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
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
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
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. …