They seem like strange bedfellows: the military, The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land and Palmer Land Conservancy — a Colorado Springs nonprofit dedicated to protecting rural farms and ranches since the 1970s.
But they’re united following the launch of a major initiative that over the next three to five years will preserve 48,000 acres of land, or 75 square miles, located on the Bohart Ranch near Ellicott. Jan and Mike Bohart sold the ranch to the Colorado State Land Board in 1998, and that year, the board leased it to The Nature Conservancy. It’s now subleased to a ranching family known for their stewardship and will eventually be held in a conservation easement protected in perpetuity, likely by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, says The Nature Conservancy.
The $8.3 million tab, being picked up by the Department of Defense ($5.4 million), Great Outdoors Colorado (via a $2 million loan) and private fundraising ($750,000) through The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land, will put the ranch in the hands of the conservation organizations.
It’s all part of a new initiative created by the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy over the past several years and through discussions with the Colorado State Land Board, which owns the property and began eyeing a possible sale of the ranch and other acres adjacent to military installations in 2019.
The board acquired 27,205 acres of what is now the Bohart Ranch in multiple transactions spanning decades, including some original grant sections dating to statehood in 1876, Kristin Kemp, board spokesperson, said. In 1998 and 2001, it acquired an additional 20,654 acres at $247 per acre, or $5.1 million, from the Bohart family, for a total of 47,859 acres.
Between 1998 and 2019, the board built, repaired and replaced significant ranch infrastructure through investments totaling $800,000. The current annual grazing rent is $130,534.
The State Land Board manages trust land spanning 2.8 million acres across the state for the financial benefit of public schools, Kemp said. “We’ve existed since statehood, and in the last five years alone, we earned more than $1 billion for schools by leasing trust land for assorted uses, primarily agriculture. We don’t typically sell trust land. But in January 2023, our governor-appointed commissioners voted unanimously in favor of making the Bohart Ranch available to a conservation-focused buyer.”
The new deal comes after others that have failed to meet public approval, including one in which Utah’s Deseret Power co-op would have been given a 30-year lease at $10,000 a year for fossil fuel extraction and another allowing millions of tons of captured carbon dioxide to be stored underground in Pueblo, El Paso, Washington, Weld and other as-yet unnamed counties. That said, following an ask from Gov. Jared Polis in 2019 for the board to “incentivize leasing” affordable housing on land it owns in Denver for teachers, in October, the board issued a request for proposals for a ground lease for the development of a “mixed-use or workforce/affordable residential project” in the Sherman-Grant district of Capitol Hill in Denver.
In the Bohart Ranch deal, a major beneficiary is the Air Force Academy, which uses the skies above the ranch and a remote runway on the property known as Bullseye Auxiliary Airfield as “critical Air Force training areas” for cadets. The ranch is located south of Schriever Space Force Base and east of the Fort Carson Army post in El Paso County, and is contained within one of several “imaginary boxes” fanning out from the academy that are safe enough for young cadets just learning to fly to do their training, Matthew Moorhead, the conservancy’s land protection manager, said.
This training has been going on for decades. “And also for decades, there’s been the continued expansion of development toward the Academy from Colorado Springs,” Moorhead added. “So what has started to happen is (the Academy) has been getting more complaints and maybe even some safety concerns, and then there’s the growth of renewable energy.” In some places, there are now wind farms in historic training areas. So the Bohart, “with its food production, its prairie and the pronghorn minding their own business and not complaining,” gave the Air Force reason “to preserve the continuity of the facility for Air Force Academy training for some of the future leaders of the Air Force,” Moorhead said.
Great Outdoors Colorado contributed grant money to support “operations and planning” for the project, while also loaning the $2 million to facilitate the first phase of the acquisition, Moorhead added. He said it’s a two-year, zero-percent loan that The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land expect to pay back in less than that time without refinancing. And the reason the purchase was necessary, he said, is because “while TNC has a seat at the table to discuss Bohart’s future through the lease with the SLB, it still doesn’t provide future certainty for either conservation or military flight training. This model works for the board to make sure they will meet their constitutional mandate to generate revenue for education.”
Going forward, the deal allows the conservation groups and the military “to take the conservation responsibility off of the land board and guarantee that the Bohart will be there for nature, agriculture and Academy cadets for generations,” Moorhead added.
A conservation-powered Air Force
Academy cadets participating in powered flight training have used the Bullseye Auxiliary Airfield located on the property since the 1990s. Currently, the Academy is exploring using the airfield to support freefall parachute training and glider soaring instruction as well. Beyond the Academy’s use, the 1st Flying Training Squadron, a part of Air Education and Training Command, headquartered in San Antonio, also uses the auxiliary airfield to support Air Force initial flight training conducted from Pueblo Memorial Airport.
“The potential addition of limited parachute drops and/or unpowered gliders shouldn’t materially change either sound or fuel impacts outside the footprint of the airstrip,” Moorhead said. “The vast majority of the wildlife on the larger ranch are likely out of both eye and earshot of the facility.”
Both the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy have worked on military projects in Colorado that protect lands and waters identified as priorities for buffering bases, protecting ecosystem health and training-critical areas, the release says.
“Buffering bases” can sound a little scary — as if moat-like, buffers are needed around bases to keep the enemy at bay. But Jim Petterson, vice president of the Mountain West region for Trust for Public Land, says in places like the Buckley Space Force Base in Aurora, for instance, they’re needed for both “physical protection” and protecting line of sight vision for “important radar arrays and other sensitive equipment.”
The Trust for Public Land previously worked with the Air Force to acquire land near Buckley, where 670 acres of open space wrap around the base, creating an “accessible green necklace” that could be part of a network of trails the city of Aurora is planning, Petterson added.
The Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program provided a portion of funding for the Bohart purchase. DOD has supported nature and community conservation efforts across the country for 20 years.
The DOD created the new initiative to protect nearly 80,000 acres, or roughly 125 square miles, of land in the Colorado Springs area over the next decade through the purchase and conservation of properties owned by the State Land Board.
“Getting that done will take about 10 years,” Petterson said. “But once you start to show momentum in acquiring land, additional DOD dollars start to flow in more consistently. Each time we complete a phase it triggers an option to acquire the next phase,” which in this case will be more of the Bohart Ranch followed by more land around Colorado Springs military installations.
Moorhead said even though the various players may seem unlikely partners, “to be really effective in conservation, it no longer works to partner with people or groups who are singing the same chorus as you. To be effective you have to look for overlap with other interests and groups. What we might be able to do in the future is keep these military bases viable for their mission, so they aren’t closed through lack of attention to what is happening around the installations.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated on Weds. Nov. 8 at 9:30 a.m. to reflect that the conservation easement on the Bohart Ranch, expected to be held by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, is still in the works following phase one of the ranch’s purchase.