When the Flagstaff community wants an undeveloped area preserved as open space, they find ways of coming together to get it done.
That was once again proven last week when the Museum of Northern Arizona announced that enough money had been raised to conserve close to 90 acres of museum-owned property just north of Flagstaff and east of Fort Valley Road, often referred to as Colton Meadows.
The effort has been close to three years in the making and was designed as an alternative to developing the property fully that was purchased by the museum in 1977 as an investment. The Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) raised just over $3 million, which officials said allowed them to largely conserve the area.
Chair of the MNA Board of Trustees Troy Gillenwater told the Arizona Daily Sun that in his view, the achievement has proven to be a win-win for both MNA and community values.
“What it really proved to me is just how great this community is, that everybody banded together and saw what we were trying to do. And the great thing is it's such a win, win, win,” Gillenwater said.
The area, which includes both undeveloped meadow and forested area on five 18-acre parcels of land, is often used by elk, deer and recreationists.
There is an informal bike trail frequently used by cyclists on the 90 acres east of Fort Valley and between North Quintana Drive and West Mount Elden Lookout Road.
“There's no loser in this. I mean that wildlife habitat and the social trails, they're preserved for perpetuity -- which is fantastic. And at the same time, we’ve helped grow our endowment,” Gillenwater said.
Still, there will be some development even with the easement with three homes to be built. Each home will be located within a 1.33-acre building envelope, with the balance of property preserved.
In 2017 MNA's board began discussing how the 90 acres the museum owned north of Flagstaff could be used to help support the institution.
Development of the area was one possibility, and it had received at least one offer from a developer to construct a new subdivision in the area. But in the end, the board voted to go down a different path, said MNA Executive Director Mary Kershaw.
But even so, Kershaw said something had to be done with the property in order to support the museum.
”This is something that the board and I have discussed at length and are of one mind about. This land was purchased as an investment,” Kershaw said.
It was thus decided that if MNA could find enough donors to provide a similar level of funding that selling the property would generate, MNA would then conserve the area.
In 2019, donors contributed $1.2 million to preserve two of the 18-acre parcels. And in the years since, other donors have come forward to preserve the remaining three.
One of those community members was Craig Steele.
Steele lives with his wife Heidi Wayment on property just to the east of the area and decided to donate $600,000 to the effort. From their property on the top of the escarpment, Steele said, he and his wife often see elk and deer grazing in the area.
“I see a lot of little ones, too. It’s nice to be able to have a chunk of land for the deer and the elk and the other native animals and plants to get the space they need without too much human interference,” Steele said.
Not everyone contributed such significant amounts but still wanted to pitch in. Several residents of The Senior Living Community located near the area made and then auctioned off quilts to help raise money to preserve the property.
Now that the about $3 million has been raised to preserve the land, the five parcels will be placed under a permanent conservation easement and held by Coconino County.
“So that money will be invested for the long-term benefit of MNA and I think that’s something that, for such a sizable sum, is really important,” Kershaw said.
The money will go into MNA’s endowment, where it will continue to generate funds to sustain the museum.
The conservation easement will prevent all building or development on the property, preserving the acreage as open space for wildlife, recreation and noninvasive research. The only permitted uses are noninvasive research and trails, including specifically allowing for future trail improvements and easements for the Flagstaff Urban Trail System.
The county has long sought to create better connectivity between popular trails to the north of Flagstaff and the city’s urban trail system.
Traditionally, several social trails, often across private property, have connected the city and to trails north of Flagstaff, but the conservation of this property may go a long way in formalizing those connections.
Still, sections of the connector trail still pass over private property to the north and south of the now-conserved land.
Updated for correction at 11:01 a.m. on Sept. 23.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund.