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Luxury houses cause stir in home of the elk : Developers say their plan takes pains to make room for the animals. Some environmentalists have doubts.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is calving season here in the Colorado Rockies, that annual window in time when the pregnant elk that roam the mountains surrounding this ski town split from their herd for three weeks to give birth.

Amateur naturalist Dan Kitchen waits all year for this moment. The self-employed window washer recently crouched for hours in the scrub oak and pinon pine before finally spotting a newborn calf toddling along in the moonglow behind its dun-colored mother.

But now Kitchen and fellow environmentalists in the Roaring Fork Valley are uneasy. Actor Michael Douglas--the latest in a flock of rich and famous folk to invest in this resort area--wants to build a luxury subdivision on 6,500 acres he owns 10 minutes from the Snowmass ski slopes.

Among Southern California conservationists, the actor’s project might seem a godsend: Douglas and his Houston partner, Niel Morgan, plan to scatter just 31 homes amid the aspens, spruce fir and sage that carpet their land. The smallest lot in Wildcat Ranch would be 44 acres, the largest, 390 acres.

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Only trouble is, the scenic property is home to 125 elk and is used as a migration route, breeding area and calving ground by as many as 500 more of the animals. Elk--magnificent creatures that were hunted to near extinction by miners around the turn of the century--have an almost sacred place in the region’s history. “There has been so much development on the elk’s historic habitat that Wildcat Ranch is one of the last undisturbed refuges they have left,” said Kitchen, 38, whose fight against the development is backed by the local Sierra Club chapter. “Elk are very timid. . . . You just can’t keep squeezing them into smaller and smaller spaces.”

Douglas, a frequent visitor to Snowmass who plans to build a vacation home of his own on the site, was out of the country and unavailable for comment. But the actor’s representatives in Colorado say he has taken pains to create a project that will allow humans and elk to coexist in harmony.

“The concept here is very unique--to permit homeowners to live in a wildlife preserve, not a real estate development,” said Bill Hegbert, whose Snowmass firm is marketing the $1-million to $3-million lots.

So far, the Pitkin County commissioners have given the project their blessing. In February, the development was approved in concept, but the layout of the homes could shift after a biologist completes a study of its impacts. As commission Chairman Herschel Ross sees it, Douglas’ plan is the best deal local officials can hope to cut for the land, a stunning tract of hollows, meadows and ridges that is by far the largest remaining private parcel in Pitkin County. Several previous owners--among them, Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher, who sold the land to Douglas for a reported $17 million last year--have proposed developments of far higher densities.

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“Obviously, the best solution from a wildlife standpoint would be no development,” Commissioner Wayne Ethridge said. “But let’s face it, this is private land, and that’s not realistic.”

With the astronomical real estate prices in the area--the median home price was $937,000 in 1989--the county cannot afford to buy Wildcat Ranch. So, “while some of the elk are bound to be displaced, we’ve just got to do our best to limit the disturbance,” Ethridge said.

By most measures, it would seem the developers have gone to great lengths to do just that. For starters, they down-zoned the property dramatically. To accommodate the elk, Douglas has left a mile-wide “migration corridor” through the project. Critics are skeptical, but proponents say this elk freeway will allow the animals to move unhindered through the homes.

Snowmobiles, dogs and fences too high for elk to scale will be banned in Wildcat Ranch.

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“The last thing we want to do is lose the elk,” said project manager Chuck Vidal. “So it’s frustrating when our opponents, who seem to be born-again, armchair wildlife enthusiasts, suggest otherwise.”

Kitchen contends the only way to build without harming the elk is to cluster the homes in one section of the property, a solution that is also favored by a state biologist.

“If he is truly an environmentalist,” Kitchen said referring to Douglas’ recent roles in an Earth Day television special and a documentary on dolphins, “then he’d do the right thing. . . .”

Clustering the homes, however, appears to be out of the question. As Vidal put it, to sell a lot for $3 million, “You have to make each person feel he and the elk are the only ones there.”

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