Wildcat Ranch – Pitkin County, Colorado
Nature-lovers, devout, silent, open-eyed looking and listening with love, find no lack of inhabitants in these mountain mansions…”
– John Muir
Project Summary – Significant growth pressures, a limited economic future in agriculture and limited public money for land
preservation are three critical issues that threaten our Western lands. Through a collective vision of the client, landscape
architects, consultant team and the public, the 6,800-acre Wildcat Ranch was planned to redefine the legacy of land in the
American West, preserve significant threatened land in perpetuity and propose a model for other lands facing a similar fate.
Approved in the early 1990s, Wildcat Ranch was planned to be the first conservation-based development of its kind in the
nation, setting the standard for future low-density development and preservation communities. Twenty years after the initial plan,
the efforts have culminated into a built environment which achieved measurable environmental, community and economical
significance – a Landmark Project for our profession.
Purpose of Project – Wildcat Ranch is nestled in Colorado’s Elk Mountain range, miles from the resort communities of
Snowmass Village and Aspen. Adjacent to the White River National Forest and the gold-medal Roaring Fork River, Wildcat
Ranch possessing some of the highest environmental value in the American West and exhibits all major Rocky Mountain
mammal species including black bear, mule deer, coyotes, wildcats, porcupine, red fox, multiple species of small animals and the
Roaring Fork Valley’s largest resident herd of over 200 elk. The ranch also possesses a 50-acre lake, the largest private body of
water in Pitkin County. These facts led to the core mission of using limited, very carefully designed development as a funding
source to save substantial and important land and wildlife. Ultimately, this mission was realized by placing over 90 percent of the
land in a conservation easement or open space set aside for perpetuity.
The threat to large tracts of open space in the West is imminent – and the preservation of the historic ranch was not a simple
task. In the 1980s, the previous owners of the property planned to build a ski village with multiple ski lifts, 5,000 housing units
for a population of over 10,000 residents, but were forced to sell the ranch due to financial problems. As Pitkin County’s largest
parcel of private land, the ranch’s environmental significance including critical habitat corridors concerned Pitkin County officials
and residents for years. Purchased by the new development team, the future planning effort took on a different concept.
“It was our intent to create a retreat that would maintain the integrity of the land – a retreat that would, through sensitive planning and a respect for the
environment, embody a freedom of spirit we felt when we first walked the property. Large acres of open space have been left untouched so that we and our
children and grandchildren may be touched by the beauty of the land.” – Developers of Wildcat Ranch
Role of Landscape Architect – In the days before the capabilities of GIS and other environmental data-atlasing resources, the
landscape architects, who served as the project’s lead consultants, approached the project using McHargian theory – synthesizing
layers of available data to understand critical environmental attributes. An open and collaborative process brought together the
development and consultant team with wildlife biologists, environmental scientists and sustainability experts from the project’s
inception. The initial data-gathering and site-analysis process was followed by a broad land plan that conceptualized where
development and conservation would be most appropriate on the land. Then detailed site-planning process further elaborated the
location of development including housing, circulation corridors, amenities and community-gathering areas.
The process looked at four unique paths of analysis (most attractive for development, human comfort, infrastructure cost and
natural resource preservation) and was developed to address three project challenges. First, the complexity of the land demanded
multiple data sets to be gathered and analyzed. Second, the project vision placed maximum value on using development to
maintain and enhance the wholeness, intactness and integrity of the land and its natural resources. Third, the process needed to be
able to separate natural-resources data from development potential information. The approach had to have the ability to
separately analyze all data sets and then summarize the most valuable data for the best possible decision-making tool.
