By The Nature Conservancy
A broad-based, public-private effort
to protect water and wildlife habitat along Colorado's Rio Grande River secured the protection of more than 2,200 acres and six miles of river after the partners successfully negotiated a series of transactions in the past several weeks.
Spearheaded by the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, the Rio Grande Initiative was developed to protect critical private lands along Colorado's 175-mile reach of the river’s corridor. Voluntary conservation easements have been placed on four ranches resulting in the protection of prime agricultural land in the Rio Grande Corridor that also serves as crucial wildlife habitat. A fifth easement is currently being finalized.
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Gov. Bill Ritter, who announced in 2007 that the Rio Grande Initiative had been designated a Legacy Project by the Great Outdoors Colorado Board and awarded $7.4 million, said the river's waters sustain productive farms and ranches that were founded before Colorado became a state, and wildlife thrive along its impressive length.
He feels all Coloradans should be heartened to know that in these difficult economic times, creative people came together to protect the land, water and wildlife that are so vital to the local landscape. The funds were used to secure senior water rights along the Rio Grande that are part of the conservation easement transactions.
"One word describes the CWCB's decision to help the San Luis Valley protect its land and water: leadership," says Charles Bedford, director of The Nature Conservancy's Colorado Chapter.
The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited completed negotiations on two of the four properties with the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust completing the other two. Funding for the projects came from a portion of Lottery funds awarded to the Rio Grande Initiative
as well the Colorado Conservation Partnership
to advance the Colorado State Wildlife Action Plan. The funding from CCP was made possible as a part of a $2 million grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to help implement on-the-ground wildlife conservation projects in Colorado among, other states.
Landowners key to initiative's success
In all four projects, the landowners themselves made significant contributions in conserving their own properties, contributing more than $3.9 million worth of conservation value, exemplifying their commitment to preserving their properties for future generations. One of the four projects completed is the Gilmore Ranch Conservation Easement (Alamosa County), sponsored by The Nature Conservancy.
This 1,025-acre ranch is prime agricultural land with three miles of the Rio Grande running through it. It contains a broad floodplain and lush river-corridor wetlands and riparian area that supports abundant wildlife habitat. The ranch is in an important wildlife corridor between Monte Vista and Alamosa near three state wildlife areas and 4,700 acres of already protected private land.
Another is the River Valley Ranch Conservation Easement (Rio Grande County), sponsored by Ducks Unlimited. The River Valley Ranch, a 585-acre property, protects the habitat of flood irrigated pastures, ox-bow sloughs and riparian areas bound on the south by the Rio Grande State Wildlife Area.
The property provides substantial willows, which are potential habitat for the Southwestern willow flycatcher (federal and state endangered), Western yellow-billed cuckoo (state special concern), as well as for geese, sandhill cranes, and a variety of ducks and other water birds. Many raptors inhabit the area, including bald and golden eagles. The pastures and riparian areas also are habitat and shelter for elk, mule deer and marmots.
Knoblauch Ranch Conservation Easement (Rio Grande County) is another project sponsored by the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust. This conservation easement will protect 122 acres with significant wetlands and senior water rights from the Rio Grande. The ranch has been in the same family for more than 100 years. It includes irrigated and native grass pastures that support elk, deer, beaver and bald eagles, who seem to enjoy its exceptional cottonwood gallery. This ranch lies between South Fork and Del Norte in an area that is starting to experience intense development pressure.
The last project is Rio Oxbow Ranch (Mineral County), sponsored by Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust. Stretching along the Silver Thread Scenic Byway, U.S. Highway 149, above Creede in Mineral County, 505 acres of the ranch were conserved. Overall, the ranch encompasses both sides of six miles of the Upper Rio Grande and has an extensive boundary with the Rio Grande National Forest.
The owners and managers of this ranch have been recognized for their excellent riparian management. The river corridor supports abundant populations of elk, deer, moose, beaver, marmots and many other small mammals.
It's expected that a fifth property, River Valley Ranch II, will close sometime in the next several weeks. The project will protect an additional 400 acres along the Rio Grande immediately north of Monte Vista. The Gates Family Foundation will be a funding source for this project.