The making of a National Park

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.

He still gets angry when he thinks of the water-exportation schemes. "One year, we had to tax ourselves a million dollars to fight a water battle that went to court, and we won. But it's just going to keep happening."

Mr. Spearman now sits on the Nature Conservancy's community advisory board, and sees the purchase as the best solution for property that kept attracting water prospectors. "There's a lot of folks out there who would rather the government not own more land, but when they look at the water issue, they think it's the best of evils," he says.

The fact that TNC now operates its own cattle and bison ranch helps its credibility among locals. "It's easy to give ranchers advice if you're not having to go through what they're going through," he says, noting one factor in TNC's decision to buy the Medano and Zapata ranches, two properties that abut the Baca Ranch and the Great Sand Dunes monument, several years ago.

Indeed, TNC's ranch manager, Francis "Fitz" Fitzgerald, a laid-back man with a trace of a Minnesota accent, says he would not have taken his job if he couldn't have run the properties as working ranches – incorporating ecologically sound practices – alongside ranching neighbors.

"We buy cattle, we sell cattle, we run pivots [irrigation systems]," he says, while driving a truck over the rough dirt roads of the Medano ranch. "Originally, when The Nature Conservancy operated out of a small office [in Saguache County], people thought it was a front for the government. In the last two years, we've gained a lot of ground."

As he drives, Mr. Fitzgerald points out the subtly changing ecosystems that make the properties so valuable to conservationists. Just 8- or 10-foot contours can make a huge difference, he says. With even a slight change in elevation, the scrubby rabbit brush and greasewood get taller and bushier.

Among species that will benefit from preservation are at least six endemic beetle species, including the great sand dunes tiger beetle, and the rare, slender spider flower. Elk, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer roam the plains, while the mountains are a haven for mountain lions, bobcats, and black bears. Each spring and fall, thousands of sandhill cranes stop in the valley, drawn in part by the wetlands.

The biggest tourist draw is the sand dunes. A bizarre piece of the Sahara at the base of 14,000-foot peaks, the dunes rise up to 700 feet in places. Visitors come to climb, fly kites and ride sleds.

This system, though, is continually replenished by forces of wind and water, and scientists worry that the dunes would be severely impacted by large-scale water exportation nearby.

The elements add up, say experts, to what will be one of the most diverse parks in America. Two-thirds of the size of Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, it has more ecosystems and mixes desert species such as kangaroo rats and swift foxes with Rocky Mountain species like the wolverine. "Within a half mile, in some places, you can get wetlands, grasslands, sand dunes, interdunal wetlands, piñon juniper foothills," says Fitzgerald. "And then the alpine areas. That's extremely unusual."

Of course, the project isn't yet complete. TNC has to resolve legal matters with current owners before a final sale. Then Congress, which has appropriated $10 million, must come up with an additional $22 million by the end of 2005.

Officials in Saguache County, where the Baca property lies, have grumbled about losing tax revenue, and a compromise is still in the works. Final management of the property will be complex: Different sections of the 150,000 acres will be managed by the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service. The Medano ranch will remain a private holding within the park.

Most residents are simply happy that the property that has produced persistent water-exportation threatsis moving into safe hands. "There's a major sense of relief," Ms. Salazar says. "97,000 acres – that's a lot."

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