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Preserving what is left

Those of us born and raised in Colorado, as well as longtime residents and longtime visitors, know one thing for certain: the character of the land has changed in marked ways — many of those ways undesirable. And we remember it the way it used to be.

Fifty years ago, the plains of Colorado included vast farmland. Farms most often bordered what were then relatively small rural towns and several moderate-size urban centers. Now, what was once rich farmland is paved, crossed by highways and crowded with subdivisions. Urban centers sprawl in chaotic fashion. Chances those once fertile fields will bear fruit again are slim to none.

For those of us who lived in or traveled the mountains of the state, the experience was one of vast tracts of public lands and similar tracts of ranch land. But for the moonlike wastelands created in mining centers, there were abundant natural riches awaiting anyone who ventured forth to the high country. Most mountain towns were small, with ranches nearby providing a foundation for the economy.

Pagosa Springs was one of those towns, with tiny satellite communities spread throughout the county. The countryside included a healthy mix of public lands and many large ranch properties.

What happened on the Eastern Slope happened in the mountains of Colorado. Over the years, a significant number of what were once ranch properties have been transformed by development, or stand on the verge of transformation. The majority of people residing in Pagosa Country live on what was once part of a ranch property.

Here, as time passed, ranches were purchased and changed. They will never function as true ranch properties again.

This is a mark of the economic state of the ranching industry, and no one can blame the ranch owner who capitulates to unbearable pressure. It is difficult to protest the lawful transformation of private property via development without becoming mired in hypocrisy.

But, the change is a sad one.

The question is what can be done to prevent continued erosion of the area’s ranching heritage and what is left of the ranching business?

What can be done is what organizations like the Southwest Land Alliance seek to do: Secure a future that includes vital, healthy rural towns, working ranches and wide-open spaces. And to do so, in part, through voluntary preservation of private land.

Several, major ranch properties in Pagosa Country will continue to exist as undeveloped tracts because of the success of this process — there to be enjoyed and used in a way that benefits environment and community. Hopefully, more will be added to the list. The value is clear: Ecologically, ranching keeps lands open and stewarded, keeps human population densities low, and safeguards against residential sprawl. Economically, ranching provides homegrown food and supports a fiscally responsible economy

As part of its continued efforts, the SLA is sponsoring a benefit featuring the renowned nature photographer John Fielder — an artist known for capturing the Colorado experience in photographs unparalleled in their beauty and meaning. He has created 39 books, most about his home state of Colorado. Fielder has also worked tirelessly to promote the protection of Colorado’s open space and wildlands. His photography has influenced people and legislation, earning him numerous honors.

Fielder will present a free slideshow 7-9 p.m. at the Ross Aragon Community Center, The show will include over 250 of the project photographs and Fielder will tell stories about his experiences working with ranchers and exploring their ranches. Both book and slide show will be used to rally support for the use of conservation easements to save ranches by encouraging other ranch owners to do the same, and to raise funds to purchase development rights from ranchers so that these lands can remain in ranching in perpetuity.

Time is short, and it must be done.

Karl Isberg