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Colorado’s Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Department and the Conservancy have agreed to jointly hold an easement to preserve the Sopris site, a very unusual high-altitude site near the town of Basalt. Situated at an elevation of over 7,800 feet, Sopris was identified and documented by Metcalf Archaeological Consultants, a cultural resource management firm, and the Colorado Office of the State Archaeologist. The site could be more than 5,000 years old, and it was apparently occupied from the Middle Archaic to the Late Prehistoric periods. Of the 187 prehistoric sites recorded in Pitkin County, only nine date to the Archaic period. 

Sopris’ age is based on the styles of projectile points and other lithic artifacts that were found there. Some of these items, which were not made from local stones, could have been procured from sources hundreds of miles away.  These artifacts suggest a long occupation or multiple episodes of seasonal occupations over thousands of years. Archaic period groups tended to move from one area to the next during the most advantageous times, a pattern known as “seasonal round.” For example, they would settle in on a riverbank when the fish were most plentiful, or camp in an oak grove when the acorns were ready to harvest. It’s not clear what attracted people to the Sopris site.

An easement is a partial ownership interest that restricts how the owner can use the surface of the property. The easement protecting the Sopris site prohibits building on the property and prevents further subdivision of the land. The easement document is recorded in the courthouse and it binds future owners of the land to this agreement. 

Pitkin County was deeded the easement in exchange for two transferable development rights (TDRs) that were granted to the owners by the county. The county’s TDR program, which was implemented in 1994, grants property owners transferable credits in exchange for forfeiting their development rights to preserve open space, archaeological sites, and even historic houses. Once granted, TDRs can then be sold to property owners and developers. The market value of TDR rights has changed over the years based on supply and demand. The rights can be used to allow a holder to build in Aspen’s restricted urban growth boundary. They can also be used to allow an owner to build homes larger than the county’s maximum square footage of 5,750. 

The Conservancy was invited to co-hold the easement by Pitkin County because of our expertise and experience in managing archaeological preserves. The Conservancy has already drafted a management plan for the preserve.