Drought news: ‘Only 6 yrs since 1872 have been drier’ — NWS

Donation of nearly 77,000-Acre Easement by Louis Bacon establishes Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area

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Here’s the release from the U.S. Department of Interior (Blake Androff/Leith Edgar):

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar today announced the formal establishment of the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area as the nation’s 558th unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, thanks to the donation of a nearly 77,000-acre conservation easement in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains bordering the San Luis Valley by noted conservationist Louis Bacon.

“Following in the footsteps of our greatest conservationists, Louis Bacon’s generosity and passion for the great outdoors is helping us to establish an extraordinary conservation area in one of our nation’s most beautiful places,” Secretary Salazar said. “This newest treasure in our National Wildlife Refuge System links together a diverse mosaic of public and private lands, protects working landscapes and water quality, and creates a landscape corridor for fish and wildlife unlike any place in the world.”

Bacon, a longtime advocate and proponent of landscape and wildlife conservation, is donating a conservation easement on nearly 77,000 acres of his 81,400-acre Trinchera Ranch. Today’s action builds on his previously announced intention also to donate a perpetual conservation easement on the 90,000 acre Blanca Ranch, bringing the total amount of permanently protected land to nearly 170,000 acres. When completed, the two easements will represent the largest donation ever to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). The Blanca Ranch easement donation is expected to be finalized later this year.

“We are too quickly losing important landscapes in this country to development– and I worry that if we do not act to protect them now, future generations will grow up in a profoundly different world,” said Bacon. “This motivates me and is why I am proud to place Trinchera Ranch, Blanca’s adjoining ranch, into a conservation easement forever protecting it with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I am also honored to help Secretary Salazar and the US Fish and Wildlife Service create the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. It is an area widely known for its cultural, geographic, wildlife and habitat resources, and this conservation area provides another opportunity to conserve it in perpetuity.”

Trinchera Blanca Ranch is the largest contiguous, privately owned ranch in Colorado and features breathtaking vistas of high desert shrubs and mountain grasslands, combined with alpine forest and alpine tundra. The area stretches up to the top of one of the highest peaks in Colorado, Blanca Peak at 14,345 feet above sea level. It falls in the center of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, the longest mountain chain in the United States, and borders the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness near Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Joined by Service Director Dan Ashe and Dan Pike of Colorado Open Lands, Salazar and Bacon signed the conservation easement on the Trinchera Ranch to formally establish the new refuge. They also signed a memorandum of agreement to complement an existing Colorado Open Lands easement agreement already in place on the property.

Colorado Open Lands will jointly monitor and support the conservation efforts with the Service. The agreement marks one of the first cooperative arrangements of its kind among the federal government, a private land trust and a private landowner.

“Trinchera is such a spectacular property and the creation of the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area allows us to protect this landscape, something that is truly special,” said Colorado Open Lands Executive Director Pike. “It has been an honor to hold the conservation easement on Trinchera for nearly a decade. We look forward to being able to share best practices with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and are extremely excited about this innovative collaboration in land conservation.”

“We’re excited to see the results of this collaborative conservation effort come to fruition, thanks to the generosity of Louis Bacon and the strategic and inclusive planning efforts that serve the conservation needs of fish, wildlife and plants across the San Luis Valley landscape,” said Director Ashe. “The Service has been working with landowners in the San Luis Valley on a locally-led voluntary cooperative partnership effort to conserve wildlife habitat and keep working lands working.”

Costilla County Commissioner Crestina Martinez, noted photographer and author John Fielder, and Executive Director of Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts John Swartout also joined today’s signing ceremony.

“Mr. Bacon’s donation of this incredible conservation easement is welcome news for Coloradans who treasure this area and can now rest assured that it will be protected for generations to come. I want to commend him for the example he is setting for other landowners in Costilla County and across the state interested in protecting the wildlife and natural resources that sustain our local economies and way of life,” Udall said. “This announcement reflects a first-of its kind partnership in this part of Colorado, where a private landowner and a federal agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, have made a shared commitment to conservation of one of the most pristine private landholdings in the southern Rockies. It has been said that we don’t inherit the earth from our parents — we borrow them from our children. The establishment of the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area ensures that this scenic gem will be here for future Coloradans to enjoy.”

Under President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative to establish a 21st century conservation and outdoor recreation agenda, the Interior Department has spearheaded a series of voluntary partnerships with landowners to conserve rural landscapes while ensuring ranching, farming and other traditional ways of life remain strong. Conservation easements are only acquired from willing landowners.

These initiatives include new units of the National Wildlife Refuge System, such as the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area in Kansas, the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area of South Dakota and North Dakota, and the Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Area in Montana.

For more information about the Service’s partnership work in the San Luis Valley or the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area, please visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Mountain-Prairie’s homepage at: http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/.

