Video opinion: Battle over San Luis Valley water draws in sandhill cranes — The #Colorado Sun

Here’s a guest column from Max Ciaglo that’s running in The Colorado Sun:

Sandhill cranes have been migrating through the San Luis Valley of Colorado for thousands of years. The Rio Grande River likely attracted the first cranes to the Valley, providing the ideal habitat and abundant food resources that they required to complete their migration.

Early settlers brought agriculture to the San Luis Valley with them. To irrigate fields to grow hay, farmers diverted water from rivers onto the land, mimicking natural wetlands and effectively expanding habitat for cranes to thrive. When wheat and barley farming began in the valley in the 1900s, it also provided a high-calorie food resource that buoyed crane populations that were dwindling throughout North America.

Max Ciaglo. Photo credit: Colorado Open Lands

More than 50% of land in the valley is now publicly owned, but over 90% of existing wetlands are on private farmlands. Although these lands and the water on them are managed as part of private business operations, they provide critical habitat for sandhill cranes.

However, we in Colorado relate all too well to the sentiment that “whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting.”

The battles are fought on many fronts: agricultural versus municipal users; rural towns versus urban centers. Water often flows towards money.

Water in Colorado’s rivers and streams is sometimes diverted from one river basin to meet the demands of another. These exports take water from once-productive agricultural lands and dry them up in the process, and the wildlife that depend on these lands are often left out of the discussion entirely.

In the San Luis Valley declining groundwater and extended drought have already left the land thirsty for water. But even now, as Colorado knocks on the door of a third decade of consistent drought conditions, other interests are eyeing water from the valley’s underground aquifer to export to growing cities on the Front Range of Colorado.

Farmers and ranchers across the valley have been working together with partners like Colorado Open Lands and other local coalitions for decades to protect and conserve their water. As they come together once again to fight the threat of water export, they are fighting to make sure that there is a future for agriculture in the Rio Grande Basin. And as long as there is a future for agriculture there will be a future for sandhill cranes.

Max Ciaglo is the Grain for Cranes Fellow at Colorado Open Lands, a statewide land and water conservation nonprofit. The Grain for Cranes program aims to support sandhill crane habitat by supporting agriculture in the San Luis Valley. Find out more at ColoradoOpenLands.org.

Sandhill cranes. Photo: Scott Helfrich/Audubon Photography Awards

Opinion: Forever means forever. #Colorado’s iconic landscapes require “perpetual conservation easements” protection — The Colorado Sun

From The Colorado Sun (Melissa Daruna):

There has been a lot of talk in the local news lately about perpetual conservation easements. What is this tool, and why should people care?

A perpetual conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government entity to protect land — and its associated natural resources — forever.

The core goal is permanent protection. We need this tool to permanently protect Colorado’s iconic landscapes. It’s therefore critical that we protect the tool.

Melissa Daruna. Photo credit: Keep it Colorado

Since 1965, nonprofit land trusts and their partners have helped Colorado landowners conserve more than three million acres of working lands, wildlife habitat and open spaces that define our state and contribute to our quality of life.

This work is voluntary, collaborative, nonpartisan and local. More than 30 nonprofit land trusts are responsible for the stewardship of nearly 80% of the 2.2 million acres of private land conserved in this state — and they rely on perpetual conservation easements to ensure this activity continues.

To use an example of one well-known area that is permanently protected, let’s look at Greenland Ranch.

Greenland Ranch is an undeniably gorgeous eight-mile span of rolling hills, rugged overlooks and sweeping vistas that drivers see as they travel along I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs.

Sitting on 21,000 acres, it is the oldest-operating cattle ranch on the Front Range. It’s hard to imagine that drive without the open space that, for so many, is iconic of Colorado and everything our state represents — and that draws people here in the first place.

Greenland Ranch. Photo credit: John Fielder via the Conservation Fund

And yet, given all of the growth in Colorado in recent years, it’s also easy to imagine how that view would change if dotted with subdivisions, strip malls and big-box stores. Such development would create a radically different look and feel for our Colorado.

Fortunately, that second scenario will never take place on Greenland Ranch. Urban sprawl will never define that land, thanks to a conservation easement that permanently protects it — and the commitment of land conservation partners and the landowner who shared a vision to keep the area in its natural state.

