Conservation easement doubles land protected on scenic southern Colorado cattle ranch

JE Canyon Ranch is 50 miles northeast of Trinidad via Colorado 150 and is one of the largest continguous tracts of privately owned ranch in Colorado. Photo courtesy of John Fielder.

An extra layer of protection was added to one of Colorado's largest intact cattle ranches and least-known scenic gems last month, highlighting Colorado's private land conservation.

With a $1.9 million grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, another 25,000 acres of JE Canyon Ranch was placed under a conservation easement by The Nature Conservancy and Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust - adding to 24,600 acres previously protected on the Las Animas County property.

"We feel JE is one of those unique properties - a true mix of a special agriculture heritage with a really dynamic ecosystem that is unbelievable from a scenic perspective," said Erik Glenn, executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust. "It's one of the most unique properties in all of Colorado."

The ranch, just north of the New Mexico border, is a landscape of "dramatic mesas, sweeping grasslands, river-carved canyons, towering red rock walls and Native American archaeological sites ... an iconic representation of the American West," Glenn said.

For a Colorado kid, the first trip above timberline is a rite of passage akin to first communion or a first kiss. My inaugural hike beyond tree line was on Mount Bierstadt in the '70s, back when Denver had a professional football team and I-70 was traffic-free. There was a pristine sacredness to Bierstadt then; scaling a 14er in those days was like entering a kind of church of the wild. The climb up Bierstadt is easy, maybe too easy. It's essentially a gentle scramble across a wide-open sweep of tundra to the top of a sawtooth ridge with a view of tomorrow. My teenage friends and I were the only ones at the top when we summited. I remember looking down into an endless empty as the wind whipped the clouds into cotton

It supports more than 850 native plant and animal species, from long-billed curlew and mountain lion to Colorado's largest and healthiest population of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

The Nature Conservancy bought the ranch in 2015 to connect a large swath of conserved grassland, and it has worked with local ranchers since to manage sustainable cattle operations while protecting ecological assets.

"I've never had anyone down in JE Canyon for their first visit who basically wasn't struck speechless when they broke through the line of junipers and saw the canyon spread out," said Matt Moorhead, southeast Colorado project director for The Nature Conservancy. "It's just so incongruous with what people expect eastern Colorado to be."

JE Canyon Ranch is yet another success story in a system that has applied conservation easements to help protect spaces such as Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs and El Paso County's Paint Mines Interpretive Park.

Conservation easements are voluntary, legally binding agreements between landowners and nonprofit land trusts or governmental entities to protect agricultural viability, habitat for plants and animals, scenic views and outdoor education and recreation.

These easements are granted "in perpetuity," binding future owners to the restrictions and ensuring permanent protection.

"A conservation easement is simply a choice made with a landowner and a partner about a property based on what they think is best for the future," Moorhead said. "It provides financial and legal tools to provide an effective choice to say, 'This is what I value leaving behind,' while achieving their normal economic goals."

For ranchers like those in JE Canyon, the easement may be the difference between continuing a generations-long livelihood and selling their land to a housing developer.

"It keeps the fabric that holds the community together," Glenn said.

Funding for these agreements primarily comes from the state's Conservation Easement Tax Credit program and GOCO grants, a Colorado State University study said. Partners also have access to money from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, averaging several million dollars annually, as well as other local and federal sources.

CSU researchers found that Colorado residents have received an estimated $5.5 billion to $13.7 billion of economic benefits from land protected by conservation easements since 1995. The state has invested about $1.1 billion in these lands, so each state dollar produced $4 to $12 of benefits for Coloradans.

These include clean water and air, scenic views, access to products from local farms and ranches, and wildlife habitat.

Given the perpetual nature of the easement, the CSU researchers expect the benefits to continue to accrue and increase on a per-acre basis due to Colorado's increasing population and wealth, profiting residents now and in the future.

The Colorado Springs-based Palmer Land Trust has protected more than 100,000 acres of recreation and agricultural lands across southern Colorado. In El Paso County, it has helped protect more than 7,000 acres, including Red Rock Canyon and Jones Park and Stratton open spaces.

Executive Director Rebecca Jewett said land trusts also fill the gap that the community has identified but governmental entities cannot fill for budgetary, political or other reasons.

"Land trusts as nonprofits have a unique ability to conserve a variety of types of landscapes and projects, whereas the federal government conservation is limited to national parks, BLM lands, national forests," said Jewett. "Generally, land trusts can act faster, in a variety of different environments and with private landowners who oftentimes trust us more than the government."

Community demand for land trust work is high, too. Demands by Colorado Springs residents spurred the conservation easement that the Palmer Land Trust recently placed on the Strawberry Fields site - city-owned land traded to The Broadmoor that is being challenged in court.

"What is quite exciting is that the interest in conservation never has been higher among landowners," Glenn said. "We have a real opportunity right now to do incredible work that will benefit the citizens of the state long into the future."

Twitter: @lizmforster

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