Deal in works to keep BX Ranch near Pueblo free of development

March 15, 2015 Updated: March 15, 2015 at 9:18 am
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photo - Ranch manager John Wagner and his border collie puppy, Mary, check on some of the 700 head of cattle that are currently being ranched on BX Ranch, 15 miles east of Pueblo.To secure the conservation of the BX Ranch, GOCO (Great Outdoors Colorado) has granted funding to the Palmer Land Trust. The BX Ranch is a large ranch that is 25,000 acres and 15 miles east of Pueblo. Wednesday, February 25, 2015.  (JERILEE BENNETT/THE GAZETTE)
Ranch manager John Wagner and his border collie puppy, Mary, check on some of the 700 head of cattle that are currently being ranched on BX Ranch, 15 miles east of Pueblo.To secure the conservation of the BX Ranch, GOCO (Great Outdoors Colorado) has granted funding to the Palmer Land Trust. The BX Ranch is a large ranch that is 25,000 acres and 15 miles east of Pueblo. Wednesday, February 25, 2015. (JERILEE BENNETT/THE GAZETTE) 

With native short-grass prairies covering much of its 40 square miles, BX Ranch east of Pueblo offers a pastoral glimpse into the region's rich history in agriculture.

But its future has long been uncertain.

Strained by a flagging economy and years of drought, conservationists have feared the 25,000-acre cattle ranch would be sold and possibly developed in the ongoing march of eastern expansion along the Front Range.

"It's been on and off the market for years," said Rebecca Jewett of Palmer Land Trust, a Colorado Springs-based conservation group. "It was slated to be the site of a nuclear power plant."

Plans to farm nuclear power there fizzled in April 2011, when a fearful public petitioned Pueblo County commissioners to vote down a proposed land use change on the heels of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

But that turn of events left open the potential for new subdivisions at a time when open space in Colorado is on the decline, conservationists say.

That's due to change this year, however. Under a private-public partnership, and with the help of state grants, Palmer Land Trust is expected to finalize a conservation easement at BX Ranch that will bar all possibility of further development.

It's part of a coup the group is calling the "most important conservation effort in recent Pueblo County history" - a measure intended to shore up and protect Colorado's threatened native grasslands.

BX Ranch is expected to become an anchor in a belt of protected land stretching from Colorado Springs to Trinidad, conservationists say.

"We've essentially taken away the threat of any development potential on that property forever," Jewett said.

The ranch, which lies 19 miles east of Pueblo and south of the farming communities of St. Charles Mesa, Vineland, Avondale and Boone, will continue to be leased as grazing land, according to people involved in the deal.

Aside from buffering farming communities from exurban sprawl, the easement will preserve an area of ecological and environmental significance, in what Palmer Land Trust calls a significant win given Colorado Conservation Trust estimates that Colorado loses 90,000 acres of open land each year. The conservation easement is expected to be finalized this year, with the help of a $666,000 grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, which directs a portion of state lottery funds for trails and open spaces.

The GOCO portion was announced in December as part of a round of $4.1 million in grants meant to preserve open space across the state.

Before winning the grant, Palmer Land Trust first had to find a buyer for the land that would be willing to sign away development rights, Jewett said. The conservation group found a suitable candidate in Lyme Timber Co., an investment group from Hanover, N.H., that looks for business opportunities with a conservation component. Lyme holds 475,000 acres of forests and open land across the U.S., including several with conservation easements.

The company intends to hold the property for five to eight years, said Tom Morrow, managing director at Lyme.

Although other entities hold mining rights to the land, a geologist hired by Lyme found "very little likelihood" anyone would pursue them, Morrow said.

Prior to Lyme's purchase of the property last July, it had been eyed for development of some kind "in a pretty big way," Morrow said.

"Development is creeping out of Pueblo, and it kind of ends at the BX," Morrow said.

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