@ColoradoStateU: Investments in conservation easements reap benefits for #Colorado

Colorado’s diverse landscape has a rich natural and agricultural heritage that fuels the economy. Photo: Michael Menefee

Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Mary Guiden):

Colorado is famous for its iconic landscapes, which have helped shape the state’s identity and economy. From agriculture to recreation and tourism, from minerals and fuels to forest and wildlife, Coloradans are dependent on nature for many things that enrich our lives.

Not surprisingly, state officials have repeatedly identified conservation of the state’s natural and agricultural lands as sound public policy. This includes providing incentives for conservation easements. These are legally binding agreements between private landowners and nonprofit land trusts or government to protect conservation values of a property.

A new analysis from Colorado State University found that each dollar invested by the state for these easements produced benefits of between $4 and $12 for Coloradans. Public benefits include clean water and air, scenic views, access to things produced by local farms and ranches products, and wildlife habitat: all things that contribute to a high quality of life in the state. Researchers said these data show that easements are conserving land that is important for wildlife, agriculture, tourism and outdoor recreation for Colorado’s visitors and residents alike.

Conservation easements protect specific conservation values of a property, such as wildlife habitat. Photo: Michael Menefee

“There is a substantial return to the Colorado taxpayer on investments in programs designed to conserve the features of the Colorado landscape that are so dear to all of us,” said Andrew Seidl, one of the study authors and a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at CSU.

Based on the new analysis, the CSU research team found the investments from the state programs conserve:

  • More than 114,450 acres of preliminary priority habitat for greater sage grouse
  • Nearly 300,000 acres of prime farmland
  • 250 miles along designated scenic byways
  • More than 4,100 miles of streams, creeks and rivers
  • More than 270,000 acres of habitat used by elk during severe winter conditions
  • The state programs have invested nearly $1.1 billion on conservation easements since 1995, according to the new analysis. CSU researchers — who examined data on 2.1 million acres of Colorado lands with conservation easements — said the related benefits for state residents are as high as $13.7 billion.

    The study focused on Colorado’s investments in conservation easements funded through a tax credit program and Great Outdoors Colorado. The voter-approved program uses a portion of lottery proceeds to help with efforts to protect wildlife habitat, river corridors, productive agricultural lands, iconic scenic views. It has also created trails and open spaces for Coloradans to enjoy.

    Colorado is famous for its iconic landscapes. Photo: Michael Menefee

    Study co-author Michael Menefee, an environmental review coordinator with CSU’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program, said the investments are filling a vital need for conservation of identified priorities on private lands. “An active partnership between private landowners and public policy can achieve what neither acting alone can accomplish,” he added.

    The Colorado Office of the State Auditor released an analysis in December 2016 concluding, among other findings, that it was difficult for the public and policymakers to determine the benefits from the conservation easement program. But this new study used a more robust data set from the Colorado Ownership, Management and Protection (COMaP) database, the state’s most comprehensive map of protected lands.

    COMaP started as a Geographic Information System research project in CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology in 2004. Since then, it has evolved into an important tool for those around the state with an interest in privately and publicly protected lands.

    “Easements are the primary tool in Colorado for conserving these many benefits while still maintaining land in private ownership – often as working farms and ranches,” said Drew Bennett, study co-author and a postdoctoral fellow at CSU.

    The study’s authors will present their findings later this month at a hearing of the Colorado General Assembly’s Legislative Audit Committee. Committee members will review the programs and consider potential changes.

    The study was funded by Robert L. Tate, a longtime supporter of and donor to the Warner College of Natural Resources and Colorado State University.

    Opinion: Conservation easements are an investment in soils

    Saguache Creek

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Tamera Minnick):

    Soils are vital to ecosystem health. In the U.S., we learned this the hard way in the 1930s Dust Bowl. Extreme drought was just one of the drivers of the Dust Bowl. The effects were magnified by economic, policy and land management decisions during the prior decade.

    At the end of World War I, European agriculture was in disarray and American agriculture benefited. During a few years, wheat prices were high and borrowing money was easy. The result was 5.2 million acres of marginal agricultural lands plowed to grow wheat. In retrospect, we now appreciate that these lands should have stayed as native grass.

