The Making of a National Park

By Amanda Paulson writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 11, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Making of a National Park


Amanda Paulson writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


It's rare for environmentalists and cattle ranchers to look at prime grazing land and pine-covered mountain slopes and see a common vision, much less one that includes federal ownership and environmental protection.

The two are more typically at odds in places like this remote section of Colorado, where the valley floor stretches across miles of brushy cattle ranches and pivot-irrigated potato farms, and snowy peaks rise sharply on all sides; where towns separated by 20 miles can be little more than clumps of buildings and the growing season lasts just 90 days.

Such regions spawned the West's "sagebrush rebellion," whose supporters fought bitterly against environmental restriction. Yet today, ranchers and farmers in the San Luis Valley are uniting with conservationists to transfer land to the US government and create America's 57th national park.

The project has been lauded by both Republicans and Democrats as a model of private-public partnership. To many, it's also evidence of what can be accomplished with "community-based conservation," an approach that weighs economics alongside ecology, encourages input from local residents, and unites disparate groups around a common concern - in this case, water.

"The fun thing was to discover that our interests were completely aligned with the agricultural interests, the community interests, the historical-cultural sector," says Charles Bedford, associate director of the Colorado chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which has been a driving force behind the project. "We find that a lot of times the agricultural economy and the preservation of natural places are totally compatible roles."

Strong advocates of the endeavor include Interior Secretary Gale Norton, often criticized by environmentalists because of her distaste for heavy federal involvement, and Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard (R), who has long been averse to anything that smacks of tree hugging.

Creation of the Great Sand Dunes National Park took a giant step forward this winter, when TNC entered into a purchasing agreement for the 97,000-acre Baca Ranch, securing over $31 million in grants and loans. Legislation in 2000 had already gained congressional approval for the park - provided the Baca property could be obtained.

If all goes according to plan, the new park and preserve, encompassing the sand dunes (already part of a national monument), rangeland, marshes, and the 14,000-foot Kit Carson peak, will gain official status by 2005.

About the size of Connecticut and formed by the gradual drifting of geological plates, the San Luis Valley sits some 7,600 feet above sea level. Surrounded on all sides by towering peaks, it contains some of the poorest counties in the state.

"It's a harsh place to live, and it exposes your weaknesses easily," says Marguerite Salazar, the director of a community health center. Her family has lived in the valley, practicing sheep herding and subsistence farming, for six generations now. "But if you survive that, you come to love the area and you can't leave. There's a real sense of pride."

But it also has a rare abundance of one of Colorado's most prized resources - water. Though it receives less than 10 inches of rainfall a year, the porous valley floor catches the runoff from the mountain ranges, allowing its deep aquifer to replenish itself.

That aquifer is the lifeline for the thousands of generations- old families, largely Hispanic, who eke out a living by ranching cattle or raising barley, potatoes, or alfalfa. And nothing gets residents more incensed than the notion that someone might try to steal - or sell - this resource out from underneath them, as the Baca Ranch's previous two owners, both conglomerates of investors, tried to do.

"The whole economy is so dependent on it - the altitude is high, the winter is hard, the growing season is very short," says Mike Spearman, a rancher in La Garita who came to this valley from New Mexico 20 years ago, attracted by the plentiful water. …

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