Preserving the prairie — The Greeley Tribune

Lower South Platte River
Lower South Platte River

From The Greeley Tribune (Dan England):

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.

Ranch on Conejos River conserved — The Valley Courier

Rainbow Trout Ranch photo credit DudeRanchcom.
Rainbow Trout Ranch photo credit DudeRanchcom.

From the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust via The Valley Courier:

Over a mile of the upper Conejos River is now protected forever, thanks to the commitment of the VanBerkum family. As of last week the beautiful Rainbow Trout Ranch was preserved in perpetuity through a conservation easement with the community’s Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT).

“On behalf of Linda, David, Jane and myself, we would like to express our appreciation to RiGHT and to the many individuals who have helped us in our journey to preserve this beautiful stretch of the Conejos River,” said Doug Van Berkum. “We are blessed to live in the spectacular Conejos Canyon and are honored to share the traditional western lifestyle with our guests, and to know that the natural and unspoiled beauty will be preserved for generations to come.”

The 591-acre Rainbow Trout Ranch is a historic guest ranch that has been in operation for over 85 years. Largely surrounded by public lands, the entire ranch, including the impressive rock outcrops above the main lodge, can be seen from the scenic overlook on Highway 17 as it climbs the Cumbres/La Manga Pass. Highway 17 is designated as a Los Caminos Antigos Scenic and Historic Byway and the views of the Conejos Canyon and the ranch from the overlook are spectacular. With few privately owned parcels protected along the Conejos, the preservation of this historic and picturesque ranch is an important conservation accomplishment. “We are immensely grateful to the Van Berkum family for their dedication to this beautiful property and to the Conejos Canyon,” said Nancy Butler, RiGHT’s executive director. “As the owners of Rainbow Trout Ranch since the early ’90s, they share the ranch with over 700 guests every summer who come from across the United States and overseas to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the Conejos River valley. Protection of the ranch will help ensure that legacy continues far into the future and that the land and wildlife habitat will remain intact for all to enjoy.”

The conservation of Rainbow Trout Ranch was made possible through the generous support of Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), the Gates Family Foundation, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area. Rainbow Trout Ranch was featured by RiGHT in their 2014 “Save the Ranch” campaign, and a total of 57 individual donors also contributed to make this project a success. RiGHT would especially like to thank: Forrest Ketchin, Duane and Susan Larson, Chris and Christy Hayes, Michael and Andrea Banks’ Nature Fund, Jim Gilmore, Tom and Pat Gilmore, Barbara Relyea, Nancy Starling Ross and Wayne Ross, and Bonnie Orkow and many others for their generous contributions to this exceptional conservation effort.

“This project exemplifies the power of partner- ships,” said Katherine Brown, RiGHT’s development coordinator. “The support of these funders, from state and federal programs and private foundations, along with contributions from so many individuals and the Van Berkum family all came together to make this possible. We hope that everyone who drives up Forest Service Road 250 to the Platoro Reservoir or who stops at the Highway 17 overlook to take in the majestic view of the Conejos Canyon will appreciate the spectacular landscape that will remain open and connected through this conservation project.”

As part of RiGHT’s Rio Grande Initiative to protect the land and water along the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers, Rainbow Trout Ranch is the first conservation easement on the upper reaches of the Conejos. Bordered by the Rio Grande National Forest on three sides and La Jara Reservoir State Land Trust land to the north, the permanent conservation of the property will enhance and maintain the overall landscape. This is vital for wildlife movement as well as the preservation of the scenic beauty of the area. The property features large intact areas of Douglas fir forest and extensive riparian habitats, both important wildlife resource areas for large mammals including the federally-threatened Canada Lynx, elk, and black bear as well as migratory birds that rely on high altitude river corridors and the important fisheries of the Conejos River.

Nearby landowner, former RiGHT board member, and renowned artist who draws great inspiration from the scenic beauty of the upper Conejos area, Jim Gilmore said of the completed easement, “I feel the Conejos Canyon is one of the most beautiful spots in Colorado. And the Rainbow Trout Ranch is one of the largest and most desirable properties along the river. It is great news that RIGHT and the Van Berkum family worked together to conserve this beautiful piece of land.”

Conservation of this historic guest ranch also protects the history of western recreation and the cultural importance of a natural playground that generations of guests have enjoyed. First known as the Rainbow Trout Lodge, the ranch opened to guests in 1927, mainly as a fishing retreat, with horseback riding, backcountry pack trips and hiking also offered. In 1993 the Van Berkum family converted it to a full-fledged guest ranch complete with youth programs, evening activities and recreational and fishing access to the beautiful Conejos Canyon. With an emphasis on the western traditions and lifestyle, the Rainbow Trout Ranch will continue to be a place for families to experience the beauty of nature far into the future.

