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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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Water Education Colorado

Case for the Private Partner: Landowners ease into conservation

By Cally Carswell

On a bluebird spring day, Jeff Crane stands beside Highway 92 where it crosses the North Fork of the Gunnison River just outside of Hotchkiss, a small town on Colorado’s Western Slope. With his hands tucked in the pockets of comfortably-worn Levis, Crane looks up and down the river, surveying the results of his handiwork.
Eleven years ago, Crane began giving this mile-and-a-half stretch of river, coursing through at least nine private properties, a makeover. He replaced a bulldozed diversion with an inconspicuous, permanent headgate. He carved out a gently meandering channel, stabilized the curves with strategically placed boulders, and planted willows along the river’s banks and wetland grasses beyond those. “We wanted to build a natural river system here,” he says. “And let [the North Fork] be a river again.”  

Re-imagining the river this way would be a dramatic departure for many landowners. The farmers and ranchers who made their livelihood on the river’s edge had taken a heavy hand with the river for years, using plows, bulldozers, even dynamite to tame its flow.

Their efforts, along with in-stream gravel mining by private companies and the county government, took a dramatic toll on the North Fork. Most riparian vegetation had been cleared to make room for orchards and pastures. Seven makeshift irrigation diversions left miles of the riverbed dry for months each year, making it uninhabitable for fish and uninviting for recreation. And attempts to straighten the river, which began in the late-1800s to maximize the arable land acreage, continued well into the 20th century under the theory that concentrating the water in a single, deep channel was the best way to protect landowners from a 100-year flood.

But it was a losing battle. “Rivers want to meander,” says Crane. “And if you try to contain them, they’re going to fight back.” By the mid-1990s, the North Fork’s banks were so unstable that spring floods could wash 5 to 10 acres—and sometimes crops and livestock—downriver at a time. The junked cars and concrete slabs used to armor the banks never held.

In 1996, Crane, a hydrologist specializing in stream assessment and restoration, offered his services to a small group of private landowners looking for a solution. Together they formed the North Fork River Improvement Association to work at improving stream stability, riparian habitat and ecosystem health. Crane theorized that the best way for NFRIA to accomplish its goals was to restore the river’s natural ecology and give it more freedom to do what it wanted.

The stretch starting at the Highway 92 bridge was chosen as a demonstration site. When construction began in 1999, the group broke ground on a new method of local river management. Landowners had always worked the river as individuals in the past, managing it only to protect their own property. But what solved one farmer’s problems often created more for neighbors downstream. After years of frustration they recognized the need for a coordinated approach. “Citizen watershed management was a new phenomenon,” Crane says. “We built partnerships that were never there.”  

With upwards of 95 percent of North Fork river miles in private ownership, restoration couldn’t be accomplished on a meaningful scale without landowner buy-in. To differing degrees, the same is true for rivers throughout Colorado.

“The majority of stream corridors tend to be in private land areas,” says Dieter Erdmann, director of conservation operations for the land trust Colorado Open Lands. While public land is essential in maintaining healthy watersheds, Erdmann emphasizes that it’s only part of the picture. “Wildlife and river systems don’t break along administrative boundaries.”

Protecting the Rio Grande River corridor
Stretching over a vast but remote part of southern Colorado, the San Luis Valley is one of the least populated regions in the state. Not easily accessible from the Front Range or Interstate 70, development pressure came slower here than in many of the state’s rural reaches. “We were a little behind the curve,” says Rio de la Vista, a consultant for the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust.

But the pressure came all the same, most intensely in the Rio Grande corridor, where developers saw potential to convert wide-open ranches into subdivisions. In 2005, a 1,900-acre riverside ranch was sold for development, and in 2007, out-of-state developers bought a total of nearly 3,000 acres of ranch and farm land along the river. Such changes in land use threatened the valley’s agricultural character and foreshadowed population growth that could strain water supplies and encroach upon wildlife habitat. Still, there were a number of large ranches along the river corridor that hadn’t been sold.

“That created an opportunity for development and for conservation,” says Nancy Butler, executive director of the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust. “We knew we needed to get started on this work immediately.”

So in 2007, the trust partnered with Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy and formed the Rio Grande Initiative to protect critical private lands in the river corridor. The goal was, and is, to safeguard as many miles of the Rio Grande flowing through Colorado as possible, using conservation easements as the primary tool.
It’s a strategy that’s gained steam in watersheds throughout the state. By putting an easement on their property, landowners permanently sever development rights, even if the land later changes hands. In Colorado, they get a tax break in return. Between 1995 and 2008, tax credits claimed for 1.41 million acres in easements statewide totaled $373 million, according to a recent study by the Trust for Public Land. Such financial incentives have been essential to protecting land, but a landowner’s goodwill plays a critical role as well. “Nobody would do it purely for the economic incentive,” de la Vista says. “They’ve got to have that love for the land.”

Initially, the Rio Grande Initiative developed parameters to narrow its focus. It would prioritize ranches 80 acres or larger that lie in the floodplain. The partnership also sought properties with attached water rights that would enable it to protect the values associated with the use of that water. By those criteria, they identified roughly 54,000 acres for easements, of which they aim to protect at least half.

To finance its purchases, the Rio Grande Initiative has secured funding from a variety of public and private sources. It received $1.5 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Reserve Account, along with grants from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Most notably, the initiative was awarded a $7.4 million legacy grant from Great Outdoors Colorado its first year to protect 5,600 acres along the river.

