Where ranchers pine for a national park

In Colorado's San Luis Valley, greater protection of the sand dunes could keep water from being taken.

They are as improbable as they are breathtaking. Saharan dunes set in an alpine valley 8,200 feet above sea level, nestled below Colorado's snowy Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Rising 750 feet above the San Luis Valley floor in twisting spines of light and shadow, the Great Sand Dunes have long been cherished as geologic marvels - the tallest dunes in the Western Hemisphere.

But this week, as the federal government moves closer to declaring the area a national park, it's what lies unseen below the sands - and not stunning vistas - that's driving the push for more protection.

A vast supply of underground water is what keeps the dunes in place, and an unlikely alliance of local farmers and national conservationists want to make sure it isn't sucked dry by thirsty cities and suburbs.

In a time when Western landowners sometimes go to violent extremes to keep the federal government out, the crusade for national-park status here is peculiar. But in the San Luis Valley, where rainfall is as scarce as it is in Death Valley, Calif., water is a binding force and, for many, a means of livelihood.

"Any method that will keep the water in the valley for the farmers has to be pursued. I'm all for it," says Joe Gallegos, a local fifth-generation farmer and rancher. "Water is very sacred. It's a part of us."

The longstanding quest to make the Great Sand Dunes a national park takes a meaningful step forward this week. Rep. Scott McInnis (R) of Colorado is expected to introduce legislation in Congress to create the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

In a display of bipartisanship, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is a staunch advocate of the plan. Also, President Clinton has allocated $8 million to buy private land to quadruple the park's size.

The sandscape covers 39 square miles, and attracts 300,000 visitors annually. It's the underground aquifer, though, that's the critical element of the landscape.

The dunes were formed over a million-year period, as northeasterly winds deposited sand at the base of the 14,000-foot Sangre de Cristos. These winds continue to blow daily, but two southwest-flowing creeks flanking the dunes recycle sand that blows off, and moisture from beneath the dunes helps keep the sand stable.

"It's a relatively closed system of sand cycling," says Steve Chaney, the monument's superintendent. If either the surface water or groundwater were depleted, "something fairly significant would happen to the dunes over time," he says.

Sin agua no hay vida - "without water, there is no life" - is a common refrain here. The San Luis Valley, a semi-arid plateau that's roughly the size of Connecticut, gets less than 8 inches of rain each year.

But thanks to groundwater, the region hums to the sound of sprinklers. It produces rich crops of potatoes, barley, and alfalfa. In the local newspaper, grain and potato prices are printed alongside the Dow Jones Industrials.

For Mr. Gallegos, the worry is that cities will plunk down millions of dollars for water. "The old saying is that water flows uphill toward the money," the farmer says.

Other agricultural regions - such as California's Imperial Valley - have lost their water to cities, and it could happen here, he says.

That concern isn't unfounded. For more than a decade, residents have been fending off water-export schemes, and one serious threat still remains.

The Baca Ranch - a sprawling 100,000-acre parcel north of the dunes - is owned by a California-based water-development company that wants to pump some 150,000 acre feet of groundwater annually, transporting it from the valley by pipeline.

That plan, in fact, set in motion the crusade to seek national-park status for the dunes. It also caught the attention of a few federal officials.

"These water-export schemes have just acquired a new adversary, and the people of the San Luis Valley have a new ally against these schemes," said Mr. Babbitt during a recent visit to Colorado.

Establishing a national park here would mean purchasing the Baca Ranch - expected to command some $35 million. But it's considered indispensible.

"If you leave Baca Ranch in private hands, the owners will certainly try to export the ranch's water," says Ralph Curtis, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa, Colo.

Over time, that would draw down the aquifer and potentially put farmers out of business, he says.

"Slowly but surely, the artesian wells are going to quit," he adds. "We can't grow anything without irrigation."

Although some here object to the notion of turning over private land to federal ownership, most view it as "the lesser of two evils," says Mr. Curtis.

For the Park Service, the move to get more land meshes with current conservation strategies. "Today, we try to protect the whole ecosystem," rather than preserve a single feature, Ranger Patrick Myers says.

The expanded park would feature greater biodiversity, with topography ranging from mountain tundra, to pine forest, to wetlands and desert. It also would better protect numerous endemic species here.

Yet local residents, not the Park Service, are the ones shepherding the effort, says Ranger Myers.

In this respect, it's a replay of history: In 1932, when the dunes were designated a national monument by President Herbert Hoover, it was at the behest of citizens.

At the time, a cement company was hauling away sand for cement, and gold dust was discovered. The possibility of mining mobilized the community to seek federal protection for the dunes, says Myers.

Jim Kuenbel, owner of the Great Sand Dunes Lodge near the park entrance, agrees. Whether the status change boosts visitation isn't of much consequence to him, he says: "I just want to see the water stay in the valley. That's the main thing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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