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Developers stake claims next to US parks

Rex Baker Jr., in Reeboks and cowboy hat, climbs over a series of moss-toupeed boulders and stares off in the distance at the Mummy Range, part of rumpled Rocky Mountain National Park. ``It is a beautiful park,'' says the Texas developer. ``I'm not going to do anything to hurt it.''

Environmentalists, however, think he is. They're worried that a resort community he wants to build along the edge of the park will endanger elk trails and sully one of America's most pristine and popular parks.

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The dispute erupting here amid the lodgepole pine and goblet-clear mountain lakes is symbolic of an emerging frontier in the clash between developers and environmentalists.

Civilization is increasingly encroaching on some of America's national parks and historic areas, and conservationists, among others, are worried.

The issue has been most starkly played out at the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia, where developers want to put a shopping mall next to the civil war site. Opponents are fighting that development in Congress.

Yet concern about spreading suburbs has also surfaced at the Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland, Minuteman National Historical Park near Boston, and Harper's Ferry in West Virginia.

Nor is the issue confined to old war sites. Anxiety continues about what will happen on private lands abutting Florida's Everglades, and a row is emerging over a new housing development planned near the entrance to Grand Teton National Park outside Jackson Hole, Wyo.

``It is a problem that has been building for a decade or so,'' says Bruce Craig, lobbyist for the National Parks and Conservation Association. ``It is coming to a head.''

Development on private lands around national parks has been less intense in the wide-open West than the congested East. But because of the pristine nature of many of the parks in the region, even the smallest projects can cause bitter battles.

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Most developers staunchly defend their right to build on their own land. Mr. Baker, for instance, who has already successfully fought his case in court, says flatly: ``If you own property, you do what you want with it.''

Yet environmentalists argue that parks are not islands but part of larger ``ecosystems'' that need to be protected and managed regionally. Thus what goes on outside the park can be as important as what goes on inside.

Frequently, sandwiched somewhere in between are National Park Service officials. They don't have jurisdiction over development on private lands but will make themselves heard, with varying degrees of intensity, among local planning authorities, who do have authority.

It is against this backdrop that rivalries are unfolding around Baldpate Estates, Baker's planned 515-unit development on a breathtaking slice of corrugated Colorado, seven miles south of this resort community.

The 550-acre site, to be developed over 20 years, would include up to 300 single-family homes, town houses, and condominiums, as well as perhaps three hotels. The units would straddle Highway 7 and surround Lily Lake, where part of the TV movie ``Centennial'' was filmed. Several of the units would come within 25 feet of the eastern boundary of the park.

Opponents argue the development is too dense to be so close to a national park. They maintain it will disrupt the migration of elk and befoul the air with chimney smoke.

The development, coupled with growth in neighboring Estes Valley, was one reason why the Wilderness Society recently put Rocky Mountain on a list of the 10 most endangered parks in the United States.

``In some ways we're talking about adding a whole new town,'' says Darrell Knuffke, the group's central Rockies director.

Baker sees things a little differently. The lawyer-developer, whose good-ole-boy demeanor masks a stern resolve, says that 60 percent of the acreage will remain open space, that elk rarely if ever wander through his area (``If you want to see elk, go into Estes Park. They're eating the roses.''), and that prevailing winds will whisk-broom whatever smoke there might be away from the park.

He says there are already bigger private developments in the area and that if environmentalists want to worry about people, they should consider the several million who visit the Rocky Mountain park each year.

``We're worried about the public intruding'' on our area, says the plaid-panted developer from his sales office, a former gift shop, at the foot of one of the rock-corniced Twin Sister peaks.

Last month Larimer County commissioners, the local governing body, unanimously granted Baker an extension on his deadline to submit plans for Baldpate II, the main part of the project. The first phase of the development, a series of mountainside estates, has already been approved, and sales of lots began in July.

Board Chairman Daryle Klassen says the county is hamstrung by previous court rulings in how much it can restrict the project. Nevertheless, he agrees the park faces bigger threats than condominiums in the conifers.

``If you want to put 100 landowners along the border of the park, they are going to be a lot more protective than the 2.5 million tourists who go through there each year,'' he says.

The National Park Service, for its part, has reservations about the development, though it hasn't voiced them as loudly as some environmental groups would like. James Thompson, the silver-maned superintendent of Rocky Mountain, notes that 40 percent of the park is surrounded by private land.

As these parcels diminish, their value will go up and developments will become more dense. This, Mr. Thompson says, could lead to a cutoff of access routes to the park and concentrate larger numbers of people in fewer areas. It will endanger animal corridors and despoil the aesthetics.

``It's symptomatic of the kind of future the park faces,'' he says of Baldpate. ``It is changing the natural scene to an urban setting.''

Despite the controversy amid the aspens, Baldpate looks likely to go forward. At least two conservation groups, meanwhile, are now actively trying to buy up other open space in urbanizing Estes Valley.

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