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Outdoors

Could a massive southern Colorado ranch become a state park? It’s an idea just “crazy” enough to work.

The City of Trinidad, The Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land, GOCO and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are fine-tuning a plan to turn the 19,200-acre Crazy French Ranch into a new economic engine.

Fisher's Peak is just east of Interstate 25, a few miles north of the New Mexico border. At 9,600 feet high, the peak looms over Trinidad, just 5-miles away. It is part of Crazy French Ranch, which will become Colorado's next state park. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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TRINIDAD — Fisher’s Peak looms over every block of this city.

“There are so many views you can get of that peak in town. Like when the clouds are low and it looks like it’s just dangling in midair. That view is part of every day in Trinidad,” Mayor Phil Rico says. 

Despite the everyday shadow the basalt-flumed summit casts on the historic town, Fisher’s Peak is privately owned and has never been accessible. Students can’t study its geology. Climbers don’t scale its crags. Hikers aren’t taking in the panoramic views from the highest point in the Raton Mesa and the highest point of any U.S. land to the east.

But the prominent landmark soon could be part of Colorado’s newest state park, welcoming Trinidad residents and all comers. Whether it becomes a state park or not, the 9,360-foot apex of the wildlife-rich, 30-square-mile Crazy French Ranch will open to the public in the next five years, thanks to a one-of-a-kind public-private partnership that promises to recast the economic future of boom-bust Trinidad. 

Great Outdoors Colorado Executive Director Chris Castilian enjoys biking on Crazy French Ranch, a 19,200-acre property near Trinidad that has been proposed as the next state park. GOCO has pledged $7.5 million toward the purchase of the property from the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Mapping a new economic future

The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land earlier this year acquired the Crazy French Ranch for $25.4 million. They quickly harvested a $7.5 million pledge from Great Outdoors Colorado and $7 million from Colorado Parks and Wildlife toward the $29 million plan that likely will become a new model for building a modern-day state park that offers both recreation and biologically diverse wilderness. The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land — the two largest conservation organizations in the country — have raised another $5 million and are soliciting foundations and donors to support the project. 

Cy Michaels, a longtime Trinidad hotelier and chair of the city’s tourism board, says residents are starting to realize that the land that towers above their town doesn’t belong to someone else anymore. 

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“We are nearing the end of so many years of yearning. People who have never even considered what it means to access this land are realizing what it really means to this community. People are saying wait a second, if this is ours, we want to protect it and we want to do the best we can for it,” Michaels says. “This acquisition is going to change thousands and thousands of lives as it morphs into what it’s going to be.”

“Why don’t you buy the whole ranch?”

The ranch was owned by French grocery tycoon Marc Jung and his wife, Evelyne, who in the mid 1980s started assembling the 19,200-acre property, which stretches north toward Trinidad from the New Mexico border on the east side of Interstate 25. Marc Jung died in the late 1990s and Evelyne Jung put the property on the market in the mid 2000s for $79 million. The price dropped to $51 million in 2014, and the property, with its only structures being a few modest modular homes surprisingly close to the highway, lingered on the market. 

Trinidad City Manager Greg Sund said that he is very excited about the effort to make Crazy French Ranch something special for the public. “As a town of 9,000 people, we would, in reality, feel very overwhelmed without all this help and collaboration.” (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Trinidad leaders in 2017 suggested to Evelyne Jung that maybe she could sell a portion to the city. They wanted roughly 4,100 acres on the northern edge that bordered the town. The city approached The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land for help with acquiring the smaller chunk and heard an interesting response from the conservation groups. 

“They said, ‘Why don’t you buy the whole ranch?’” says Trinidad City Manager Greg Sund, who oversees the city’s $12.6 million annual budget. “Well, that was way beyond the scope of anything we could afford. So this has been a pretty wild ride working with these two organizations as they help us make this thing real.”

Making it real is no small task. Not just scraping up the millions to pay back the conservation groups, but finding the balance between public access — the GOCO and state grants hinge on public recreation in the potential park — and protecting the rich, untrammeled ecologies of the ranch. 

James Petterson, Southwest & Colorado director at The Trust for Public Land, hopes that this new slice of public land will help inspire even more people to get outside and experience nature. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land were well aware of the Crazy French property when the city approached them. The property is a biological wonder: a rare, undisturbed link between the Eastern Plains and the towering Sangre de Cristo range. But it wasn’t until Trinidad started sharing its affection for the property that the two groups really got motivated. 

