With the conservation of the Banded Peak Ranch in the southern San Juan Mountains, a 30-year, $37 million effort concludes with the protection of 10 different ranches in the Navajo River Watershed.
And with the Great American Outdoors Act promising full funding of $900 million a year in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, these large-scale conservation projects could be happening more frequently.
“And they could get done a lot quicker,” said The Conservation Fund’s Tom Macy, who began working with the federal Forest Legacy Program and local ranchers in headwaters of the Navajo River more than three decades ago. “This will enable us to take on much bigger landscape scale projects.”
The conservation easement on the 16,723-acre Banded Peak Ranch marks 65,000 acres of wilderness-surrounded ranches forever protected from development along the Little Navajo and East Fork of the San Juan rivers, both of which feed the Colorado River. The Navajo River Watershed provides drinking and irrigation water for 1 million people in New Mexico, including Albuquerque.
Macy worked with the owners of the Navajo Headwaters Ranch and the Catspaw Ranch to secure conservation easements on the properties that are bordered on three sides by the South San Juan Wilderness southeast of Pagosa Springs. The easements have prevented development on private ranches in the upper and lower reaches of the Navajo River. The conservation work began in the late 1980s and involves the Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service, Colorado Open Lands, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Trust, Great Outdoors Colorado and private donors like the Wyss Foundation.
A fully-funded Land and Water Conservation Fund — which has only twice in its more than 55-year history seen its account reach $900 million a year — could help conservation groups, land managers and property owners ponder more large projects like the effort on the Navajo River.
“This will enable us to take on much bigger landscape-scale projects,” said Macy, who sees the LWCF’s tapping of oil and gas revenues to pay for conservation as “depleting one natural resource and replacing it with another.”
“Now these federal acquisition budgets can be a lot more expansive and we can accelerate things,” he said. “This helps us keep Colorado Colorado. We are keeping the wildlife and protecting the headwaters of the Colorado River.”
More than 33 miles of streams are now protected inside the Banded Peak Ranch, which is owned by members of the same family that has owned the upper Catspaw and Navajo Headwaters ranches since the 1930s. Banded Peak’s owners have been part of the Colorado State Forest’s Forest Ag program for 20 years, managing its forests and ranchland with guidance from Colorado State University’s forest management program.
In 2018, wildlife officials found the San Juan strain of the cutthroat trout in Banded Peak’s streams. The fish had not been seen for 100 years and was considered extinct. The last Grizzly bear shot in Colorado in 1979 was killed along the border of the wilderness area and the upper Navajo Headwaters Ranch.
“It really is one of Colorado’s most wild landscapes,” Macy said.
The Colorado State Forest Service, which is part of Colorado State University, holds the easements on the Navajo Headwaters, Catspaw and Banded Peak ranches. The university helped arrange $7 million from the federal Forest Legacy Program and a $6.4 million matching donation from an unnamed donor in 2019 for the conservation easement on the Banded Peak Ranch. The Conservation Fund, GOCO, the Forest Service and the Colorado State Forest Service conserved the 8,960-acre Catspaw Ranch in 2008.
Protection of entire drainages of private land often takes decades. The process is very complicated, with conservation groups often rounding up donors to buy a property and then waiting for reimbursement from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The Forest Legacy Program, funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, has since its creation in 1990 conserved 2.6 million acres, including Catspaw Ranch, Snow Mountain Ranch in Grand County and the South Boulder Creek Watershed. The program every year considers up to three projects in each state and up to $10 million in funding. The Banded Peak Ranch ranked high on the program’s priority list for fiscal 2020. Just like Sweetwater Lake in Garfield County made the top 10 in the national list for 2021, which was another project shepherded by The Conservation Fund.
Conservation easements pay private landowners for development rights while enabling them to remain on the land. Typically an easement is much less than the market cost of a property.
“You could never afford to buy these ranches at fair market value, even with the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Macy, noting that the easement on the Banded Peak Ranch keeps the land in agricultural production while protecting wildlife and water quality in Archuleta County. “With a conservation easement, we are able to protect land for a third or less of its market value.”