A 10-year plan for conservation in Pagosa

The West: that legendary place of wide expanses of land — wilderness and ranches that stretch forever, rivers that wind and rush, endless skies.

A place where the very qualities that make it extraordinary are the ones that attract the kind of development that may ultimately change its fabled face irrevocably.

But, if developers are inspired, so are land conservationists, like one local agency, the Southwest Land Alliance (SLA), which is setting out with more purpose than ever before to help protect some of the features of our area that make it The West. However, there’ll be no good guy/bad guy schisms in this particular western tale, because as the director of the SLA told The SUN this week, “There are no good guys and bad guys: developers develop, ranchers ranch, and what we do is try to conserve land.”

All things have their place, and ideally they can all manage to share some of the same space. Ours is a story not of the old-fashioned, shoot ‘em up western variety, but rather of a new era of western yarns where co-existence reigns because it has to — there’s not as much land to go around anymore, you see.

Some SUN readers may remember reading of the 6,300-acre conservation easement, situated just three miles southwest of downtown Pagosa, called the Alpine Cascade Ranch, which will preserve nearly 10 square miles of prime wildlife habitat and nearly seven miles of the San Juan River corridor. The significance of this easement, the second largest land preservation deal in Archuleta County history, does not end with this single swath of protected land. The story, like the land itself, stretches out and encompasses much more that is of consequence; for the Alpine Cascade Ranch is just one of a small group of key properties in the upper San Juan watershed that have been singled as essential to the integrity of our western landscape and lifestyle. This area is critical to wildlife linkages for dozens of wild species, and it is home to some of the most scenic landscapes and historically important ranchlands in our region, according to The Conservation Fund, an influential national agency that partnered with the Southwest Land Alliance to create the 10-year conservation vision they’re calling the “Upper San Juan River Watershed Project.” The central goal of the project is the protection of six large “cornerstone” properties, with a combined area of nearly 13,000 acres.

The SLA points to an excerpt from John Fayhee’s book “Along Colorado’s Continental Divide Trail” to illustrate the grandeur of the area they seek to help protect: “The next morning, we passed through the last and the best part of the South San Juan Wilderness. We hiked all morning at 12,200-plus feet, along a plateau that spread in every direction for miles beneath Summit Peak, Montezuma Peak and Long Trek Mountain. I had heard stories about this magnificent place, but had always figured they were a little tainted by embellishment and exaggeration. But both the fact and the spirit of those tales were true. With storm clouds gathering and the full power of the Colorado tundra welling up around us and within us, we excited the wilderness area. I am a man who has trod atop some tundra in his time, but never before had I experienced alpine grandeur of this degree and caliber,” wrote Fayhee.

The SLA and The Conservation Fund have focused their preservation lens on the upper San Juan River and its surrounding lands in part because it’s such a huge feature of Archuleta County, said Michael Whiting, director of the SLA. Whiting thinks that The Alpine Cascade Corporation was willing to commit fully to the land easement largely thanks to the context and clout that the Upper San Juan Watershed Project brought to the table. The 10-year plan, Whiting said, was a catalyst in deepening the conversations between the SLA and the Cascade Corporation and forming them into a land conservation agreement. And, in turn, the SLA hopes that the Alpine Cascade easement will be a catalyst that activates more easement agreements in the areas marked as cornerstone properties in their ten-year plan.

The plan, for its part, was drafted for more reasons than simply creating context, or catalyzing agreements, although these are important functions of the document. Additionally, the Upper San Juan Watershed Project was submitted as a funding proposal to Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), a trust fund created in 1992 by Colorado voters to allocate a portion of state lottery proceeds to projects that preserve, protect, and enhance Colorado’s wildlife, parks, rivers, trails, and open spaces. Since it began awarding grants in 1994, GOCO has awarded almost $549.8 million for more than 2,700 projects throughout the state. And the SLA and The Conservation Fund (which has successfully petitioned GOGO funds in the past, for projects like a Navajo River Watershed Project) hope to leverage $5 million of GOCO funds in the next few years towards the Upper San Juan River Watershed Project.

The Conservation Fund is responsible for helping to protect 180,000 acres in Colorado. While the local Southwest Land Alliance — operating for over 25 years under volunteer efforts, and since 2005 as a professional agency — has a number of important successes under its belt already. In addition to creating easements at the Alpine Cascade Ranch and other key properties, the SLA seeks to work with developers, rather than against them, to develop in ways that will incorporate conservation components within construction plans. Whiting said, There’s a balance that must be found between agriculture, development and pure conservation. Development is inevitable, but not everywhere and not at any cost.

“We’re working with the developers of Blue Sky Ranch,” was one example that Whiting gave of the potential for intentional development. “Blue Sky used to be known as the Valley View Ranch and we were excited about some initial conversations we had with them. We’re always interested in working with any developer — conservation or otherwise — that wants to incorporate conversation elements into their property.”

Still, Whiting said, although it is great to develop in a more conscientious way, there is nothing like a true conservation easement for maintaining the iconic western lands this state is known for. “From the landowner’s perspective, the built or developed environment is not a legacy, because it’s not forever. The preserved environment is the true legacy, because it’s the only thing that persists.”

“For example,” Whiting joked, “the Grand Canyon gets more Grand Canyony everyday, whereas even something as renowned as the pyramids in Egypt get less pyramidy everyday. The Alpine Cascade Ranch or Four Mile Ranch or any of the other six easements we did last year are always preserving the integrity of this county.” And Whiting hopes that trend will continue over the next 10 years and beyond. Because, as Sidney Macy of The Conservation Fund wrote in a letter to GOCO: “The Upper San Juan river is a dramatic and spectacular landscape, which is truly emblematic of Colorado.”

Photo courtesy Bruce Andersen
This view of the Alpine Cascade Ranch conservation easement is of land that will be preserved in perpetuity in Archuleta County.