The list of properties around the state that Coloradans enjoy and that are protected by perpetual conservation easements is long — from peach orchards in Palisade, to Fisher’s Peak in Trinidad, to a mining claim now protected as open space in San Juan National Forest’s Weminuche Wilderness, to publicly accessible recreation trails in Eagle Valley; and the list goes on.

In Summit County, the Fiester Preserve adjacent to the County Commons is an example of an open space in a more urban setting that’s protected by perpetual conservation easements; its original easement was put into place to protect the property’s value as an open space, invulnerable to development.

It’s important to realize that while conservation easements are a tool designed to primarily protect private lands, they offer real public benefits — including access to clean water, unblemished views, preservation of wildlife and in many cases, access to outdoor recreation opportunities.

The rewards are also economic. According to recent studies by Colorado State University, every dollar invested in conservation through Great Outdoors Colorado and the conservation easement tax credit (which landowners can receive in exchange for their land donation) returns between $4 and $12 in public benefits.

Additionally, every dollar that has been invested in perpetual conservation easements through the Federal Farm Bill over the past decade has generated $2 of new economic activity and created more than 1,000 new jobs in Colorado — most of which were in rural areas.

Whether we’re talking about the iconic landscapes that define Colorado, or parks and open spaces in urban areas or mountain towns, it’s critical to uphold the perpetual conservation easement tool.

Without it, Colorado will look very different in the future as our population grows, and sprawl will be Colorado’s defining characteristic.

Melissa Daruna is executive director of Keep It Colorado, a nonprofit statewide coalition of land trusts, public agencies and champions for conservation in Colorado.

Estes Park: Public Invited To Land Trust Event Focusing On The Future Of Land #Conservation

From the Estes Valley Land Trust via The Estes Park News:

On February 13 at 5 p.m., the Estes Valley Land Trust will host the Love Our Land Social at the Estes Valley Community Center. Drop-ins are welcome, refreshments will be provided and this event is free and open to the public.

Since 1987, the Estes Valley Land Trust, along with its partners, has preserved nearly 10,000 acres of land in and around Estes Park. “Our first 30 years were defined by major conservation successes, such as working with landowners to help them preserve Hermit Park Open Space, Meadowdale Ranch, and the Eagle Rock School,” said Jeffrey Boring, Executive Director of the Estes Valley Land Trust. “We want to continue to engage our partners and the broader community to plan the future of land conservation across the region.”

While many acres of land in the valley have already been preserved, there are more than 28,000 acres still available for development. The land trust is hosting a social event to receive public feedback on the types of land that are most important to preserve in the future.

“There is a tremendous amount of support for land conservation around Estes, but we want to know what types of land the community considers the most important to conserve,” Boring said. Lands that protect the most iconic views, lands that are critical for wildlife habitat, new outdoor recreation opportunities, or lands of historic significance are all potential conservation opportunities.

The public will be invited to complete a survey to help prioritize these conservation opportunities.

Results from the survey will be used to develop a regional Open Space and Outdoor Recreation Plan. The plan will highlight land conservation goals and include partnerships that could be formed to preserve key areas. “The Estes Valley Land Trust Board of Directors will consider the Open Space and Outdoor Plan our strategic plan and will guide our future conservation efforts,” said Boring.

The plan may also help guide the Town’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan and identify where growth and development is appropriate and where it is not. “Consideration of open space and outdoor recreation opportunities is a critical part of developing a good Comprehensive Plan,” said Travis Machalek, Town Administrator, Town of Estes Park. “The Open Space and Outdoor Recreation Plan will be a valuable source document as the community works to create an updated Comprehensive Plan for Estes Park.”

The communities of Estes Park, Allenspark, Glen Haven, Drake, and residents of unincorporated Larimer County have a long legacy of preserving land and protecting habitat. The Love Our Land Social is an opportunity to continue this legacy and chart the future of land conservation.

The Open Space and Outdoor Recreation Plan is funded by a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado and matching funds from the Town of Estes Park, Larimer County, Estes Park Economic Development Corporation and the Estes Valley Board of Realtors.

Aerial view of Lake Estes and Olympus Dam looking west. Photo credit Northern Water.

2020 #COleg: SB20-135, Conservation Easement Working Group Proposals

Saguache Creek

From The Denver Post (David Migoya):

Colorado lawmakers are set to consider [SB20-135, Conservation Easement Working Group Proposals] next week that could refund hundreds of millions of dollars to people who innocently bought into the state’s conservation easement tax credit program, only to see officials dismiss the tax credits as worthless and tag them with hefty bills.

