Bruce Sikich didn’t like it when his boss put the land they cared for in the hands of Colorado Open Lands.
Sikich went to school with Clyde Abbett’s son. Sikich wasn’t very nice to Abbett’s son — Sikich was a macho punk before the U.S. Navy straightened him out — but they got along. One day, while Clyde Abbett watched Sikich work next door on his stepfather’s property, Abbett asked Sikich if he wanted to farm, too. That was 30 years ago.
Abbett became Sikich’s best friend. Sikich visited him many days in the home, trimmed his trees at his Greeley house and misses him dearly now that he’s gone.
Sikich was upset at Abbett’s decision to put the land in a conservation trust. It seemed to go against everything they’d worked for as farmers. Farmers, he said, don’t like to be told what to do, and the organization put restrictions on the land, even beyond the obvious ones that promise to leave the land untouched by development. He can’t ride his race bike out on the farm. Workers came around and sniffed out noxious weeds on the land.
And yet, because Sikich loved Abbett, he understood. His land abutted the South Platte River, and that drew bald eagles and a heron rookery and places full of pasture where Abbett could rest his arms on his tractor wheel and look out into the flowing water. He buried his dogs on a nearby hill.
At times people would offer Abbett money. They said they just wanted to build a farmhouse on his land. Sikich himself advised Abbett to take the money. It was good money. Yet Abbett never trusted them. More often than not, the person secretly wanted to mine the land for gravel, and Abbett didn’t want anyone to gouge a hole in his land.
“This farm isn’t great,” Sikich said. “The soil isn’t that good, and it lays poorly. But it’s a beautiful place.”
It’s the kind of place Colorado Open Lands hopes to keep protected. The organization, which recently merged with the Colorado Conservation Trust, considers Weld County land — like the tract owned by Abbett’s estate and farmed by Sikich — to be some of the most important land in the state. It also appears to be coveted by developers. And now there’s a race to control it.
“While we work statewide, I believe that Weld County is under the greatest resource pressure,” said Sarah Parmar, director of conservation of Colorado Open Lands. “We have a unique moment in time to conserve those lands in the country that are most critical to habitat, food production and community character.”
Weld County faces three distinct development pressures that could further change the way it looks, even breathes, Parmar said, in the next decade. Many counties face one of those pressures. Weld faces all three: Mining, both gravel and oil and gas; an exploding population; and nearby municipalities thirsty for water.
The new organization hopes to show its renewed commitment to Weld by opening an office in northern Colorado. The organization is even considering Greeley for its location, although Fort Collins also is in the mix.
WHERE RESOURCES ARE VALUABLE
Although it will talk to any landowner about conservation, Colorado Open Lands does not hope to conserve every piece of farmland from development. The organization maps out areas where it believes resources are the most valuable. Those resources include wildlife habitat, prime soil on agricultural land and water rights. Many areas of Weld have all those, and those pressures that Parmar mentioned above all threaten them in some way.
Two of those pressures won’t surprise anyone who’s lived in Weld the last few years. Oil and gas development and population growth both demand a lot from our county.
The oil and gas boom is no longer, although there are indications that it could pick back up again. But Weld still has double the next highest county’s number of active wells. And though population projections do depend a bit on oil and gas, many still have Weld doubling its residents in the next 25 years.
The last is a bit more complicated, but it’s still important, and it shows how hot spots such as the South Platte River can be impacted even when developers don’t necessarily want to build subdivisions on its banks.
The organization’s worked with 15 landowners in Weld County to conserve more than 18,000 acres of land and the associated water rights. Those water rights are just as important as habitat, Parmar said, because municipalities in the Denver area appear to be targeting Weld for its water. Those cities, to feed their growth, will purchase the water rights and leave the land in what many call “buy and dry” deals. Though that can still create habitat for some wildlife, the deals also leave thousands of useless acres surrounding small or mid-sized municipalities.
Water rights often support both agricultural production and wildlife habitat. Weld has some of the best soils in Colorado, but those soils are considered prime only if they are irrigated, Parmar said. And the habitat in Weld is more valuable than many of its residents may realize.