For more information about the conservation work of RiGHT please visit www. riograndelandtrust.org or contact the land trust office in Del Norte at 719-657-0800 or info@riograndelandtrust.org.

#COWaterPlan: Conservation easements are being used to protect water

Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth
Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Conservation easements have figured prominently in the Arkansas River Basin as a way to offer landowners incentives to retain water rights rather than selling them off the land.

They also underpin Colorado’s Water Plan, mainly through statements in several of the basin implementation plans which fed into the final product.

Conservation, as a term in the water plan, is often described as reducing water demand, either for urban or agricultural use, in order to protect stream flows.

But the continued use of water on farms is an important element of the water plan in maintaining the environmental and recreational landscape that makes the state so attractive. Preserving agricultural water requires incentives to prevent it from being sold for uses that, on the surface, appear more lucrative. That’s how conservation easements fit in.

The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, formed in 2002 to protect water in the Arkansas River basin, considers conservation easements one of its most valuable tools in preventing water from permanently leaving the land.

But it’s taken a while for groups that promote conservation easements to come to the roundtables.

The Pueblo Chieftain asked Ben Lenth, executive director of the San Isabel Land Trust, and Matt Heimerich, conservation director for the Palmer Land Trust’s Lower Arkansas Valley programs, to reflect on how their organizations will connect with Colorado’s Water Plan.

How do we fill the gap in the Arkansas River Basin within the Colorado Water Plan and Basin Implementation Plan?

Lenth:

1. Financially incentivize temporary and intermittent water sharing and leasing agreements for landowners with water rights.
2. Incentivize efficiency improvements for irrigation without penalizing the water rights holder.
3. Prioritize water projects that have multiuse functions to benefit as many water users as possible.
4. Continue to incentivize and/or regulate water conservation measures by municipalities and industry.

Heimerich:
It is important to consider that the Colorado Water Plan recognizes the importance of balancing the water needs of municipalities, agricultural and non-consumptive uses, such as recreation, and watershed health.

As a regional organization, Palmer Land Trust is committed to preserving open spaces, outdoor recreation, and working farms and ranches. Our goals as a land trust are well-aligned with the working tenets of the Colorado Water Plan.

Past solutions to solving water supply problems at the expense of working farms and ranches and the environment are no longer acceptable. As the state’s largest basin, it is imperative that the identified water supply gap in the Arkansas not create winners and losers over the equitable distribution of this precious resource.

What projects do you plan to fill the gap?

Lenth:

1. Planning and implementing land and water conservation projects to have maximum flexibility for leasing/ sharing water over time.
2. Water reallocation projects which benefit agriculture, municipalities, recreation and wildlife habitat.

Heimerich:

After an in-depth study, Palmer Land Trust made the decision to open an office in Rocky Ford with the purpose of exploring economic-based alternatives to large-scale water transfers from irrigated agricultural to municipalities. Palmer’s conservation easements use language that, in addition to tying the water rights to the land in perpetuity, allow for short-term leasing opportunities when an extended drought threatens the viability of municipal water providers.

Palmer Land Trust is also an active participant in a coalition of farmers, water providers, locally elected officials and research institutions examining strategies on how to ensure the long-term sustainability of farming under the Bessemer Ditch as farmers face increasing competition for land and water in eastern Pueblo County.

How do we keep the gaps for agriculture and municipalities from becoming bigger?

Lenth:

Integrate landuse planning and water planning. Do not allow subdivisions to be permitted without proven sources of water.

Heimerich:

Palmer believes that one of the ways to avert conflicts between municipalities and agriculture is to engage the urban/suburban citizen in a dialogue regarding the importance of irrigated farming to the region’s economy and cultural identity. The demand for locally-grown foods is increasing at a rapid pace.

Drying up farms along the Arkansas River is counterproductive on many levels. Our visibility in the greater Pikes Peak Region affords Palmer a unique opportunity to help close this gap between agriculture and municipalities.

Walker Ranch conservation easement: Black-footed ferrets are dancing amongst the cholla

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Billie Stanton Anleu):

Walker Ranch now is home to a 1,315-acre conservation easement in partnership with the Department of Defense, furthering its protection of Fort Carson and wildlife habitat, The Nature Conservancy announced Friday.

The addition brings the Walkers’ total conservation easements to about 22,292 acres, conserving land next to Fort Carson through money from the Army Compatible Use Buffer program.

The Walker Ranch conservation is one of the largest, most successful such projects, creating a buffer against development along more than 20 miles of the Fort Carson boundary, The Conservancy said in a news release.

Gary Walker’s family has worked with the Conservancy and the U.S. Army since 2005, ensuring continued military use of a key installation and economic driver for the Colorado Springs area.

The easement protects not only the post, but also habitat for the ferruginous hawk, scaled quail, burrowing owl, Cassin’s sparrow, mule deer and pronghorn antelope…

The ranch also became the first restoration site in eastern Colorado for the endangered black-footed ferret in 2013.