The individuals bought the credits from landowners who had received them after protecting millions of acres of property from future development, or their representatives.

But revenue officials eventually said the land wasn’t worth what the landowners claimed and negated more than $220 million in credits, leaving the buyers on the hook for the tab.

That was a decade ago.

After years of public hearings, focus groups and stakeholder conferences, Sens. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, seek to undo the mess and ensure those individuals who unknowingly bought into the program are repaid. House co-sponsors include Dylan Roberts, D-Steamboat Springs, and James Wilson, R-Salida.

The bill is largely the result of a task force empaneled from a bill Sonnenberg successfully pushed last year. The leaders of the task force — a landowner caught in the tax-credit debacle and the director of a land trust that managed many easements — were frequently at odds on the issue but worked together to find solutions.

@USDA Invites Input on Agricultural #Conservation Easement Program Rule

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

Here’s the release from the NRCS:

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) seeks public comments on its interim rule for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). ACEP is USDA’s premier conservation easement program, helping landowners protect working agricultural lands and wetlands. The rule – now available on the Federal Register – takes effect on publication and includes changes to the program prescribed by the 2018 Farm Bill.

“Through easements, agricultural landowners are protecting agricultural lands from development, restoring grazing lands and returning wetlands to their natural conditions,” NRCS Chief Matthew Lohr said. “The new changes to ACEP under the 2018 Farm Bill make it stronger and more effective and will result in even better protection of our nation’s farmlands, grasslands and wetlands.”

NRCS is investing more than $300 million in conservation easements for fiscal 2020. NRCS state offices will announce signup periods for ACEP in the coming weeks.

Changes to ACEP for agricultural land easements include:

  • Authorizing assistance to partners who pursue “Buy-Protect-Sell” transactions.
  • Requiring a conservation plan for highly erodible land that will be protected by an agricultural land easement.
  • Increasing flexibility for partners to meet cost-share matching requirements.
  • Changes to ACEP for wetland reserve easements include:

  • Identifying water quality as a program purpose for enrollment of wetland reserve easements.
  • Expanding wetland types eligible for restoration and management under wetland reserve easements
  • “Conservation easements have a tremendous footprint in the U.S. with nearly 5 million acres already enrolled. That’s 58,000 square miles,” Lohr said. “This is a great testament to NRCS’s and landowner’s commitment to conservation.”

    Submitting Comments

    NRCS invites comments on this interim rule through March 6 on the Federal Register offsite link image . Electronic comments must be submitted through regulations.gov under Docket ID NRCS-2019-0006. All written comments received will be publicly available on regulations.gov, too.

    NRCS will evaluate public comments to determine whether additional changes are needed. The agency plans on publishing a final rule following public comment review.

    Applying for ACEP

    ACEP aids landowners and eligible entities with conserving, restoring and protecting wetlands, productive agricultural lands and grasslands. NRCS accepts ACEP applications year-round, but applications are ranked and funded by enrollment periods that are set locally.

    For more information on how to sign up for ACEP, visit your state website at nrcs.usda.gov or contact your local NRCS field office.

    Adam Beh named Executive Director of Central #Colorado Conservancy — The Ark Valley Voice

    Adam Beh. Photo credit: Central Colorado Conservancy

    From the Central Colorado Conservancy via The Ark Valley Voice (Jan Wondra):

    Adam Beh has joined the Central Colorado Conservancy as its new executive director, bringing more than 20 years of experience in conservation and rural development to the position. He started the job in late October, relocating from northern Colorado where he served as the Chief Conservation Officer for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

    Beh, an active outdoorsman, received his PhD in Human Dimensions of Natural Resources from Colorado State University (2010). He says he is always interested in exploring the social dynamics that influence success in landscape-level conservation. With a focus on applied science, land stewardship and community education, he led the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies land stewardship investments in the Intermountain West, including public-private partnerships among federal, state and nonprofit groups.

    He says Central Colorado Conservancy’s focus on community involvement, including the countywide Envision process, was a strong draw in his decision to take the position. The Conservancy’s support of the agricultural community was another key facet in his decision.

    “I wanted to stay focused on true community-based conservation efforts,” said Beh, adding that he is excited at the prospect of exporting the community-driven model to other places. “Not every organization out there has a rural way of life component as a driver.” He points to the Conservancy’s Hands for Lands volunteer program as a good example of reaching out to the rural community and supplying help with labor-intensive tasks such as spring ditch clearing.

