Banded Peak Ranch: Final piece protected in Navajo River watershed

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By Val Keefer
The Conservation Fund

This week, The Conservation Fund, Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) and USDA Forest Service announced the permanent protection of the 16,723-acre Banded Peak Ranch in Colorado’s southern San Juan Mountains. 

The protected land will connect a largely undisturbed forest landscape, prevent development in critical wildlife corridors and conserve an essential watershed that provides water to Colorado and New Mexico communities downstream. 

The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) played a critical role to permanently safeguard these private forestlands from the threat of development.

The completion of a conservation easement on Banded Peak Ranch is the final phase of a 30-year effort by The Conservation Fund in the Navajo River Watershed — protecting a total of 65,000 acres that connect wilderness ranches in the upper reaches of the watershed to conserved working ranches at lower elevations on the Navajo, Little Navajo and East Fork of the San Juan rivers. Permanent protection of these lands is the product of public-private partnerships involving 10 different ranches. 

Over the years, the Navajo River Watershed project area has attracted $37 million from federal, state and private partners, including private foundations, Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), the federal Forest Legacy Program and private landowner donations.

These privately owned lands are surrounded by some of the most remote, expansive and undisturbed national forest and wilderness lands in Colorado. As the last large unprotected property in the upper Navajo River watershed, Banded Peak Ranch completes the protection of a wilderness watershed and preserves one of the most important wildlife migration corridors for mule deer and elk in the Rocky Mountain region.

“The headwaters of the Navajo River is one of the wildest and most pristine landscapes we have protected in Colorado. It is a majestic place that has inspired many others to join us in the effort,” said Tom Macy, western representative of The Conservation Fund. “If we are going to see grizzlies return to Colorado, it is likely to be here.”

The watershed has critically important benefits for downstream users in Colorado and New Mexico, providing irrigation and drinking water for 1 million people in New Mexico, including 90 percent of Albuquerque’s surface water supply. Protecting Banded Peak safeguards 33 miles of streams on the ranch, including a 5-mile stretch of the Navajo River, along with 850 acres of riparian and wetland habitat.

Banded Peak Ranch — roughly 20 miles southeast of Pagosa Springs — hosts a premier deer and elk hunting program that provides stimulus to the regional economy, while the carefully managed timber operation supports regional wood processing mills. 

The ranch has been an active participant in the CSFS’s Forest Ag program for two decades and manages its forests with the guidance of a management plan written in conjunction with the agency.

“Our family has been dedicated to land conservation and land stewardship in Colorado and elsewhere for many years,” said Karin Griscom, the family’s representative. “We were privileged to partner with The Conservation Fund, which has diligently worked with us to protect strategic lands and wildlife corridors in the Upper Navajo River watershed over the last 20 years. We also greatly appreciate the help of the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado State Forest Service, elected officials and especially the Wyss Foundation, that were all instrumental in the protection of this legacy ranch.”

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail runs along the eastern border of the family’s properties for approximately 10 miles. Almost completely surrounded by 3.75 million acres of the San Juan National Forest, South San Juan Wilderness and Rio Grande National Forest, protection of the Banded Peak Ranch enhances the adjacent public lands by maintaining healthy forests, critical wetland and riparian areas, and crucial wildlife corridors. Fire modeling shows this ranch is the first line of defense in the watershed for reducing the risk and cost of wildfire.

The conservation easement on Banded Peak Ranch will be held by the CSFS. The two adjacent ranches — Catspaw and Navajo Headwaters — are owned by members of the same family and protected through a series of conservation easements held by the CSFS and Colorado Open Lands. These perpetual easements ensure that the natural richness and ruggedness of these lands will remain largely undisturbed, allowing ranch operations to continue while eliminating future subdivision for residential or commercial development.

“We’re proud to partner with The Conservation Fund, USDA Forest Service and owners of Banded Peak Ranch to conserve the myriad of ecological values on the ranch,” said Mike Lester, state forester and director of the CSFS. “By protecting Banded Peak and its forests from future development, we’re ensuring the public benefits that these forests provide — from clean air and water to habitat for our iconic wildlife — persist in Colorado for generations to come.”

“The Forest Service is committed to sharing stewardship of all lands by working with partners in an integrated way to make decisions and take actions for the greater good,” said USDA Forest Service Acting Regional Forester for the Rocky Mountain Region Jennifer Eberlien. “Through the Forest Legacy Program, public-private partners were able to work together to protect the Navajo River headwaters through a conservation easement. Its protection will maintain a multitude of public benefits such as wildlife habitat conservation and watershed protection and maintaining scenic values.”

The protection of Banded Peak Ranch was made possible by $7 million from the Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which is funded by the LWCF. The LWCF uses offshore drilling revenue — not taxpayer dollars — to fund conservation projects across the country. The Great American Outdoors Act, a bill which has passed both the House and Senate and is on its way to the president’s desk for signature, provides full and permanent funding for the LWCF and future conservation victories like this one. 

Realizing the opportunity to protect this last piece of the headwaters of the Navajo River, the Wyss Foundation provided funds to match the LWCF dollars.

“Thanks to the determination of The Conservation Fund and support from Coloradans demanding more protections for their lands and waters, Banded Peak Ranch will be preserved forever,” said Wyss Foundation President Molly McUsic. “Collectively, we must continue taking every opportunity to accelerate our conservation efforts, to safeguard imperiled wildlife and to ameliorate the worst impacts of a changing climate.”

Most of the wildlife species found along southern Colorado’s Continental Divide inhabit the Banded Peak Ranch. Elk, black bear, mountain lion, peregrine falcon, bald eagles, bighorn sheep and many others thrive in the area. Federally threatened Canada lynx also live on the property. 

The streams on Banded Peak Ranch support the recovery of the San Juan strain of the Colorado cutthroat trout, which was presumed extinct for 100 years until it was rediscovered on the ranch in 2018. Grizzly bears were once present in this remote wilderness area until the late 1970s. In fact, this was the last place in Colorado to host the iconic and threatened species. Two books were written about the grizzly bears’ presence in this watershed, including “Ghost Grizzlies: Does the Great Bear Still Haunt Colorado,” by David Petersen, and “The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado,” by Rick Bass.