6,000 acres of wildlife habitat protected by easement

After four years of research and preparation, representatives of Alpine Cascade Corporation and the Southwest Land Alliance finalized a 6,300-acre conservation easement Tuesday that will preserve nearly 10 square miles of prime wildlife habitat, nearly seven miles of the San Juan River corridor and one of Archuleta County’s most scenic view sheds — all just southwest of downtown Pagosa Springs.

Located three road miles from the town’s boundary and called the Alpine Cascade Ranch, the easement is one of the largest in Archuleta County and could stack up as one of the largest in Colorado, according to ranch manager J.R. Ford and Southwest Land Alliance Executive Director Michael Whiting.

“In our region, this is the largest conservation easement created in the last 10 years, and it’s the largest single transaction the Southwest Land Alliance has done. Most conservation easements in the county are less than 3,000 acres. At 6,300 acres this is the second largest conservation easement recorded in Archuleta County,” Whiting said.

But beyond sheer size, the easement is notable for its strict preservation of 6.8 miles of the San Juan River and its riparian corridor and for safeguarding important permanent and migratory habitat for a number of key Colorado species.

Within the easement, the San Juan River provides habitat for native Colorado River cutthroat trout. Alpine Cascade Corporation has demonstrated its commitment to maintaining prime fish habitat by restoring 6.5 miles of the waterway with in-stream work and re-vegetation along the once overgrazed river banks.

Above the river, the riparian corridor and cottonwood canopy offer winter concentration areas for bald eagle and many avian species of local and national significance.

Beyond the river banks, the ranch as a whole provides important permanent and migratory habitat for other wildlife species, including mountain lion, bobcat, badger, Merriam’s wild turkey, beaver, river otter and Lewis’ Woodpecker — a U.S. Forest Service sensitive species.

In addition, the ranch includes important summer and winter ranges for mule deer and elk, and summer range and fall concentration areas for black bear. In addition, and although rare and elusive, Canada lynx — a federally threatened and state endangered species — have been seen roaming the ranch. The property includes wetlands, pine savannah, pine forests and woodlands, mixed-conifer forests and mountain shrubland plant communities.

With 6,300 acres, the ranch allows for wild and domesticated species to coexist, and the property will continue to provide rangeland for approximately 200 head of Texas Longhorn cattle, 300 head of sheep, 50 head of goats and five horses.

Despite the ranch’s proximity to downtown and a number of major subdivisions (Meadows Unit IV, Timber Ridge, Holiday Acres, Blue Lake Estates, Echo Canyon Ranches, Bear Springs Ranch, and Alpine Hills), Ford said the easement limits development on the 6,300 acre-property to five, five-acre building envelopes and one, 20-acre building envelope.

“Its proximity to much higher density subdivisions and its suitability for high-density development makes the easement that much more valuable as a gift to the community,” Whiting said.

“We put our entire ranch in this easement and left nothing open to development. In our minds, this honors the true spirit of what a conservation easement is all about,” Ford said.

In addition to stringent limitations on development, Ford made it clear the easement does not provide for public access. However, those traveling by inflatable raft, kayak, or by car on Trujillo Road will have ample opportunity to view fall colors in the cottonwood bosque along the San Juan River, wintering bald eagles and elk, deer and other wildlife moving across the ranch. Careful observers may glimpse a mountain lion or bobcat slinking along the palisades high above the river.

“The primary purpose of the easement is to protect the view corridor, preserve ranching, wildlife and riparian habitat, all while keeping the entire 6,300-acre ranch intact for perpetuity,” Ford said.

In an acknowledgment to the property’s ranching legacy, Ford said Alpine Cascade Corporation worked with two land trusts to create the easement. Specifically, Ford explained, the Southwest Land Alliance, a Pagosa Springs-based land trust, negotiated the easement with the landowner and handled transactional matters. Then, in 30 days following legal filings, Southwest Land Alliance will hand off the easement to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust who will provide ranch protection and stewardship for perpetuity.

“The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT) is thrilled to be an integral component in the protection of the Alpine Ranch.  Large open tracts of land like this are increasingly rare in Colorado, and efforts like this benefit the community and the entire state,” said Chris West, executive director of the organization. “The fact that this working ranch hosts such significant wildlife resources shows how agriculture and wildlife can thrive together.  It takes both a love of the land and the ability to keep it in agricultural use to ensure that these great places are preserved.”

And Whiting said the easement marks a major milestone for the community and his organization.

“We were incredibly honored the landowner would trust us with this transaction. It says a lot about the level of trust between the landowner and the Southwest Land Alliance,” said Whiting. “This project is also a watershed for the community because it is so large and so close to town. The fact that they’re giving up tremendous development potential is huge, and the reason they’re doing it is for the love of the property.”

james@pagosasun.com