On September 22, 2014, the trustees of the Gates Family Foundation approved the latest (and final) in a series of multi-year grant commitments to work with land conservation and community partners around Colorado on the protection of four landscapes of statewide significance. These “Focus Landscapes” were selected based on criteria including the potential to protect biodiversity, habitat, agricultural and aesthetic resources, the potential for conservation activity at a significant scale, strong community support and potential to leverage investment by other partners.
Projects supported through this program include:
- $1.4 million over five years in North Park, working with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust
- $3.25 million over six years in Southeast Colorado, working with the Palmer Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy
- $2.03 million over five years in the Upper Colorado River Headwaters area in Grand and Eagle Counties, working through the Colorado Conservation Partnership through Colorado Open Lands and the Colorado Headwaters Land Trust
- $1 million over five years in the Upper Rio Grande River basin in the San Luis Valley, working with the Rio Grande Headwaters Land trust and its partners.
Profiles of activity in these four landscapes are provided below.
The first of the Foundation’s Focus Landscape initiatives got underway in 2011 to achieve landscape scale conservation of working ranch properties in North Park, Colorado. North Park is a high mountain valley. Situated along the North Platte River, it features strong, independent-minded communities and rich wetland habitats (including two national wildlife refuges). It is ringed by the Medicine Bow, Never Summer, Rabbit Ears and Park mountain ranges providing spectacular vistas. The area is a heritage landscape, containing many multi-generational ranches, and has been largely unaffected by growth pressures that have impacted other parts of the state. It is also important habitat for the Greater Sage Grouse (a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act). Between 2011 and 2014, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust worked effectively with local ranchers to protect approximately 12,000 acres through 9 separate conservation easements, leveraging GFF funds over 10:1.
The southeast quadrant of the state is the most intact, least protected landscape in Colorado, and is an area that is largely unvisited by the state’s residents. The region features vast expanses of untilled short grass prairie habitat, as well as significant cultural and historical resources, red rock canyons in the Purgatoire River basin, and a rich and historically important farming corridor along the Lower Arkansas River. Historic sites include Bent’s Old Fort, the Santa Fe Trail, Boggsville, the Amache World War II internment camp and the Sand Creek Massacre site. These places draw visitors interested in the region’s complex history. The region also features some of the most diverse and abundant bird habitat in the United States, as it is situated on the North American flyway.
Pressures on the area in recent years have included the purchase of agricultural water rights by Front Range cities (“buy and dry”), the proposed expansion of the US Army’s Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, and a historic drought. Over time, towns in the region have trended toward declining populations, and there is a continuing challenge to maintain a critical mass of economic activity.
The Foundation has partnered with an unusual coalition of resource conservation and economic development interests (including the Palmer Land Trust, Canyons and Plains (a heritage tourism coalition), the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, Guidestone/Landlink and The Nature Conservancy) who have a common goal to protect the area’s rich natural, cultural and historic resources as a driver for heritage tourism and related economic development opportunities. Over a five year period, this group hopes to expand land conservation, stewardship and agricultural infrastructure and advance development of heritage tourism opportunities built on these resources.
Colorado River Headwaters
The Colorado Conservation Partnership (CCP) comprises four of the state’s largest land conservation groups (Colorado Open Lands, the Conservation Fund, the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy), who first convened at the invitation of the Gates Family Foundation in 2007 to identify 25 statewide large landscape protection priorities. This group is now working together to focus on one of those areas - the upper Colorado River headwaters region in Grand and Eagle counties.
The Foundation is working with CCP, as well as Eagle and Grand county governments, the Eagle Valley Land Trust and the Colorado Headwaters Land Trust over a period of 5-7 years to provide seed funding for the protection of up to 22,000 acres of high-priority private lands, including many centennial ranches, as well as important wildlife habitat. This effort hopes to improve recreational access and identify opportunities to build upon local and regional efforts to manage the river and its tributaries for multiple objectives (healthy habitat and recreational benefits as well as water supply). The project, if successful, will nearly triple the amount of conserved land in the region and will help protect the quality and quantity of flows in the upper Colorado River and its tributaries.
Upper Rio Grande Headwaters
Multiple conservation values overlap in the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers, and other tributary corridors in the San Luis Valley. These corridors are home to sizeable ranches and their associated senior water rights, wildlife habitat and scenic landscapes. Unlike the fragmented river systems often found in the West, the Colorado portion of the Rio Grande and the Conejos River corridors contain a majority of relatively intact traditional farms and ranches. Approximately 50,000 acres of private land remain in 80-acre or larger parcels, many still owned by multi-generational ranch and farm families. In the San Luis Valley agriculture remains a leading economic driver with one out of every three “base industry” jobs tied back to agriculture. Keeping a critical mass of agricultural land intact is vital to sustaining this economy and heritage. In addition, the river corridors support abundant wildlife, including at-risk species such as the federally endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, a candidate species for federal listing. These riparian areas provide important habitat for many waterfowl, shorebirds, water birds, and migratory birds, as well as winter range and migration routes for big game such as moose, elk, deer and Canada lynx.
The San Luis Valley is prioritized in numerous regional and national bird conservation plans and the Rio Grande’s riparian corridors are identified by both national and statewide ecological studies as priority areas for conservation. The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) launched the landscape scale Rio Grande Initiative in 2007 with the initial goal of conserving at least 25,000 acres through voluntary, incentive-based means. Since 2007, 18,000 acres have been protected through conservation easements. RiGHT and its partners have the opportunity to surpass the original 25,000 acre goal by conserving additional ranches along the Rio Grande and its tributaries, particularly the Conejos River, over the next five years.