And that affection — expressed through community meetings that rallied hundreds of city residents and even support from across the border in New Mexico — wasn’t just a plea for a playground. Neighbors of the Crazy French Ranch want it to remain much as it looks today. 

“I was a bit surprised to see that embrace of protection,” says Jim Petterson, the Colorado director of the Trust for Public Land, who sees the community’s fondness for Fisher’s Peak as akin to Boulder and its Flatirons, or Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak. “That shows a connection to the landscape that is very heartening.”

The topographic map of the 19,200 acre parcels of the Crazy French Ranch, which stretches from just south of Lake Trinidad to the New Mexico border. (Provided by fieldbrokers.com)

A particularly pristine location

The Jungs didn’t do much more than offer safari-style hunting on the property. There is little infrastructure on the ranch. They didn’t build any mansions. They also didn’t allow logging or oil and gas development. They prioritized pristine conditions for wildlife and protecting the ranch’s cultural history. (The original Santa Fe Trail traversed the property.)

“It’s essentially a blank-slate opportunity,” says Matt Moorhead, the head of business development and partnerships for The Nature Conservancy with a long history of working in southern Colorado.

A rodent skull found on Crazy French Ranch, a property proposed as a state park, on June 26, 2019. Groups of biologists are excited to survey the property because it’s been left untouched. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Moorehead and his colleagues have just driven 45 minutes up a rough four-wheel-drive-only road to a plateau beneath the peak. To the south is New Mexico’s Sugarite Canyon State Park and Ted Turner’s 560,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch. To the east, on the other side of Fisher’s Peak, is the James M. John and Lake Dorothey State Wildlife Area, which is accessible only through New Mexico. And across the valley, on the other side of the interstate, the Santa Fe Trail Ranch — similar in size to Crazy French — has been parceled into 35-acre lots. Roads wind through the timber, dotted with lonely homes.

“That’s what could have happened here,” says Moorhead, who sees Crazy French as a critical element of ongoing conservation work across southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

Instead, what could be the next state park will mix recreation and conservation in what could become a model for park development, creating a roadmap for nonprofits and states seeking to grow outdoor recreation economies while preserving natural landscapes. 

But before Crazy French becomes a state park, the state and private funders will have to reimburse The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, which are ready to transfer the land to public ownership when they are made whole. (So note: Crazy French still is private and closed. Don’t bust out the climbing ropes just yet.)

The diverse group of public and nonprofit partners says two shared goals anchor the project, no matter who owns Crazy French Ranch or whether it’s called a state park. First, the resources will be protected. Second, recreational opportunities will connect visitors with those natural resources, and Trinidad and Las Animas County will harvest cultural, educational and economic benefits. 

A yellow prickly pear flower found on Crazy French Ranch, which is biologically diverse because it has been mostly unused for anything other than safari-style hunting for decades. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s going to take a fine balance between conservation and play. Those two sides don’t always align. 

“We are trying to get past that and from the ground floor we are getting the science and biologists working with the experts on the recreation side so we are identifying issues and opportunities as we go and solving those problems as we go,” Moorhead says of the master planning process that already has him hosting a steady rotation of visitors — from wildlife biologists to mountain bikers — at the ranch every few days. 

Great Outdoors Colorado does a good amount of land-protection work with The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land. But the lottery-funded group also works to get more kids outside and connect communities with natural areas. When the GOCO board saw the passion from Trinidad residents, “they felt that public access needs to be part of the story up here,” says GOCO chief Chris Castilian, moments before riding his Spot mountain bike through dense groves of Gambel oak, ponderosa pine and aspen, exploring the land’s trail potential. 

Chris Castilian, executive director of lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado, is helping coordinate efforts to open Crazy French Ranch to the public. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“The grant agreement we have nudges the TPL and TNC in that direction while respecting their processes and the process of the city,” Castilian says. “But, I’ll say it: This is a state park if you’ve ever seen one. What an incredible opportunity.”

Colorado legislators last year passed The Future Generations Act outlining 10 goals for Colorado Parks and Wildlife by 2025. Among the efforts to grow the state’s number of anglers and hunters, expand public and private land access and improve wildlife populations is a mission to plan a new state park.

Lauren Truitt, the assistant director for information and education at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, says Gov. Jared Polis is urging the agency to look at more than one new park.

