July 11, 2013 Updated: July 11, 2013 at 6:30 pm
Scientists, environmentalists and just plain outdoor lovers are hoping the city will purchase a section of Banning Lewis ranch to protect it from developers.
A total of 18,000 acres of the roughly 21,000-acre property on the city's east side are owned by Houston-based Ultra Petroleum Corp. The company bought the land out of bankruptcy in 2011 for oil exploration. After drilling at another site in an unincorporated part of El Paso County, the company announced in March that it would halt all local exploration projects, saying tests from the area proved oil to be "immature" and unsuitable for commercial use.
Now, members of the nonprofit Trails and Open Space Coalition want the city to purchase about 5,000 acres in Banning Lewis to keep it safe from development.
Bill Koerner, advocacy director for the coalition, said his group hopes Ultra will sell the city about 3,000 acres around the Corral Bluffs area and another 2,000 acres around the Jimmy Camp Creek area. The coalition wants to preserve the bluffs, connect two existing trails and establish a buffer so "multi-million dollar mega-homes" cannot be on the property. Acquisition of the property also would add about six miles to the Rock Island Trail, which would then link the city of Fountain to Colorado Springs.
Koerner said an Ultra official "immediately expressed an interest" in helping the open space coalition secure the property, but no price, timeline, amount of acreage or other details had been discussed as of Thursday, he said. An Ultra representative did not respond to a Gazette e-mail inquiry on Thursday.
"The bottom line is they would be interested in finding some arrangement with the city, so the property could be acquired by the city," Koerner said.
In June, during a county meeting, an Ultra official said the 18,000 acres "is up for sale in parts or as a whole." But afterward, in an e-mail to the Gazette, Doug Selvius, vice president, exploration, for the company wrote: "Ultra is not actively trying to sell the ranch. We are not soliciting offers for the ranch. Ultra has not retained a broker and has no immediate plans to do so. We have received a lot of interest and inquiries about our selling the ranch. We will entertain offers that are submitted to us - preferably for the entire ranch."
If the city purchased the property it would fall under the city's Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services department. Director Karen Palus said Thursday that no one from her department had spoken with Ultra. Other city officials could not be reached Thursday for comment on whether anyone has spoken with the oil company or if the city is interested in purchasing the property.
The Corral Bluffs are about 400 feet high and represent the last major formation on the city's east side, said Lee Milner, board member for the Trails and Open Space Coalition. The coalition believes the bluffs and Jimmy Camp Creek areas should be preserved not only for their scenic beauty but for scientific research. The bluffs are part of an area known as the KT Boundary. Milner said representatives from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and others believe the area is rich with fossilized history.
"The paleontology of the Jimmy Camp Creek area is quite extraordinary," he said.
Some developers have suggested the open space coalition should let development occur around the bluffs, which would likely leave the trails the coalition wants untouched without spending money to buy the property, Milner said. He said while that sounds good in theory, it is bad practice. He said the original developer was asking about $250,000 for lots surrounding the Bluffs before his company fell into bankruptcy.
"We don't want the St. Andrews effect like at the base of Palmer Park where giant houses are backed right up to the trail and destroy the feeling of the bluffs behind it," Milner said.
Contact Ned Hunter: 636-0275.