    Once that soil was destabilized by plowing and left bare in the drought, it blew. And blew. People died of dust pneumonia — not caused by a bacteria or virus, but from the dust itself.

    In 1935, Dr. Hugh Bennett, a soil scientist, prescribed protecting and revegetating these marginal lands with grasses. When government agencies insisted that soil was a resource that could not be exhausted, Bennett replied, “I didn’t know so much costly misinformation could be put into a single brief sentence.” The main problem with Bennett’s ideas, like today, was that he had to persuade Congress to fund them.

    Congress was stubborn, but Bennett rescheduled a hearing for an afternoon in which he knew that a big duster had formed and was headed for Washington, DC.

    As the meeting began, success appeared unlikely. It suddenly grew dark. The dust storm blew in and turned day to night. Funding was approved. This was the inception of what would become the Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Today, most farmers have easy access to an NRCS office.

    NRCS strives to decrease erosion by aiding farmers in adopting techniques such as low- or no-till plowing, contouring with the landscape, using buffer strips around water, and planting shelterbelts.

    Building on this success, President Ronald Reagan implemented the Conservation Reserve Program in 1985. The intent was to take marginal land, mostly land at risk for erosion, out of crop production and plant native grass. The federal government pays rent to farmers for providing this public service of stabilizing these marginal lands.

    The CRP has decreased erosion, improved wildlife habitat, and enhanced water and air quality, all while keeping the land in private ownership.

    One of the deficiencies of the CRP is the short-term nature of the contracts. For 15 or 20 years, erosion is controlled, soil organic matter gradually accumulates, wildlife populations rebound, and sites stabilize. But there can be sudden changes.

    For instance, in 2007, crop prices increased dramatically. Many marginal lands were put back into crop production. In one year, many of those public goods, paid for by taxpayers, were eliminated.

    In the late 1990s, a new conservation tool was developed — conservation easements. With conservation easements, the right to develop the land is relinquished and, in return, the owner usually is accorded significant tax credits.

    One similarity between the CRP and conservation easements is that entering into either one is voluntary. The landowner makes a personal and economic decision that the program is the right thing to do with his or her private land. Additionally, the private land remains private.

    There are some major differences between conservation easements and CRP. Under conservation easements, many land uses are allowed, including continued crop production; these are described in a contract. Also, the easement is often held by a non-profit (like our own Mesa Land Trust). The result of an easement is a substantial tax credit (which in Colorado can be transferred to others). Finally, the easement is permanent, not just a 10- or 15-year contract.

    That last point is important. At Colorado Mesa University, my colleagues, students, and I have reported that it may take our fragile western soils 50 years or more to recover to a healthy functioning status following damage (and much longer if topsoil is lost to erosion). Permanent conservation easements assure public investments will not be lost with short-term fluctuations in commodity prices.

    Another reason that conservation easements are in perpetuity? In order to gain the federal and Colorado tax credits, the easement must be permanent.

    Mesa Land Trust is phenomenally successful in our county. There is widespread support, and they have helped landowners protect, in perpetuity, over 66,000 acres. Much of this is important wildlife habitat outside of the valley, while some insures that agriculture thrives in the valley and that we have buffers between our towns to preserve the rural character of our area.

    Conservation easements are a modern tool based on our improved understanding of the science of how ecosystems function. Their perpetual nature guarantees the public’s return on this investment.

    Tamera Minnick, Ph.D., is a professor of environmental science and technology at Colorado Mesa University where she has taught soil science and sustainability. She recently renewed her membership with Mesa Land Trust. Much of the Dust bowl information came from Timothy Egan’s “Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Email tminnick.gjsentinel@yahoo.com.

    @COWaterTrust: RiverBank is two weeks away! (June 14, 2017)

    Lulu City with Lake Granby in the distance. Photo credit Greg Hobbs.

    Wednesday, June 14th
    5:30-8:30 pm
    Denver Botanic Gardens

    Get your tickets now!

    RiverBank is our annual fundraiser, where our wonderful supporters have a chance to connect with each other, celebrate our partnerships, and spend time with our team.

