La Plata Open Space Conservancy turns 25 in March.
Because of it, more than 30,000 acres of land in seven counties are to remain untouched by development.
The land trust manages about 20,100 acres within 176 conservation easements, and has helped protect an additional 900 acres for other organizations. In December, two additional properties totaling more than 470 acres were placed in conservation easements in La Plata County.
These lands typically are open to hunting, agriculture and fishing. They preserve family legacies, and some, such as Overend Mountain Park and Horse Gulch, are popular places for public recreation. They exist in La Plata, Archuleta, Montezuma, Hinsdale and Ouray counties as well as San Juan counties in Colorado and New Mexico.
“Land trusts bridge the gap between government and the private landowner,” said Executive Director Amy Schwarzbach. “We have kitchen table conversations with a lot of these people.”
Protecting open lands on the local level began in the mid-1980s with a county governmental committee, formed at a time when a parks program and related policy didn’t exist in Durango. Kathy Roser was asked to lead the program in 1987.
The group was unlike other county committees in that it was semi-autonomous. Committee members would negotiate deals with landowners, then approach county commissioners for approval.
“There was not a lot of public support, mainly because people felt it was a government organization,” Roser said. “And there wasn’t a lot of support from the government. They didn’t stand behind it.”
Realizing the entity would function more effectively as a land trust, the committee dissolved and La Plata Open Space Conservancy formed as a nonprofit in 1992, and Roser was executive director for the next 18 years.
La Plata Open Space Conservancy protects land primarily through conservation easements, which are restrictions placed on a deed that limit or prohibit development.
A conservation easement must meet one or more criteria for public benefit, such as offer a scenic view, agricultural opportunity, wildlife habitat or a buffer between development and a significant piece of public land. Rather than purchase them, La Plata Open Space accepts donations of land and development rights.
For Roser, retired but still working as a land trust accreditation commissioner, the work is personal and rooted in her childhood.
“My grandfather on my mother’s side was a rancher in Canada – Saskatchewan – and it was the largest ranch in the province,” she said. “When he died, before I was born, that property was lost to the family because no one was interested in continuing that.”
However, Roser and her family were able to preserve her paternal grandparents’ farm in upstate New York.
“It’s always been important to me to save land and keep it in a family,” she said.
Family frequently is at the crux of conservation, as it was for the James family, which placed a fourth and final parcel of the James Ranch into an easement last spring. The move locked their scenic Animas Valley pastures into agricultural use.
And last month, Elaine and Gilbert Slade finalized an easement for 437 acres of land they’ve owned for 25 years along the La Plata River – an idea the couple first considered nine years ago.
Deer and other wildlife pass through the property, drawn to the waterway and wetlands. And on the bluffs, petroglyphs are etched into a rock face, which the Slades noticed one afternoon while picnicking with friends.
“I’m only 79, but as we aged, we started to consider the end of our lives and what would happen to the land we love,” Elaine Slade said. “This was a natural decision. Agriculture and hunting are allowed, and there are just two places one can build a home. We can do what’s good for the land and keep out what’s not good for the land.”
The organization has helped other land trusts and agencies acquire or maintain open space, helping neighbors to the west establish Montezuma Land Conservancy in 1998.
In 2015, the organization assigned three conservation easements to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to expand Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Cortez, becoming the first land trust in Colorado to donate land to the federal government.
“We spent a lot of time laying groundwork for the land trust movement in general, and that included working to get incentives for people to donate easements and land, and a tremendous amount of education to help people understand why it’s important,” Roser said.
It also included building a stewardship program to ensure the terms of easement deals are honored in the future.
Since she was appointed director four years ago, Schwarzbach has been involved with six conservation easements. It can be an ugly and emotional process. Conservation easements knock down property value, and the choice is a quandary for property owners torn between land they cherish and developers’ dangling carrots.
“It’s no small decision,” Schwarzbach said. “There’s legal jargon. You have to look at title work, water rights, talk to your kids, your grandkids. There have been conservation easements literally signed on death beds. A lot of land holders are older; sometimes they leave squabbling heirs.”
But it’s important because the work is perpetual, permanent and ongoing in an area where development is widespread, said Jerry Zink, a conservancy board member and former board president.
“My father raised me to think about land in a different way and not just think of agriculture as something that happens until development takes place,” Zink said.
Inspired by his father, who placed part of his farm in a conservation easement, Zink did the same with his own land and helped negotiate 200 easements throughout the region during his tenure.
Over the years, Roser thinks there has been a shift toward better understanding of the necessity of balancing preservation and development.
“It’s just like food: people think milk comes from the grocery store, not a cow. They think parks are just there and don’t stop to think about how they get to be parks,” she said. “When they do realize, I think people are supportive of protecting them.”