoned by the miners when the silver market went bust, when John Johnson, a biology professor at Western Colorado College, set up a research field station there. Since then, the site at roughly 9,500 feet in elevation has drawn thousands of scientists and students. It is known for research on climate change, pollination, high-altitude ecosystems and acid rain.
Research conducted in Gothic and the surrounding areas has produced more than 1,900 published studies, according to the laboratory.
Through the years, the lab bought parts of the town until acquiring most of the land. Just a handful of people live in Gothic during the winter. The best-known permanent resident is Billy Barr. He has lived in town since the 1970s, keeping detailed records of the weather, precipitation and avalanches. The lab employs him, and researchers have used his data in reports.
Billick said the goal is to preserve the rich scientific heritage and knowledge as well as the diverse landscape and wildlife.
“When we talk with the Forest Service, the county and local stakeholders about managing the valley we want to show that we’re in this forever,” Billick said. “The way that we show that we’re in this forever is we put a conservation easement on the property that dedicates it to research and education in perpetuity.”
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