“The juxtaposition of native prairie and the riparian and wetland habitats, which are often created by irrigation, harbors an amazing array of species,” Parmar said. “In other words, it is the land and water together that create these stacked economic benefits and habitat values.”
It’s already happened in Weld, and it happened long ago, in 1986, when the city of Thornton purchased nearly 20,000 acres of irrigated farmland in Weld and Larimer counties. Pierce and Ault still feel the effects of its stagnated growth from that purchase.
The South Platte Basin is expected to take the biggest hit to irrigated agriculture in order to meet that projected water gap, Parmar said. That’s why Colorado Open Lands hopes to target more land along the South Platte such as the tract Sikich farms as well as other key areas of Weld, such as the protection of private lands surrounding the Pawnee National Grassland.
“The South Platte is incredibly important, as all waterways are in Colorado, because they create a convergence of resources valued by people and wildlife,” Parmar said. “The development along these waterways can have a disproportionate impact on species and can create greater problems for communities when major flood events happen, as we saw in 2013.”
Those who hope to protect those water rights — Parmar refers to her organization and others like it as the “conservation community” — do need to show the same kind of flexibility they want from municipalities and landowners, Parmar said. One way to compromise may be to tie water rights to farms but allow some leasing for municipal needs.
REAL AND LASTING ECONOMIC BENEFITS
Even as Parmar insists there are real and lasting economic benefits from wildlife habitat and agriculture, there’s no doubt Weld’s also benefited from the recent growth boom and the one that occurred in the early 2000s. Oil and gas filled our coffers: At one point, the county had a $100 million reserve fund. Gravel mining’s also an important part of that.
There is some concern that conservation easements will attempt to stop oil and gas development and gravel mining. There’s already a lot of mining along the South Platte corridor, said Tom Parko, director of planning services for Weld County.
Conservation easements naturally place restrictions on use once they’re in place, as the idea is to preserve the land in its most pristine state. Those restrictions usually include subdivisions and residential structures, and they almost always prohibit the sale of water rights.
If an owner has the mineral rights, the organization may ask the landowner give up the right to sell them or mine them on the surface. Lateral drilling is permitted, Parmar said.
However, most of the time, a third party owns the mineral rights in Weld County, and in that case, a conservation easement can’t prohibit oil and gas development, and the land trust works with the owner to limit the impact if any mining takes place.
“We are not against oil and gas development, or residential development,” Parmar said. “Our goal is to work to see it done well and in the most appropriate places.”
A GOOD FIT
The organization does make some inquiries, but it doesn’t try to convince landowners to move into conservation easements. Not all of the land is a good fit, and it’s a commitment and a financial sacrifice, even with the tax benefits an easement provides. Landowners need to be sure it’s a good fit for them.
But just as the old adage that once one house pops up, others follow, that can also be true of conservation easements, Parmar said. Once you get that first conservation easement, it’s easier to get others. That’s true in part because the organization does do some limited outreach to landowners, just like developers might.
“But it’s the neighbors and others who do most of the marketing for us,” Parmar said. “Word of mouth is our best resource.”
Still, she looks at those three pressures that Weld faces, the growth and oil and gas and the prospect of our water going to other cities, a situation unique to our county, and sees it as an opportunity for residents.
“I’m not saying that any of these things are inherently bad, but they are all pressures on resource conversion,” Parmar said, “and for a county whose identity and economic drivers have been largely agricultural, these combined pressures provide an opportunity for the residents of Weld County to think about their vision for its land and water.”
Sikich’s knees and hips hurt, and he recently watched his grandkids play hockey in Minnesota and enjoyed that. He misses that now. He’s 62. He probably could do another five years, maybe even seven, but he’s not sure he wants to do that. He misses his family, and he misses Abbett as well.
“He was my purpose,” Sikich said of his close friend and boss, “and now he’s gone. Honestly without him, it’s just no fun anymore.”
Maybe he’s now reflecting on his career, but he’s happy with Colorado Land Trust and the work it does.
He doesn’t know how long he’ll be around to work the land. But he’s satisfied knowing Abbett would have liked knowing it will be around after he’s gone.