More coverage from the Associated Press (Thomas Peipert) via The Denver Post. From the article:

Bacon, a hedge fund manager, is adding a conservation easement to protect nearly 77,000 acres of his 81,400-acre Trinchera Ranch from development. He announced plans in June to add a perpetual conservation easement on his 90,000-acre Blanca Ranch if the federal government moved ahead with plans to create a new 5 million-acre conservation corridor in Colorado and New Mexico…

It creates “a contiguous mosaic of privately held and publicly protected lands that will stay in perpetuity in creating one of the longest migratory wildlife corridors in America,” stretching from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve to New Mexico, Bacon said. He added that he hopes his decision to put the land under a conservation easement will inspire other landowners to do the same.

Bacon’s land, which Salazar’s office said is the largest contiguous, privately owned ranch in Colorado, includes three 14,000-foot peaks—Mount Lindsey, Blanca and Little Bear peaks—in the Sangre de Cristos. The mountain range is one of relatively few in the United States that that still allows unobstructed migration by wildlife.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here and here.

Conservation easements: ‘The laws were meant to help ranchers and farmers keep their land’ — Alice Madden

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Here’s an in-depth look at the origins of the conservation easement monkey business from a few years ago. The Denver Post reporter David Migoya also reports on the current investor lawsuits over the deals. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Easements were usually very simple: Donate the land, and earn a tax deduction or credit equal to the drop in land value up to a certain amount. The maximum credit was the same no matter the size of the property.
But [Denver lawyer Rodney Atherton] had a new idea — he testified he was not alone in devising it — to maximize the tax benefits of an easement. He’d do it by slicing the donation into pieces, then sell the parts to investors.

Then, with drawings indicating the subdivided property was destined for a housing development, each owner would donate the land into a conservation easement. The rub: Appraisers would value each lot as if development were a done deal, increasing the tax benefit by millions of dollars.

The idea would be the basis for nearly every easement Atherton created thereafter — even property in the most remote parts of eastern Colorado where housing starts were miles away. It was the root of about $37 million in tax credits diverted from the Colorado treasury, most since disallowed.

More conservation easement coverage here and here.

The Colorado Springs Gazette is sifting through receipts from Colorado Springs Utilities’ water tours

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From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Daniel Chacón):

Other purchases included:

• $140 for 100 zippered pencil cases

• $47 for prizes for a water tour quiz

• $286 to rent two fans to keep participants cool during a lunchtime barbeque at what Utilities calls an SDS warehouse

Utilities defended the trip, saying the water tour gave participants an up-close look at the city’s water system that couldn’t be replicated with charts and graphs or in one day.

“Colorado Springs is not like cities such as Denver or Pueblo, which have local, in-town major waterways. Our community’s vast, complex water system includes 25 reservoirs and dams, more than 200 miles of pipes, four major pump stations, and facilities and infrastructure in 11 counties,” Utilities spokeswoman Patrice Lehermeier said in an email.

“The water tour gives leaders and officials first-hand knowledge of the massive work, equipment, facilities and people it takes to deliver water to Colorado Springs, as well as the ongoing construction of the Southern Delivery System,” she said. “It would be difficult to give people this level of information and insight in such an important investment using another forum. And despite all the talk of pipes and wires, a business, even in utilities, is about building relationships.”

The water tour started about 25 years ago, Lehermeier said.

The most recent tour cost $20,200, not $25,000 as originally reported by Utilities.

More Colorado Springs Utilities coverage here.

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable is hoping to assemble a coordinated model of the river

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A stream of studies is feeding into what could become a coordinated water database for the Arkansas River in Colorado. But the process is slow, expensive and filled with sometimes conflicting information about how the river performs.

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable last week reviewed ongoing studies that have grown from discussions by the roundtable since 2005. The studies look at technical, legal and policy questions surrounding agricultural water transfers, and include pilot projects on the Super Ditch and conservation easements. “The next step is to look at imported flows versus native flows and see how they interact,” Barber said. “There are several models, but they don’t talk to each other.”

More from the meeting, from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

There’s nothing like a drought year to stir up questions about whether water is being managed properly. A routine discussion about the voluntary flow program for the Upper Arkansas River erupted into a debate about water storage policy at the Arkansas Basin Roundtable meeting Wednesday.

“We lost an opportunity to store water upstream because we were waiting for this magical date,” said Reed Dils, talking about the flow program he helped start more than 20 years ago. Flows could have been altered because of drought forecasts earlier this year, said Dils, Chaffee County’s director on the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which helps set storage policy.

More coverage from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable this week looked at moving ahead with an agriculture values study being coordinated by James Pritchett, an economics professor at CSU-Fort Collins.

Past studies have tied farm revenue to acreage or looked at hypothetical irrigation patterns if more water were available. The new study will look at real-world conditions and possibilities for the Arkansas River basin in particular, said Gary Barber, chairman of the roundtable.

The first part of the study will look at identifying the current market and hydrological conditions associated with irrigated agriculture, explained Perry Cabot, of the Colorado Water Institute, a research arm of CSU-Fort Collins. It then will move into looking at the broader value of water in agriculture and develop a baseline. Finally, the project will estimate the larger value of water to the regional economy.

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.