    He notes that the Conservancy recently began the important Forever Chaffee project. It includes conservation easements of nearly 2,000 total acres for the Centerville Ranch, the Tri Lazy Ranch property (which connects the Centerville land east to Brown’s Canyon National Monument), and the Arrowpoint Cattle Company, which lies north of the Tri Lazy W.

    Beh plans to continue to grow the Conservancy’s existing programs, including restoration of the Sands Lake Wildlife Area. The project serves to restore Sands Lake to enhance the site for both wildlife and citizens of Colorado, using Natural Resource Damages settlement money from the California Gulch Mining Site. The project collaborates with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Southwest Conservation Corps, with volunteer help from Hands for Lands.

    Based on his work with birds, Beh emphasizes the importance of habitat links across the landscape. “Birds need those spaces – from Canada to Mexico. It makes you think differently.” He sees Central Colorado Conservancy as “a different type of land trust” that brings multiple resources to a property to enhance habitat, water quality and other factors that support the long-term health and beauty of the space.

    He can be reached at adam@centralcoloradoconservancy.org.

    @USBR uses #RioGrande high streamflow this year to expand Silvery minnow habitat

    Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

    From The Albuquerque Journal (Theresa Davis):

    This year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation decided to take advantage of high water levels from a strong spring runoff and create more habitat for the fish on the Middle Rio Grande.

    Doris Rhodes owns 629 acres near San Antonio in Socorro County, and for years she has been advocating for her property to host a Reclamation silvery minnow project. Earlier this year, her work paid off.

    Rhodes’ land is nestled on the Rio Grande near Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, making it an ideal location for restoration and conservation, according to Reclamation project manager Ashlee Rudolph.

    Reclamation crews worked from January to March of this year to lower and widen the riverbank on the southern end of the property. They excavated 46,000 cubic yards of dirt to create water channels where minnows could escape the fast-moving river.

    “What makes this project great is that it is a partnership between a private landowner who wanted to create habitat on her land and the federal and state agencies,” Rudolph said. “It is so rare to have that partnership.”

    Slowing the river flow

    Reclamation worked with the private non-profit Save Our Bosque Task Force, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s New Mexico Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to excavate zigzag patterns on nearly a mile of the river.

    The Rhodes property is one of few remaining historic wetlands in the San Acacia Reach of the Rio Grande, a primary habitat for silvery minnow.

    The property has no levees on the east side of the river, which has helped in the restoration of the area’s natural floodplain, according to Reclamation Albuquerque Area public affairs specialist Mary Carlson.

    Chris Torres, who oversees river maintenance operations on the Middle Rio Grande for the Reclamation Albuquerque Area Office, said the slow-moving side channels are critical for minnow-spawning.

    “Minnows like that edge habitat. It’s worked perfectly,” Torres said. “The water is backing the way it’s supposed to, and we can see fish moving down through there. As the water drops, everything returns back to the main river like it’s supposed to.”

    Rudolph said that since 2016, there have been at least eight silvery minnow habitats constructed in the San Acacia Reach of the river. Reclamation is joined by the Interstate Stream Commission to create these sites and monitor the fish populations.

    The new channels don’t just provide habitat for the small fish, which was listed on the federal endangered species list in 1994. Birds, deer and other wildlife are also drawn to the lowered riverbank…

    Torres said the crews left native cottonwoods intact and planted New Mexico olive trees. Crews also completed the project quickly so as not to disturb the federally-endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.

    Side channels were excavated by the Bureau of Reclamation along the Rio Grande where it passes through the Rhodes’ property to provide habitat for the endangered silvery minnow. (Dustin Armstrong/U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation)

    “Normally we would go through and just clear-cut everything for excavation purposes, but for this project we elected to leave the islands and leave as much of the native vegetation as we could,” Torres said…

    The property has flooded at least four times since 2006 – which Rhodes says is a good thing.

    “The Rhodes Property is a release valve,” she said. “When the river’s running high, water will come on to the property. It protects farmers to the north and south and also protects Bosque del Apache.”

    She said that, after the minnow project is complete, her next step will likely be more removal of the invasive salt cedar and planting of native plant species.

    “The more conservation that happens down here,” Rhodes said, “the more I’m convinced that this property is on the right path.”