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Rabbitbrush Rambler

Posted: Monday, Jun 29th, 2009

Protecting land, water, habitat, agriculture

Along the Rio Grande corridor, natural resources, habitat, and agricultural land are at risk. Each time a new sign for a development or business goes up, I shudder.

I can understand why investors want to make money by buying and selling land. I can also understand why homeowners want to buy some space with a view on a lot bigger than an urban-style quarter of an acre.

It also is understandable to me why some farmers and ranchers decide to give up the old place if the youngsters have chosen different life styles or are facing big inheritance taxes in the near future. It takes an especially deep emotional attachment to a place and a way of life for families to dig in their heels and stay.

Nevertheless, understanding such issues does not make me like what I have seen along the Rio Grande corridor from Creede to Alamosa during the past generation or so. The only places that are immune to this creeping fungus of development are the 25 percent of acreage along the river that is presently protected by public lands and conservation easements.

Besides the protections offered by public lands, easements on private lands are a viable way to protect what remains of the corridor. Here is some information that I have gathered over the years, sort of like Conservation Easements 101.

A conservation easement is a legally binding agreement, placing a restriction on a piece of property to conserve its resources, such as agriculture, open space, wildlife habitat, forests, history, or even recreation. At the same time, an easement limits certain types of development.

About 25 years ago, the only conservation easement in our area was the La Garita ranch and fishing club owned by the Phipps family at Wagon Wheel Gap. When I tried to discuss easements among a few rancher friends, their reaction was hell no or words to that effect, because property owners did not want to tie the hands of their younger generation, they said.

Owners now understand also that easements bring some tax benefits that can make the real-life difference between keeping a ranch or giving it up. Many younger folks wish to continue ranching and farming and value the opportunity to protect the environment besides.

It is true that monetary value may be less with an easement because of the loss of potential for development, but the owner still can lease land to other agricultural users and most importantly, can keep their property or sell it if they wish.

Although some private land owners donate easements to a trust, others are paid for by the trust. In addition, the trust must monitor the land to ensure that its uses do not violate terms of the easement.

In the San Luis Valley today, we have several nationwide, statewide, and local land trusts that hold easements. Nationwide trusts operating here are The Nature Conservancy and American Farmland Trust; a statewide trust is Cattlemen Agricultural Land Trust; and local ones are the Orient, Crestone, and Rio Grande Headwaters (RiGHT) Land Trusts.

Those operating in the Valley have adopted the standards and practices endorsed by the Land Trust Alliance, a national umbrella organization that assures responsible and ethical operations, in sharp contrast to some devious practices that have caught the eye of the IRS elsewhere. Now 10 years old, RiGHT is also in the process of obtaining accreditation from the Land Trust Alliance, as an additional step to assure reliability.

RiGHT has several easements throughout the Valley to conserve the land, water, habitat, open space, and way of life of our area, but this local organization is of particular interest to me because of its work along the Rio Grande corridor. RiGHT has undertaken an ambitious project called the Rio Grande Initiative, a “collaborative effort to protect strategic and critical private lands along the Rio Grande as it flows through the San Luis Valley,” running for 175 miles.

In just the past year, the Rio Grande Initiative, Ducks Unlimited, and the Nature Conservancy succeeded in protecting five properties with easements along the Rio Grande - the Rio Oxbow, Knoblauch, Jansen, River Valley 1, and Gilmore Ranches. Five more easements along the river are in the works this year.

Working cooperatively, the undertakings of these organizations have had the assistance of Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Colorado Conservation Trust, the Gates Family Foundation, county governments, and others.

More good news came on June 22 when GOCO announced a grant of $520,000 to RiGHT for an easement on a 354-acre ranch between Del Norte and Monte Vista that goes by the designation of River Valley 3.

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