For 30 years, Tom Macy has been working to preserve a 65,000-acre swath of land in the Navajo River Watershed of Southwest Colorado. As the Western representative for The Conservation Fund, an environmental nonprofit, he has worked on many other projects in the country’s most scenic states.
But this landscape rose above the rest. And last week, the last portion of land was preserved under a perpetual conservation easement.
High snow-peaked mountains wrap around the watershed’s lush Archuleta County valley, filled with trees taller than what is typical for the otherwise arid region.
“It feels like a remote part of Alaska, or British Columbia,” Macy said.
The watershed is one of the last places that grizzly bears were seen in Colorado, and the streams on the land support the recovery of the San Juan strain of the Colorado cutthroat trout, which was presumed extinct for 100 years until it was rediscovered in the watershed in 2018.
Nestled in the valley are 10 cattle ranches, which also offer hunting and fishing to visitors. The land includes the headwaters of the San Juan River, one of the biggest tributaries of the Colorado River.
“We’re proud to partner with The Conservation Fund, USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), Forest Service and owners of Banded Peak Ranch to conserve the myriad of ecological values on the ranch,” said Mike Lester, state forester and director of the Colorado State Forest Service, in a news release.
The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail runs along the eastern border of the watershed property for about 10 miles. With the easement in place, hikers always will see the valley landscape with scattered historic farmhouses, not a subdivision or a golf course, Macy said.
How the easement works for ranchersSome of the families on the land are in their fourth or fifth generation on that land. Their grandparents are buried there.
“We are protecting ranches in a rural part of the West, as well as the natural landscape,” Macy said.
But the conservation easement on the watershed, a legal agreement that gives owners the right to use the land as long as they do not develop it or drill it for oil, also protects a major source of water for the drought-stricken Four Corners.
The water that flows from the Navajo River Watershed provides irrigation and drinking water for 1 million people in New Mexico, including 90% of Albuquerque’s water supply.
Conservation easements balance the economic reality of places like Southwest Colorado, which rely on land use for the local economy, and preserving the natural landscape, Macy said.
“The conservation easement doesn’t tell them what to do with the land,” he said.
The easement prevents the land from being used in a way that could harm the vital source of water.
“Productive uses are allowed, but destructive uses are not allowed,” Macy said.
Many ranches are sold because people can no longer afford their bills or the price of land in Southwest Colorado.
“There are very few large landscape ranches like this,” Macy said. “It looks like it did at the turn of the century, and it will remain that way.”
The Hughes family from Denver owned the property in the late 1980s, when Macy first set foot on the land. But over time, deaths and family members moving on provided an opportunity for The Conservation Fund to find families to fill the ranches that would be willing to work with them on the conservation easements.
Funding from LWCF and Wyss FoundationBanded Peak Ranch, the final 16,000-acre ranch in the watershed, was acquired for the conservation easement with $7,000 from the Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which is funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
LWCF is funded by offshore drilling revenue, not taxpayer dollars, and supports conservation projects across the country. The Great American Outdoors Act, a bill that passed the U.S. House and the Senate, provides full and permanent funding for the LWCF. The bill has been sent to President Donald Trump for a signature.
“It’s a very important source of funds,” Macy said.
An international environmental foundation, the Wyss Foundation, matched LWCF’s funding contribution to the project.
“It just shows how important and special this land is,” Macy said. “We applied and competed with landscapes across the country and came out second in the nation out of 35 to 45 applications.”
Each family living on the land is different, but they are all conservation-oriented, he said.
“Our family has been dedicated to land conservation and land stewardship in Colorado and elsewhere for many years,” said Karin Griscom, a member of the family living at Banded Peak Ranch, in a news release from The Conservation Fund.
The two adjacent ranches – Catspaw and Navajo Headwaters – are owned by members of the same family and protected through a series of conservation easements held by the Colorado State Forest Service and Colorado Open Lands.
“They are a group of ranchers working together to support a landscape that supports clean water, wildlife and traditional values,” Macy said. “That is hard to find.”