Driving from Denver to Colorado Springs on Interstate 25, the landscape is dotted with subdivisions, shopping centers and construction trying to keep pace with the state’s ballooning population. Just south of Castle Rock, the development suddenly disappears and is replaced by lush grasslands, dramatic mesas, grazing cattle and sweeping views of an iconic section of the Front Range.
It’s a reprieve from the urban matrix of the Front Range. It won’t ever disappear, either, because of a quilt of conservation easements stretching across 35,000 acres in southern Douglas County negotiated among people who, stereotypically, would be political enemies.
“Land conservation is not a red and blue issue; it’s an American issue,” said Erik Glenn, executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, which holds three easements in the corridor totaling more than 2,500 acres. “It’s one where we can find bipartisan work to preserve the land and a way of life.”
The story of the I-25 conservation corridor, which was celebrated during the Forever Colorado BBQ on Saturday, started in part when Sydney Macy, former director of The Conservation Fund, was flying back to Colorado from her undergraduate studies for Christmas break. As the plane approached Denver International Airport, she said she was struck by the bird’s-eye view of the start of the Front Range sprawl.
“It brought me to tears to see it,” she said. “I knew it needed to be protected before it was too late.”
In 1994, Macy and The Conservation Fund drafted a land protection strategy for southern Douglas County as then-Gov. Roy Romer pushed for the state to buy and protect the 21,000-acre Greenland Ranch from an Oklahoma family which purchased the first portion of the land in 1980.
The I-25 Conservation Corridor Plan engaged public and private sectors, setting the precedent that landowner buy-in was just as important as the conservation initiatives spearheaded by the government.
Over the next 25 years, The Conservation Fund, Douglas County, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust and a variety of other partners established conservation easements to surpass the plan’s goal of protecting 25,000 acres of critical ranchlands, scenic view corridors, wildlife habitat and movement corridors and future trail connections. The project touts popular recreation areas such as Spruce Mountain Open Space as well as private properties, including the 6,262-acre JA Ranch.
For the Greenland Ranch acquisition, which was completed in 2000, Great Outdoors Colorado contributed $9.2 million on top of $11 million in other public and private funds. Ultimately a $70 million project, it was the largest ever conservation acquisition in the state at the time.
“This is a unique project,” Macy said. “You step back and look at the wildlife and visual integrity values and overlay that with the landownership preservation, and you have a remarkable thing.”
David Anderson, the director and chief scientist of the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, considers it to be one of the most unique tracts of land in the country.
“This is one of the only places in the country where the sweep of the Great Plains hits the mountains and the ecosystem of thousands of miles east starts to change,” said Anderson, whose organization studies the biological resources in the corrdor. “It’s amazing how biologically rich it is.”
Among other unique plants and animals, the area is home to the threatened Preble’s Meadow jumping mouse, which only live in shurb-dominated riparian areas, a variety of rare butterfly species and herds of elk, deer and pronghorn.
For ranchers and farmers, some of whom have familial ties to the original homesteaders, the tax benefits and non-financial ecosystem services created by the easements ensure their family can maintain ownership of their land and sustain an agricultural livelihood in 2018 and beyond.
“We’re keeping landowners in charge of their farms, producing food and fiber that feeds the world and protecting the wildlife and land that we all benefit from,” Glenn said.
For James Hull, the easements are a blank canvas for regeneration. Hull grazes a portion of his 250 head of cattle on the Prairie Canyon Ranch near Franktown, using the cow as a tool to encourage the growth of native Colorado grasses, increase the water-holding capacity of the land and produce high-quality meat.
“Grazing can be extremely destructive, like any tool,” he said. “But properly managed, it can be a way to help the land and a way to get good, solid meat raised on good grass grown in good soil.”
The project’s most recent purchases include the 2,038-acre Sand Stone Ranch, which is owned by Douglas County and not yet open to the public. Ultimately, the goal is to create a continuous tract of protected land between the El Paso County line and Castlewood Canyon State Park.
“We’re preserving a natural heritage and way of life that are the reason people live in and visit Colorado,” said Cheryl Matthews, director of Douglas County Open Space and Natural Resources. “We always need more stewardship like that.”
Twitter: @lizmforster Phone: 636-0193