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Property in Falls Creek faces uncertain future

Zink family, tired of trespassers, plans to sell 30 acres in Hidden Valley

Have you ever enjoyed the serene view from atop Falls Creek Falls, sitting beside the cascading waterfall, looking out on the lush, pastoral Animas Valley?

If you answered “yes,” whether knowingly or not, you have trespassed on Ed Zink’s property. And although for years Zink and his family, longtime Durangoans, have endured the unwelcomed guests, he recently said enough is enough.

Zink has told The Durango Herald that he intends to either sell the property to the public at a significantly discounted price to be conserved or he will sell the property to the highest bidder to be developed. “The amount of abuse we’re experiencing has been escalating,” Zink said. “We’re worn out and so we created a deadline.”

Zink and his family own about 41 acres in Falls Creek, an area seven miles northwest of Durango, also referred to as Hidden Valley, known for its rolling meadows and abundant wildlife. The property is also adjacent to the 1,500-acre Falls Creek Archaeological Area which has, among other things, sacred burial grounds. The area also is one of the most popular hiking and mountain biking spots in the county and is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

However, where the Forest Service’s land ends, Zink’s begins, and it just so happens that is where an unofficial path leads to the popular waterfall on Zink’s private property.

For years, Zink has tried to stop people from walking onto his land. He would put up “no trespassing” signs, but they would soon be torn down or ignored. Nothing he tried seemed to work.

On top of entering without permission, Zink said people regularly leave trash, throw rocks from atop the waterfall and generally disrespect the area.

“Probably the worst thing is, they’ll sit up there and drink and party and insult us,” Zink said.

Besides all that, people who enter his property could be creating a liability issue for him. If they injure themselves on the edge of the cliff near the waterfall, Zink could be held responsible.

Matt Janowiak, Columbine District Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, said it is not the Forest Service’s responsibility to put “no trespassing” signs between federal and private lands.

“However, Colorado law says you’re supposed to know where you are at all times,” Janowiak said. “So ignorance is not an excuse.”

It does not help that websites that offer information on recreational trails feature the route onto Zink’s property. Two websites contacted by the Herald – Trails 2000 and the MTB Project – took down the information after learning it was private land.

“It’s been such a historic route,” said Mary Monroe, executive director of Trails 2000.

Regardless, Zink said he intends to sell 30 of his 41 acres. He would still own 11 acres that would include the waterfall, but he hopes the boundary lines would be more properly defined and controlled, no matter who the land goes to.

For many who wish to see the property folded into the public land system, it’s a case of déjà vu.

In 1990, it came to light that Utah Power and Light, a subsidiary of PacifiCorp Utility Co., was discussing with developers a proposal to build several hundred homes on 530 acres the company owned in Falls Creek.

For two years, a robust grass-roots effort led by the La Plata Open Space Conservancy ultimately led to putting the property into a conservation easement, which permanently restricts the use or development of the land in order to protect it. The Trust for Public Land, Congress through then-U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and private donations raised more than $1 million to buy the land in 1996. Congress contributed $800,000.

It is unclear if the same efforts have been started for Zink’s property.

“It’s such a fantastic place,” Monroe said. “If something were to come up where the community comes together, that would be a great community asset.”

Janowiak said it is too early to comment, but the Forest Service is researching a possibility of purchasing the land.

“We’re looking at opportunities to acquire the parcel through donation or partial purchase,” he said. “But a lot of stuff has to fall into play here before any commitments can ever be made.”

Though Zink said he would offer the property at a highly discounted price if it were to be folded into public lands – his own admitted preferred outcome – he makes it clear that those efforts need to be acted on quickly.

“It’s one thing to sit at home and type on the computer that, ‘This is travesty. Don’t let it happen,’” he said. “It’s something else to believe it and get together with friends and neighbors and raise a little money.”

The 30 acres, which is undeveloped, is for sale through the Wells Group at a list price of $499,000. Zink did not provide an exact purchasing price if it were to be sold to the public, but he said it would be a “bargain sale.”

The property is under a conservation easement, but a developer could build a residential home and two additional structures, according to the terms of the agreement.

Zink said he hit several roadblocks in his previous attempts to build a road from County Road 203 to his property. He could not get easements across privately owned parcels or deed restrictions prevented it. So, about a decade ago, he applied for a permit through the Forest Service to build a road from County Road 205 to his property.

Although the road would not cut through any wetlands or archaeological sites, it would require an environmental analysis and all the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, Janowiak said. “It is undergoing a NEPA analysis, but it’s not a high priority,” Janowiak said. “But they requested us to move it forward, and we’re looking where that fits into our program of work.”

Zink said he is frustrated that the Forest Service has taken as long as it has in approving the road access. He said he and his family are running short on patience.

“We’re getting older and want to get this resolved,” he said.

Zink prefers to preserve the land, but he says, it’s going to take a village.

“We would be delighted if it ends up in public ownership and no driveway is built across the valley,” Zink said. “But it’s going to take a group effort to get there. We hope it’s time and all the pieces can come together and we can get there.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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