The money spent on data gathering and analysis was aimed directly at increasing the value of the development and providing a
community-development model that could be replicated. The up-front involvement of environmental leaders from the
community directly influenced the approvals process and created an atmosphere of accord and collaboration rather than
Special Factors – Wildcat Ranch places the preservation of the land’s natural and historic character of the site as the most
valuable asset to the project. Having a vision to put people with the land, the plan called for a dramatic down-zoning of the
property – from 10,000 initially-conceived residents to 12 homesteads, each sized between 500-540 acres. Ridgetops, meadows
and large areas of open range were preserved for the protection and enjoyment of all property owners. The intent of the
extensive open space was to retain the mountain-ranch image, to conserve the abundant wildlife and to provide property owners
with a valuable recreational asset. The design embodied the multi-generation legacy concept, allowing clusters of buildings
arranged as family compounds within defined building envelopes. Roads were developed to maintain a rural character and were
planned for areas which would cause only minor disturbance.
Site development controls were addressed by the creation of a specific development envelope defining the area of the lot that can
be disturbed by grading and/or enclosed by fencing. In addition, a three-dimensional building envelope containing all buildings
was established within the development envelope. Within each 500-acre lot, two-acre building envelopes were established, thus
reducing total site disturbance to less than 50 acres of the 6,800-acre property. The risk of damaging, degrading or simply
ignoring and not embracing all the natural-resource value of the project was addressed through the rigorous land-planning
process. Before a home could be constructed, a Site and Architectural Review Committee had to review and approve each
owner’s plans to ensure their compliance with the ranch guidelines. Among the items the committee took into consideration
included exterior materials, massing and color, exterior lighting, landscape design, and site work. The guidelines were intended to
protect the wildlife, natural beauty, character and values of the Ranch. All land outside the development envelope was planned to
remain as open space with limited improvements allowed for erosion control or visual and wildlife enhancement.
A principal goal of the Ranch’s plan was the preservation and enhancement of wildlife habitat. Ninety percent of the land was
placed in conservation easement or open space for resident herds of elk, deer and bears with protected habitat areas and ongoing
habitat enhancement programs. A wildlife management plan, in consultation with the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW),
was created to provide a structured program for the administration of the fragile resource. The plan addressed winter and spring
range for migrating and residential animals; movement corridors; preservation of reproduction’ calving, fawning and social areas;
maintenance of courtship and mother-young areas for maximum species survival; bird habitat; and the dynamics of the other
large and small animals living within the Ranch. To accommodate the elk corridor, the plan allocated a mile-wide "migration
corridor" through the project, allowing the animals to move unhindered through the homes. As a part of the plan, certain areas
of the Ranch were set aside and will remain closed to intrusion during key periods of the year. Extensive conservation easements
were also established to be preserved in perpetuity for the benefit of the wildlife. Snowmobiles, motorcycles, mountain bikes,
dogs and fences too high for elk to scale were all banned within the property.
An aquatic management plan, also in consultation with CDOW, identified and set forth the administration of significant wetland
and riparian habitat to ensure the diversity of the species in and around the lake and riparian areas. The plan included regular
restocking and habitat maintenance and enhancement has maintained the outstanding fishing opportunities of the lake. The plan
prohibited gas-powered boats, allowing only electric, sail or oar-powered boats on the lake. In the winter, the lake is transformed
into a natural skating pond and ice fishing destination with associated cross-country trails traversing the Ranch.
Development of amenities in Wildcat Ranch has been planned to keep with the historic character of the property. Only those
facilities which will enhance a homeowner’s enjoyment of the Ranch have been constructed. The central stables and boathouse
on the lake were planned to be built in traditional ranch-style. The Ranch Center and accompanying stables are at the core of
more than 1,800 acres of common open space reserved and dedicated for the use and enjoyment of all homeowners. Historic
structures were planned for preservation or restoration and were converted to on-site ranch management as facilities, which
include all land management, full house management services, and recreation and wildlife programs.
Significance – Wildcat Ranch transformed development concepts across the American West and was the first-known,
conservation-based development of its kind in the nation. The concept set the precedent for similar developments conceived
since the project’s inception. Results of the team’s efforts have made Wildcat Ranch one of the most desired addresses in the
American West. From an economic standpoint, the plan supports the theory that one may gain a premium when placing value on
the protection and preservation of open space lands. Real estate analysts estimate that Homesteads, if available on the market
today, would be listed for 10 times of their original price listed less than two decades ago.
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