Fast forward a few years, with the estimate from the Colorado State Demographer that the population of western Colorado will grow by a million people by 2030, and it doesn't take much to realize the tremendous pressures these and other areas face. If the estimates are correct, where will these people go?
The choice for both public and private interests boils down to this: Either think critically and act more carefully, or just passively accept the results of potential growth. Now a group of land preservation organizations have joined together to thoughtfully engage in this dialogue, with the intent of actively providing solutions.
Regional open space protection could get a boost if the Colorado Conservation Trust and its local partners are successful. Poised with expertise and partial funding in hand, the land trusts have formulated an ambitious program geared toward maintaining traditional ranching, critical natural areas and significant visual corridors in both the Northern and Southern San Juans.
The Northern San Juan Initiative, a cooperative program involving The Nature Conservancy, San Miguel Conservation Foundation, Trust for Land Restoration and the Black Canyon Regional Land Trust, along with CCT, focuses on much of what we see when on the drive from Telluride to Montrose or Ouray. If the Northern Initiative is successful, "Five thousand acres on the Montrose-Telluride side of the corridor will be protected," says Chris Herrman, Western Slope field director for CCT. That includes land on Dallas Divide and along the Uncompahgre River between Ouray and Montrose - land a lot of people wrongly assume will always stay as it is.
The Northern Initiative springs from an assessment of critical land conservation issues CCT conducted in 2004. Another recent assessment for the Southern San Juans focuses on the Dolores River Corridor, wending its way through Dolores and Montezuma counties. Take a trip to Cortez and the Dolores River keeps you company from Lizard Head all the way to McPhee Reservoir and beyond. The Southern Initiative relies on the Montezuma Land Trust as CCT's primary partner in working with landowners.
"Ouray and San Miguel counties are ground zero," says Ridgway Mayor Pat Willits of the Trust for Land Restoration. A longtime player in the regional land preservation and restoration process, Willits worked for The Nature Conservancy prior to helping establish TLR, a "Colorado non-profit land trust dedicated to the restoration of environmentally significant lands degraded by mining and other human activity."
As mayor of Ridgway, Willits also frets about the future of his town and county. "Ouray County is what I am most concerned about," he says. "There's no land trust here, although Black Canyon has done some work. But there's nobody sitting down with landowners, attending government meetings and advocating on the part of smart growth." That advocacy would also include the area where Ouray County "spills over Dallas Divide to San Miguel County."
CCT brings considerable muscle and expertise to these local efforts, and funding as well. The organization does not hold conservation easements or buy open space, but rather helps to raise money and build capacity in conservation organizations throughout the state, "fostering leadership, strategic initiatives and increased investments in conservation," according to its website.
"We provide funding and expertise to get people much more strategic," says Herrman. "Rather than one organization taking on these projects, we've created a partnership for each initiative. I'm a convener, a nudge-er, an advocate for the position.
"We have a bunch of priority areas," he explains, noting that the needs assessment, besides establishing open space protection priorities, also looked at "who the players are and what they need" to be effective.
"Despite all the good work being done, there still needs to be more," Herrman observes. Citing the work of the San Miguel County Open Space Commission, The Nature Conservancy and others in protecting Gunnison Sage Grouse habitat, as well as San Miguel Conservation Foundation's efforts in preserving Bear Creek, and the Trust for Public Lands success in bringing the Red Mountain Pass and high country above and east of Telluride into public ownership, Herrman worries about the land beyond those specific purpose preservation efforts.
For example, consider the land around Colona, down to Ridgway and on to Telluride. Traditional ranchlands dot the landscape, including Marie Scott's former spread that stretches up Dallas Divide. "No one is beating the bushes or thinking about Dallas Divide, working with traditional landowners and those with smaller parcels," says Herrman. "The San Miguel County Open Space Commission has done great work with the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust in the west part of the county, but no one is paying attention to Dallas Divide and the land to the east."
The players in the Northern Initiative have been meeting for over a year, figuring out the best structure, individual responsibilities and how to be most effective (the Black Canyon Land Trust has been tapped for land management responsibility) and TNC and CCT are helping with funding - CCT is seeding the coordinator position, providing half of the funds for two years. TLR is providing office space.
"We've done a good job putting together the infrastructure, but the clutch move will be finding the right person to manage the project," says Willits. That person will need a grounding in land conservation and open space protection, but even "more importantly has to be an ally to landowners," he emphasizes, by "helping them understand the mutual benefits to their land values, themselves and the place to achieve more land conservation."
Black Canyon will hire a person specifically devoted to developing relationships with landowners. "That will provide good capacity for the organization to do deals with interested landowners," explains Herrman. That person can also build support for local open space efforts, leveraging funding to do educational outreach, getting the message out about the effects of different land use patterns and how to be successful in preserving open space. With state and local efforts to increase open space preservation funding, Herrman hopes that communities and land trusts can be more effective.
The goal of the Southern Initiative is to protect about 1,000 acres in the Dolores River valley by 2007. Nina Williams, co-executive director of the Montezuma Land Conservancy based in Cortez, is upbeat about the potential for success. "It's a huge job, since land values along the Dolores are the highest in the area and landowners are not about to give the land away," she says. However, with $3 million already in hand from Great Outdoors Colorado and another $1.5 million for the Mancos area, funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm and Ranchland Protection program and CCT's capacity building help, the Land Conservancy is well on its way.
"It's very doable," says Williams. With negotiations underway with "a handful of landowners who have most of what is worth protecting," she sees the potential for achieving preservation of "the signature Dolores landscape." Unlike the Telluride area, however, there is no public funding for open space. "We're a pretty poor county," she says of Montezuma County.
"I'm thrilled [the Southern Initiative] was formed to look at the river valleys," she continues. Calling the "whole conservation easement process pretty complex," with several years sometimes needed to work through the process with a landowner, the "partnership with the Northern San Juan Initiative and CCT is bringing new energy to land conservation in the San Juans and making new money and resources available."
But while there are some sizable land parcels in the Northern Initiative area, Hermann observes, "most folks are smaller, multi-generational ranchers," for whom land trusts can be beneficial in helping to defray preservation costs - everything from buying easements to paying transactional costs to an outright purchase of development rights.
When asked what landowner response to the Northern Initiative is likely to be, Willits says, "that's the million dollar question." But he also takes heart from San Miguel County's success in working with ranchers. "We see progress in the West End of San Miguel and Montrose counties. Hats off to the San Miguel County Open Space Commission for bridging those gaps.
"There's a lot of pressure here in Ouray County, and we're fortunate to have a handful of landowners," adds Willits. "We still have smaller old-time ranching families" for whom San Miguel County Open Space Commission's "Schmid Ranch conservation effort was a catalyst." Willits would like to see a similar effort take place in Ouray County, with the Northern Initiative "lining up the pieces to help, if needed."
However, based on a "few conversations with Ouray landowners," Willits acknowledges the need for more concerted land preservation efforts. "They say that people don't have to worry, that [landowners] are not here as developers; rather, they own large ranches," he says. "That may be true, but there really seems to be a need to have a conversation about land preservation."
The Nature Conservancy fields calls "from people on Dallas [Divide] all the time, but if there are no critical species, it's hard for them to do [anything]," says Herrman, since TNC's conservation work is devoted to critical species habitat protection. The Northern Initiative will fill the gap, assuming responsibility for more of the land preservation process.