“Gov. Polis has told us, ‘That’s great but don’t stop there,’” she says. “So it’s a really exciting time with lots of opportunities. It’s so cool to think about what this next phase of state parks will be. Because it can be anything we want it to be. It’s pretty incredible to imagine.”

Truitt and Crystal Dreiling, the manager of Trinidad Lake State Park, a couple miles west of the Crazy French, are lounging in a grassy meadow on the property. It’s a former burn scar and one of the few open meadows on the densely forested ranch. With Fisher’s Peak looming overhead, the possibilities are floating from the pair like butterflies: How about hosting a bioblitz, where scientists scramble to identify as many species as possible in a brief window; or starting conversations about wildlife bridges over the interstate? And what about low-light areas for stargazing? Hunters are going to flip if they could secure seasonal access. And students from Trinidad State Junior College up the road would thrive with chances to study on the property.

Even with the blue-sky dreaming, neither Truitt or Dreiling are ready to promise a park. That’s a long, involved process for a self-supported agency that is scraping to support existing parks and programs. (How long and involved? Staunton State Park, the state’s newest, opened in 2013, 27 years after most of the park’s property was donated to the state.) But they both know the agency needs to keep Colorado residents engaged in nature to foster the next generation of public-land supporters who will advocate for places like Crazy French. That means getting people outside and in the wildlands. 

“If you can’t see it and touch it, it’s really hard to learn to love the land, you know,” says Dreiling, who envisions talks with concessionaires who could provide guided hunting and maybe ATV or horseback tours to help offset the costs of a state-run park. “It just makes more things possible out here when we think about business partnerships.”

Colorado’s first “Space to Create” program is renovating downtown buildings in Trinidad into artist homes and studios. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Park will be major piece of Trinidad’s next act

The planned connection of the ranch with Trinidad joins a sweeping project transforming the city’s historic downtown. The first project in the state’s Space to Create program is developing 41 affordable live-work spaces for artists and creatives.

The Trinidad Artspace on downtown’s Main Street is converting an entire block of downtown into apartments, studios and a 25,000 square-foot community center. The city last December  acquired the dormant, two-balcony, 1,200-seat Fox Theater and enlisted renowned preservation-focused developer Dana Crawford to restore the historic structure. (Crawford’s Urban Neighborhoods Inc. also has purchased several historic buildings in downtown Trinidad and plans to renovate the buildings.)

“If we don’t take risks, there is no benefit. We can’t just keep going on a hope and a prayer,” says Mayor Rico, who managed a local lumberyard for 30 years before entering politics in his hometown. 

“The community of Trinidad realizes that we need to diversify our economy. First, we had agriculture then mining, then oil and gas, and now we’ve decided to go with cannabis. But we know that if New Mexico legalizes it we’ll be in trouble,” Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico said. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Trinidad leaned heavily on agriculture in the early 1900s, establishing itself as a farming and ranching hub. Mining boomed in the middle of the century, with coal mines fueling the city’s economy. Then natural gas development arrived, though so did the recession and declines in the extractive market saw more than 1,000 people leave town. More recently, more than two dozen marijuana dispensaries have thrived in town, buoying the city’s financial health while catering to visitors from New Mexico, only 14 miles away. 

Last year Trinidad spent $2.2 million in marijuana tax revenue on almost 40 investments, improvements and projects while keeping close to $1 million in reserve. In May alone this year, the state’s portion of pot taxes from Las Animas County was $542,000 and the $60,240 Trinidad received from the state’s marijuana tax collections in May ranked as the fourth largest among all Colorado municipalities that host dispensaries. 

But legislators in New Mexico decriminalized marijuana in April and the governor there has organized a team to study full legalization, joining several other states following Colorado’s lead. When more states join the marijuana bandwagon, Colorado could see yet another bust in a long history of boom-bust cycles. Cities like Trinidad are trying to get ahead of any potential declines by embracing a more sustainable economic future anchored in the creative and recreation lifestyle that makes them an enviable place to live and visit.

“We need to look at diversifying our economy and we are basing it on the creative industry and this property could anchor us as a recreational destination,” Rico says. “We have some real opportunities here to establish a sustainable, diverse economy. I think a lot of people in Trinidad are recognizing that things are going to have to change for us to move forward.”

Managers and employees of Great Outdoors Colorado, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy biked on Crazy French Ranch in June. The pristine private land could become Colorado’s next state park, with Fisher’s Peak at its center. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)