Whose Field of Dreams?
by Seth Cagin
Aug 23, 2011 | 5198 views | 2 2 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A TRAIL on the west end of the Valley Floor near Society Turn. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
A TRAIL on the west end of the Valley Floor near Society Turn. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
In Telluride, the Valley Floor is once again demonstrating its remarkable ability to divide the community, this time with the help of prairie dogs.

We’ve been arguing over this spectacular piece of land for over two decades, first over what kind of development to permit, if any, and if we felt that some development might be appropriate we disagreed over how to negotiate with the land’s longtime owner to plan it. Once a majority decided the land should be preserved, we debated how to accomplish that objective. Then we argued over how to pay for the acquisition; and now, since the town has owned it, there have been endless talks over how the Valley Floor should be managed.

A field of dreams, the Valley Floor excites the imagination by its very emptiness: anyone may imagine it to be whatever they would like it to be: if development there is off the table, then instead we can debate whether it is a suitable place for dogs to run, for mechanized trail grooming to suit Nordic skiers, as a landing pad for hang-gliders; and, indeed, whether prairie dogs are a cornerstone species on the landscape or a desecration of it.

This summer’s effort by the Telluride Town Council to seek a balance – creating a prairie dog reserve on a part of the property – is now arousing furious antipathy from folks who not only believe that the prairie dogs are unsightly, digging up the land, but a threat to spread disease and to proliferate all over town.

And in opposition to this view are those who believe there is room for this endangered species on the Field of Dreams, that scenic beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that the fear of disease is vastly overblown.

In other words, are the prairie dogs more akin to squirrels or to rats?

To the best of my knowledge there has rarely if ever been a campaign anywhere to eradicate squirrels from a park, while virtually nobody wants to protect a colony of rats.

As there are more and more reports of prairie dogs sighted in town, dead and alive, apparently healthy or possibly diseased, indignation from those who believe they are glorified rats mounts. There seems little doubt at this point that the Town Council should be prepared to revisit the issue, with emotions higher than they were the last time around.

I suppose I should reveal that having grown up in Boulder and not on a ranch, I have a fondness for prairie dogs. I remember there being a prairie dog colony near my preschool, at what is now a busy commercial intersection, and I remember being taken to watch the animals pop in and out of their holes and being totally entranced by them. Some years ago I read a book about the ecology of the Great Plains and was deeply impressed by the argument that prairie dogs are a cornerstone species, and by a discussion of all the roles they play, making them essential to a well-functioning ecology where they have a niche.

They are not a natural part of this high alpine ecology, some might argue. No niche here.

Well, I don’t know about that. The Valley Floor long ago ceased being a naturally functioning ecosystem. Before miners arrived and channelized the river, we can surmise that the lowlands of the Valley Floor were filled with beaver ponds. Who knows if there were prairie dogs on the dry uplands? But we also know that there were wolves and Grizzlies in the neighborhood, whose absence is clearly felt.

In any case, my imagined Valley Floor – as it may have existed before human interference – is as much an expression of my sensibility as is anyone else’s vision for what the Valley Floor was, is or can be. I’m in what is surely a minority and would be thrilled to see a Valley Floor wolf pack chasing the Valley Floor elk around and keeping the prairie dogs honest. Not that I think that it will ever happen, at least not in my lifetime.

I remember meeting Neal Blue years ago to ask about his plans for his prized property, back when some of us thought we might broker an agreement for its future, and hearing his vision for the most fabulous and exclusive resort in the world, a hotel, a golf course with homes on the fairways, a gondola link to the ski area, and artificial lakes. When I mentioned the possibility of a restored ecosystem instead, and suggested that the opportunity to visit a rare high altitude wetlands might be more of a tourist draw than yet another high altitude golf course, his wife was absolutely horrified.

Why would anybody want to come see that? she asked, incredulous.

I can easily guess which side of the prairie dog debate Mrs. Blue would be on.

The Blues’ concept of beauty was as abhorrent to me as my concept of beauty was incomprehensible to them. Moreover, Mr. and Mrs. Blue seemed to feel that a stranger’s suggestion for how their property ought to be used was impertinent, at best. Now they no longer own all of the Valley Floor (just key parts of it). We residents of Telluride own the bulk of it. And some locals are as far apart from other locals as the Blues and I were far apart almost twenty years ago.

This is, of course, ultimately why these Valley Floor arguments become so heated. How we see that land is an unmistakable reflection of who we are. Our disparate visions of what that land was, is or could be separates us, our opposing visions show us how much we differ in temperament and fundamental values, and this divides us. We fight over the Valley Floor as if we were fighting over the very soul of Telluride, which in a sense is precisely what we are doing.

Because we all know that one person’s paradise can be another person’s abomination.

And the poor prairie dogs are now caught up in the middle of this collision of sensibilities.

Are they rodents to be exterminated? Or a cornerstone species to be protected?

These are irreconcilable views. Council will most likely try to refine the compromise, to find a better way to satisfy both sides, to protect the prairie dogs as much as possible without imposing them on the rodent haters. Once again, the Valley Floor will define us, as a community.

Manage the prairie dogs? Move them? Exterminate them?

It will be interesting to see how this one plays out.

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August 25, 2011
This is the Tragedy of The Commons writ large and comical.

Any attempt to manage a piece of property as a wilderness area with a gas station and highway running through it one mile from an airport and adjacent to the homes of thousands of people is a pretty fine joke.

On whom and by whom the joke is being played is a more interesting question. It seems the jokers and the jokees are one and the same, which makes it an even finer spectacle. I think Mr Blue must be chuckling pretty hard.
August 24, 2011
A while back I sent along a scientific paper on the use of contraceptive laced baits to control prarie dog populations to the town government. I have yet to see it mentioned in any public discussion but perhaps it has been. It seems to me to be a humane and cost effective way to keep a lid on the population. Properly used the population can be controlled but not eliminated.

Greg Craig