    We have an amazing evening planned, so we just need YOU!

    Join us for great food, wonderful beverages from our open bar, a fantastic silent auction, and the opportunity to recognize our David Getches Flowing Waters Award winner, Lurline Underbrink Curran! (Read more about Lurline’s accomplishments here.)

    Click here for tickets!

    Environmental Defense Fund looking for win-wins with farmers RE: groundwater depletion

    The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

    [ed. Coloradans know that ranchers and farmers are key stakeholders in the preservation of habitat and water resources, and they grow our food.]

    Here’s an interview with EDF staffers from Matt Weise writing for Water Deeply. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

    Environmental Defense Fund is launching a new Western water strategy that aims to solve the problems of groundwater depletion and habitat restoration by working jointly with farmers.

    FARMERS AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS have often been at odds. Farmers, for instance, rarely want it known that their land might host an endangered species, for fear regulations could come crashing down. Environmentalists are fond of regulations to protect natural resources, but rarely do much to help farmers comply.

    These old patterns are beginning to change as the two camps find they have more in common than stereotypes suggest. One group working along this path is Environmental Defense Fund, which is developing a new Western water strategy aimed at helping farmers cope with scarcity.

    The new policy, still being developed, aims to help farmers and irrigation districts comply with California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). EDF also plans to help create water markets, so farmers can sell or trade water when they have a surplus…

    To get a preview of the new strategy and how it can help both wildlife and farm economies, Water Deeply recently spoke with three EDF staffers: David Festa, senior vice president, ecosystems; Maurice Hall, associate vice president, ecosystems and water; and Ann Hayden, senior director, California habitat and Western water.

    Water Deeply: What region are you focusing on, exactly?

    Maurice Hall: Generally, we think of our problem set as the areas where irrigated agriculture is the prominent water use. That tends to correspond to the area where we have the biggest stresses on water and water scarcity issues.

    Right now, there are two really big opportunities to insert new solutions. One is California, and in large part the opportunity we have now is due to passage of SGMA. Because of the stresses that is going to add to an already stressed system, it will cause us to have do a lot of things differently.

    The second big opportunity is in the Colorado River Basin, especially in the Lower Colorado region. There are clear signs of imbalance on Lake Mead, the big storage reservoir that the Lower Basin states depend on.

    Water Deeply: You’re developing an open-source toolkit to help people comply with California’s SGMA and a series of workshops. That’s kind of unusual for an environmental group, isn’t it?

    Ann Hayden: We recognized that the responsibility SGMA was going to put on local agencies to figure this out was going to be a huge burden. Our strategy is really to target those folks in the Central Valley who seem more willing and better positioned to get out ahead of the far-off deadlines in SGMA, and figure out ways they can be credited for doing those things.

    Specifically, we’re thinking of ways we can help with groundwater recharge and developing a groundwater market. We’re focusing on where those opportunities lie.

    We also recognized that in order for this to be a sustainable solution, we really need to figure out ways in which we can get disadvantaged communities to have a seat at the table, and equip them with tools and resources to engage in decision-making. We’re working with partners on the ground in the Central Valley to establish a Water Leadership Program.

    Water Deeply: And you’re actually working on trying to incubate new water markets. How will that work?

    Hall: Consider, right now, the agriculture water users who have water rights. Because of the way we’ve built our system and the social norms and policies we have established, they have few choices of how they can use their water. They can either grow their crops or not use their water. Because if you don’t use your water, you lose the water right. So there’s an incentive to use the water whether or not it’s really economically viable, or whether it’s really what you want to do most.

    So the value of water markets, generally, is to give those who have the rights some flexibility in how they use water, so they can manage it as an asset, as opposed to just an input of their agricultural production. That opens up a lot of options. Maybe I’m growing a crop I’m barely making money on, and somebody downstream needs some water to supplement their almond orchard. And I can trade my water to them and use less on my land, and we’re both better off.

    One of the problems is that if you do that without the right sideboards in place, you can have some undesirable impacts. For instance, you might reduce the recharge to groundwater in your local areas because you’re not irrigating your field. So building water-trading programs that include those externalities is what is necessary going forward, and why we see the importance of us being involved in making this happen.