“I hope to have all our lands under a conservation easement in my lifetime,” Walker said in a Conservancy news release. “This ranch is meant to be protected, and there is nothing more destructive to this fragile ecosystem than subdivision. Build up, not out.”

Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes). Photo © Kimberly Fraser/USFWS
Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes). Photo © Kimberly Fraser/USFWS

No “Buy and Dry” and sprawl for Berthoud area farm

Berthoud Auto Storage back in the day
Berthoud Auto Storage back in the day

From the Berthoud Surveyor (John Gardner):

The property will continue to be farmed by a lease agreement with proceeds going back to the county’s Open Lands Department. This deal satisfies the sister’s dream of keeping the property a working farm.

“We just couldn’t stand to see it developed,” [Peggy] Malchow Sass said. “Knowing that it’s going to stay a farm is really satisfying to us.”

The water for the property fills the Handy Ditch that gets water from the Big Thompson River, Malchow Sass said, adding that it’s positive to keep the water with the land, not only for the farm, but for all the other nearby ranches and farms that utilize the Handy Ditch water.

“By leaving the water in the ditch enables many farmers along the way to get their water more easily; the more water there is in the ditch the more easily it is for farmers to get their water,” she said. “That’s a benefit directly to the Berthoud area.”

Per the agreement, the water will continue to be used on the property seven out of 10 years but will also be available to local municipalities during times of drought. Acquiring the water rights is an innovative aspect of the purchase, according to Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly.

“I think this is a great opportunity to really talk about what we want to do with water and how we want to see water addressed,” Donnelly said. “The last thing we want to see is a lot of irrigated farm land bought then dried up. We want to make sure that we keep some of those resources with the land so that they can be used in perpetuity.”

Craig Godbout, program manager for the Colorado Water Conservancy Board’s Alternative Transfer Methods grant program, agreed with Donnelly, saying the CWCB’s mission is to help preserve irrigated Ag land. And this is one of the first agreements that will have the water available for use by municipalities during time of drought.

“[Agriculture] is our second biggest industry contributing to our economy here in the state, and this project fits in really well with the state water plan because it helps close that municipal-industrial gap without permanent Ag dry-up,” Godbout said.

This is only the second alternative transfer of water agreement that’s been completed, according to Godbout, and it also creates a new mechanism that can be used as a model for future projects. It’s also an innovative way for the county to explore partnerships with municipal partners and some local farmers, Donnelly said.

“I think we’re doing some groundbreaking work here,” Donnelly said.

The property consists of high quality agricultural soils, with approximately 188 irrigated, 18 pastures and five farmstead acres, according to a natural resources department report. Two homes remain on the property; one built in the 1860s and the other built in 1947. There’s also the scenic red barn, once used to milk cows, located at the farm’s entrance, and a beat shack that was built in the late 1800s.

This land adds to the county’s open space catalog. The county’s interest in this particular parcel grew from its updated 2015 Open Space Master Plan that included citizens’ request for preserving irrigated farm and agriculture land according to Kerri Rollins, Open Lands Program manager.

“When we looked at our inventory across the board, we’ve done a whole lot of ranchland, we’ve done a really good job with ranchland; we’ve bought a few irrigated farms and conservations easements that we own, but they are certainly much smaller,” Rollins said. “So this opportunity happened to come along at the right time and at the time of updating our master plan. We’re excited to be moving forward with it.”

Donnelly credited the county’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Department for its work on making this deal happen and said that this deal has a wealth of opportunities. One of those opportunities could include an educational site for the Thompson School District’s resurrected Future Farmers of America program, where students who could use the land for a hands-on approach to agriculture, or using the farm as an incubator for organic farmers.

The Malchow family has worked with the Berthoud Historical Society to preserve some of the property’s historic features, including the beet shack and a pioneer grave.

One of the oldest ditches in Larimer County, the Eaglin Ditch, is located on the property. And the property also is located within the medium-to-high regional trail priority area for the Berthoud to Carter Lake Regional Trail Corridor…

The county’s Open Lands Department is actively pursuing grant funding to reimburse a portion of the county’s investment to the conserve this property and has already received a $178,425 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop the Alternative Transfer Mechanism and water-sharing agreement.

The county will pay $8.4 million for the land and its water shares with the intent of keeping it an active farm and making the water available to municipal providers in drought years. The land is valued at $1.6 million while the water rights are valued at nearly $6.9 million.

Rollins attended Tuesday’s Berthoud Board of Trustees meeting and requested a $100,000 contribution from the town’s Open Space Tax Dollar fund to help pay for the land acquisition. Trustees advised town staff to see what could be done to participate in this partnership.

The county is also seeking contributions through Great Outdoors Colorado and a private foundation, according to a report from the Department of Natural Resources. The land purchase will be finalized in April.