The sole function of land — its ecosystems and all life therein — is to perpetuate itself. Plants or creatures at every (in)conceivable scale feast upon one another, building soil, circulating water, and distributing byproducts — infinitely. Land is nourishment; it’s that simple.
A simple concept, but easy to lose sight of when the very living tissue of the planet (farm fields, pasture, habitat) are pushed out of communities in favor of over-simplified, man-made environments. That is why Paul Holsinger’s job exists: to keep people of the Roaring Fork and Crystal River Valleys close to a source of sustenance.
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails’ Agriculture and Conservation Administrator Paul Holsinger is no stranger to “ag” or stewardship. He grew up an hour west of Chicago and his grandfather owned a dairy.
“It’s a fleeting memory,” Holsinger chuckles ruefully. ”Going and seeing it before it they sold. Now it’s a neighborhood.”
He describes growing up by cornfields, late-summer play among their rustling rows. Middle schoolers were bussed in for summer labor, he says, walking two and three rows wide, pulling corn silk to force it into seed corn. Today, that land yields an outpatient surgery center.
Holsinger’s parents were both teachers and the family spent all their holidays and summers up north, “right on the border of the U.P.” he says, referencing the legendary Upper Peninsula of Michigan, known for its raw, feral landscapes of forests, streams, rivers, and lakes.
“That was our vacation. We didn’t go anywhere else. No money for anything else,” he reflects. “But there was the cabin,” one the family was “able to build after some time, on a lake, Stormy Lake. That’s where I got to ‘know a place’ through seasons. We’d go up every time we could during the school year, so I’d see the change.”
Stormy was the perfect swimming lake – no spooky stuff, just clear, sandy-bottomed, and spring-fed, “It wasn’t just one spring coming up in one spot. It came up through the entire lake bed,” he marvels, wholly conscious of the plight of Western water.
He speaks of rock bass and trout, muskie and pike. He recalls bald eagles in unjaded reverence, and the ear-tugging, haunting wail of loons.
“After all that? I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I was gonna skateboard!”
Banging out prerequisites at a community college, academics and the great outdoors merged, at last, pointing Holsinger toward a future.
“I took environmental ethics and an environmental science course with a great professor who’s still there, Joe Haverly. He took us on a trip to Canada and we did naturalist studies.” He says the impact of those experiences still informs his work today.
Holsinger’s other grandfather then turned him on to AmeriCorps, working outside with the Forest Service. As a young technician, laboring in the National Forest felt about as cool as skateboarding.
Landing at Colorado State University (CSU), Holsinger couldn’t have asked for a better advisor in the Natural Resource program than Dr. George Wallace. As he tends to do with keen students, Dr. Wallace took Holsinger under his wing, pointing Holsinger to courses and opportunities typically aimed at graduate students.
“If you want to make a real difference,” Holsinger says, “if you want to work with private people, this is a sector that is a most dramatic change, physically, on the ground. There are private parcels that could either be wildlife habitat and agriculture — or houses. You can make a big difference protecting all these private places.”
Holsinger gained valuable experience quickly. “I did a lot of independent studies with George,” who is well known for the land planning and conservation work he has led in developing countries around the world. The one-on-one mentoring resulted in advanced credits toward a double major in Parks and Protected Lands, as well.
Holsinger grew up in an extended and very religious Swedish family. He shed the religion but the moral compass stuck. Internships, a venerable fellowship, and volunteering in conservation organizations exposed Holsinger to the intricacies of varying conservation models and missions. Not even out of the chutes, Holsinger was schooled in the nuances, protocols, and diplomacy necessary to forge enduring relationships in conservation at a state-wide level.
Roles with Legacy Land Trust and Colorado Cattlemen’s Land Trust primed Holsinger for Pitkin County Open Space (OST). Gary Tennenbaum, not yet OST’s director, invited Holsinger to apply his experience with ranchers and farmers to OST’s Ag Lease Program.
“It was uneventful,” says Holsinger. “For a while. It was 2012 then, with only three leases: Emma Open Space, Thompson Creek Open Space with Bill Fales, and Cozy Point was run by the City of Aspen.”
In the beginning, OST was just happy to have someone care for the land and water. By 2014, there were 11 grazing, ranching, and management leases across 4,700 acres. Complications arose with a lease at the end of its run; a distiller enquired about growing potatoes. Confusion and accusations ensued. The lessee bowed out and the distillers broke ground the same year that OST secured Glassier.
The scale and breadth of Glassier merited more public input. In the past, nearby landowners had been enlisted to steward parcels. Glassier had a house, outbuildings; 114 of its 136.7 acres were fertile, irrigated farmlands. There was a large hayfield; two sections sandwiched the house; existing fence lines and an irrigation ditch.
“We needed a formal process for applications and leases,” Holsinger says. Had a process been in place, conversations over the Emma lease would have been public record, not side conversations between private citizens with Holsinger in the middle. “I need protection and oversight so people don’t think I’m off willy-nilly, signing leases.”
“We borrowed a lot from Boulder County Open Space,” Holsinger says of researching successful programs. “We drafted the new lease process in-staff. First draft went to the Open Space Board. We put it back out to the public for comment; nothing drastic came back. It was adopted by the OST Board, and then presented to the Board of County Commissioners because we were going to use it to lease out Glassier.”
Engaging in the public process, a young group of interested farmers successfully motioned for smaller parcels within Glassier, seeking to open more doors to small-scale ag in the valley.
“Some farmers have made it; some of them didn’t,” Holsinger says. “They all have a passion. I think part of it is, you’re growing up and you’re in that funny transition. From 20 to 30 is a big decade, when you’re figuring out what you want to do. You have dreams, and maybe some romanticized dreams, about working a farm. And once you get into it, it’s a little more than you thought. And maybe a little more management than you wanted to get into.”
Holsinger’s days vary, working with each farmer. “They follow me. I follow them. They all have ideas for properties and they know it’s going to take support from the county. I work with them to figure out what that support will look like, how much I can push that support without making it so dramatic it’s going to leave a bad taste. Little steps.”
What’s up next for Holsinger?
OST ecologist Liza Mitchell and Holsinger will wrap up studies on regenerative test plots at Glassier while an engineer tackles irrigation efficiency and effects. Current OST farmers have proven resourceful, funding significant infrastructure improvements on their parcels through federal and regional grants. OST hopes to be able to offer up new parcels to additional farmers and ranchers.
“Seeing what can happen on small acreages with houses, barns, water — it’s a feasible buy for Open Space and Trails now.”