    Water Deeply: You sponsored a bill last year, AB 2304, to help launch water markets in the state. What’s the status of that bill, and what comes next?

    Hayden: We started working with the Association of California Water Agencies, which is also coming out with its policy principles on what should and could happen to improve water markets. There was a lot of common ground. Unfortunately, there’s a whole spectrum of perspectives among its members. When it came down to it, it was too challenging to gain full support of ACWA at this point to make movement on legislation. That said, we are committed to working with ACWA on other possible policy improvements, maybe those that don’t require legislation at first.

    Hall: There have been really bad examples of what ill-planned water trades can do. A dramatic example happened on the Front Range of Colorado, where pretty significant communities have been dried up through purchase of agricultural land and the water rights that go along with them – so-called “buy-and-dry” transitions that have been in the news for decades. So we recognize we have more education to do.

    Water Deeply: You also want to incentivize farmers to idle land for environmental purposes. Is this a kind of land trust?

    Festa: What we’d like to do is create the economic systems that will allow farmers and ranchers to look at the environment, essentially, as a crop. They can manage their lands in ways that produce a very specific environmental benefit and get paid to do it. The concept is a cousin to things like conservation easements and land banks, where land is taken out of production. But in a lot of those cases, not much, oftentimes, is actually done to manage it for a particular environmental outcome.

    Hayden: In the groundwater context, it is one area where we may have a nice linkage with land restoration. We’re probably going to see more land that has to go idle in order for farmers to adjust to how water supply is going to change under SGMA. We want to get out ahead of that and help farmers design good habitat on their land – and have them be paid for that. There also could be opportunities for farmers to do on-farm groundwater recharge, and ways we can design those activities that are also beneficial to creating habitat.

    Water Deeply: Any examples on the ground now?

    Hayden: We have a number of pilot projects where we have been able to test our habitat quantification tool. It’s a tool to be able to measure a habitat function on a parcel of agricultural land. It allows you to plug in different practices a farmer could implement to improve that function for a suite of at-risk species.

    The one site where we’re about to launch a restoration project is called Elliott Ranch in West Sacramento. We were able to get Proposition 1 funding from the Delta Conservancy to be able to compensate that landowner to make some changes in agricultural practices and direct deliberate restoration on the property. We’re about to start on the actual project and get shovels in the ground in the next couple of months. That’s a project that’s really focused on Swainson’s hawk.

    Groundwater movement via the USGS

    SLV projects receive $1.4 million in GOCO grants

    Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
    Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

    From Great Outdoors Colorado (Rosemary Dempsey) via The Crestone Eagle:

    The Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) Board awarded three grants totaling more than $1.4 million to projects across the San Luis Valley. San Luis Valley Inspire, a valley-wide coalition breaking down barriers for kids to get outside, received $1 million in funding as part of the GOCO Inspire Initiative; Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) received a $376,500 grant to permanently conserve the La Garita Creek Ranch near Del Norte; and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) received a $25,000 habitat restoration grant for Rio Grande State Wildlife Area.

    The $1 million grant is part of GOCO’s Inspire Initiative, which will invest in places, programs, and pathways to get kids outside in communities across the state. This innovative framework is being looked at as a national model, and each coalition’s approach to the unique challenges of their community will serve as examples to other rural, urban, suburban, or mountain communities across the country.

    Youth have led the charge for the San Luis Valley Inspire coalition; this funding will put their plans into action over the next three years. San Luis Valley Inspire will put GOCO funding to work in Antonito, Creede and Saguache, building the Antonito Outdoor Education Center and investing in the creation of the Antonito Adventure Program, improving connections along Creede’s Willow Creek Corridor, the Headwaters Youth Conservation Corps, the Saguache Backyard to Backcountry Program, and the Saguache Youth Conservation Corps.

    RiGHT’s grant for La Garita Creek Ranch was part of GOCO’s open space grant program, which funds public and private land conservation. Projects sustain local agriculture and economies, give outdoor recreationists a place to play (or simply enjoy the view), protect wildlife habitat, and safeguard the state’s water supply.

    La Garita Creek Ranch is a 460-acre guest ranch outside of Del Norte near Penitente Canyon, an international climbing, hiking, and mountain biking destination. The ranch is also adjacent to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and the Rio Grande National Forest.

    Conserving La Garita will protect critical water access and habitat for a variety of wildlife species as well as Ute pictographs and other archaeological evidence of early Native Americans. The conservation project will also create new climbing and bouldering access.

    CPW’s grant is part of GOCO’s habitat restoration grant program. In 2016, GOCO doubled funding for the program, which restores habitat through projects that remove invasive plant species, protect Colorado’s water supply, mitigate fire fuels, and perform other critical restoration work.

    Restoration of the Rio Grande in Rio Grande State Wildlife Area will protect water infrastructure, local agriculture, and wetlands that support threatened and endangered amphibians, fish, birds, and mammals.

    To date, GOCO has invested $42 million in San Luis Valley projects and has conserved more than 90,000 acres of land in the valley. GOCO funding has supported Alamosa’s ice rink and Rio Grande Farm Park, Faith Hinkley Memorial Park in Monte Vista, and Center’s Town Park, among other projects.

    Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) invests a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds to help preserve and enhance the state’s parks, trails, wildlife, rivers, and open spaces. GOCO’s independent board awards competitive grants to local governments and land trusts, and makes investments through Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Created when voters approved a Constitutional Amendment in 1992, GOCO has since funded more than 4,800 projects in urban and rural areas in all 64 counties without any tax dollar support. Visit GOCO.org for more information.

    Dugan Ranch – Conserved! — Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

    Rio Grande River corridor near Del Norte.
    Rio Grande River corridor near Del Norte.

    Here’s the release from the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust:

    In 1999 the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) was founded as the community‘s land trust, dedicated to serving the entire San Luis Valley. In 2007, RiGHT launched the Rio Grande Initiative, the landscape scale effort with many partners to protect land and water along the Rio Grande and its tributaries. One of the first ranches they protected under the Initiative is owned by Bob and Carol Lee Dugan on the river on Swede Lane, just west of Monte Vista. Now, nearly ten years later, RiGHT is proud to announce that the Dugans have protected yet another nearby ranch with a conservation easement.

    This 316-acre ranch, which combines parcels previously known as the James Ranch and the Stephens Ranch, is just south of the river between Monte Vista and Del Norte. Between the two ranches, the Dugans have now protected a total of 670 acres with conservation easements. In doing so, they have also protected the water that goes with those ranches, the wildlife habitat, the beautiful views, and the important agricultural productivity. Clearly, this represents a strong commitment to conservation by Bob and Carol Lee Dugan and they continue to recommend conservation to others, saying, “We suggest that other land owners consider preserving their ranches for the future generations of this state.”

    “We are immensely grateful to the Dugan family for their dedication to their properties along the Rio Grande,” said Nancy Butler, RiGHT’s Executive Director. “Their land ethic has helped RiGHT and our partners protect more than 26,000 acres along the Rio Grande and its tributaries. That legacy will continue far into the future and that land, water and wildlife habitat will remain intact for all to enjoy.”

    The conservation of the 2016 Dugan Ranch project was made possible through the generous support of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Gates Family Foundation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (via funding supported by the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable) and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s San Luis Valley Habitat Partnership Program Committee. Invaluable support has also been provided by individual donors who ensure that RiGHT’s conservation work can continue.

    As an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the NRCS’s mission is to help people help the land. Colorado’s NRCS State Conservationist Clint Evans stated that, “Protecting vital agricultural landscapes is a top priority for NRCS. Through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program – Agricultural Land Easement (ACEP-ALE), the natural resource benefits we all enjoy derived from prime agricultural lands can be preserved.”

    “This project is an important contribution to the corridor of conservation in this area of the river, with nearly 1,500 acres already conserved nearby,” said Butler. “RiGHT has conserved four other spectacular ranches in this area, providing excellent wildlife habitat and maintaining the beautiful scenery that we all love in the San Luis Valley. Carol Lee and Bob Dugan have demonstrated immense dedication to preserving these lands in perpetuity and we are grateful that RiGHT was able to help them achieve their dreams for these special places.”

    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.