They’ve since moved quickly. To date, the initiative and its partners have protected almost 18,000 acres in the river corridor, covering about 30 river miles. Combined with public land, Butler says that puts the total number of protected Rio Grande river miles in Colorado at 111 out of 175.
Six of those miles were recently secured on the Rio Oxbow Ranch, a postcard-perfect property and one of the few working cattle ranches left in Mineral County. Southwest of Creede, it sits high in the watershed and is bordered by the Rio Grande National Forest, giving it high conservation value for downstream water quality and as a wildlife corridor.

The family ranch had been passed down for generations when it was put up for sale in the mid-’90s. It wasn’t long before developers took note. “There were people who looked at this ranch and told me, ‘Send me designs on how you’d split the ranch up, subdivide it,’” says ranch manager Dale Pizel, who refused to call those people back. When out-of-state buyers Alan and Patricia Lisenby came along, Pizel, who has worked on the Rio Oxbow in some capacity since he was a teenager, breathed a sigh of relief. “They bought it for the fishing,” he says. “[Alan’s] kept it intact, which is great. It could’ve gone the other way.”  

Since the Lisenby purchase in 1996, Pizel and the family have completed extensive and award-winning restoration of Rio Oxbow’s riparian habitat and rangeland. They’ve planted willows at the river’s edge and installed rocks to guide water away from unstable banks, control flow speed and create pools for fish habitat. And to improve root systems, they’ve used, of all things, cattle.

“There’s a whole crowd that will tell you cattle should not be in a riparian area,” Pizel says. “I happen to be one of the weird people who don’t think they’re correct.” Pizel installed cross fencing and instead of giving the cows free range for an entire season, he moves them regularly from one fenced area to another. When the cattle are allowed to create just enough disturbance without overdoing it, he explains, they act as rototillers for the soil.

Pizel has also encouraged the Lisenbys to put a conservation easement on their property and connected them with the Rio Grande Initiative. An old skiing buddy of de la Vista’s, Pizel demonstrates the incalculable value of personal relationship in making an easement work in both the near and long term. “[An easement] is a legal document that outlines the reserved rights of the landowners and the rights of the land trust” in perpetuity, Butler says. Landowners have to “trust that we’re helping them achieve their purposes now and in the future.”

Compounding the benefits of easements
With some important easements in place, the Rio Grande Initiative is strategizing its next phase. Butler and de la Vista are laying plans to connect landowners with resources to aid them in restoration efforts or add financial value to their easements, through agrotourism, for instance.
Similar efforts are already underway in Park County, where model programs are being developed to increase the public and private benefits of easements. Recent projects on the Tarryall Creek Ranch are indicative of this expanded approach.

“Here’s a property that has warts all over it,” says Erdmann of Colorado Open Lands, which has worked with landowners, the county, and other partners to protect and restore streams in South Park, a broad alpine valley in central Colorado. When the ranch was purchased in 2008 by Beartooth Capital, a private equity group based in Montana, tailings piles from gold mining languished around parts of the property. Poorly managed grazing had left more than a mile of Tarryall Creek, a tributary of the South Platte, “completely demolished” in Erdmann’s evaluation, and devoid of healthy riparian vegetation.

Despite its flaws, Beartooth saw potential. Buying ranches in disrepair, restoring their ecological values, putting easements in place and retaining limited parcels for resale is the company’s modus operandi. They describe their business model as “deliberately [focused] on the integrated goal of conserving important land and generating competitive financial returns.”

For future marketability, the Tarryall Creek Ranch had a few things going for it. By car, it’s only about an hour and a half from Denver and less than an hour from some Summit County ski resorts. And its degraded stream had potential to become a robust fishery, as evidenced by the high quality aquatic habitat that bookends the unhealthy section.

Park County had targeted the ranch as a top conservation priority for years. The 4,470-acre spread butts up against 6,240 acres of protected land, contains sensitive wetlands, and sprawls across Highway 285, providing passing motorists with expansive views. But even with money in hand, the county couldn’t get the previous landowners to the table to consider easements or a preservation plan.

Since the Beartooth purchase, Park County and Colorado Open Lands have put 4,270 acres—about 95 percent of the property—into easements and worked with the equity group to restore the riparian habitat and open up parts of the property to public recreation. A grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and matching funds from Beartooth were used to fence off the floodplain, giving it a reprieve from grazing. And last year, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Park County and Beartooth funded willow and shrub planting, all efforts ultimately aimed at restoring the stream and fishery while supporting Beartooth’s business interests.

A portion of the property was also entered into South Park Fly Fishers, a program administered by the county that allows a limited number of anglers to access private property for a fee. The county leases river sections from landowners and gives them a share of the angling fees. “This program provides a new stream of revenue and encourages [landowners] to maintain their riparian areas,” Erdmann says. And, he says, “We’re looking for ways to provide more direct public benefit” from easements. River access is one means of doing that.

Overcoming skepticism
Back on the North Fork, Jeff Crane’s enthusiasm is evident as he points out gravel bars that have naturally taken shape and a wetland that formed on its own. Most irrigation diversions, thanks to NFRIA’s upgrades to modern headgates, no longer consume the river’s entire flow in one gulp. Two of three in-stream gravel mines have moved their operations further out into the floodplain. Still, while many landowners on the North Fork have recognized the benefit of preservation and restoration, some remain unconvinced. “Some of them still think it’s voodoo science,” says Crane.

The river hasn’t followed the exact curves NFRIA built for it, but Crane sees this as evidence of success. “It was built to move,” he says, as rivers always do.
A more recent partnership on the Mancos River hopes for similar results. Since 2006, the Mancos River Watershed Project, initiated by the Mancos Conservation District, has brought together a remarkable range of stakeholders, from private landowners to state and federal agencies to tribes.

Unlike the North Fork, only a small fraction of the Mancos corridor is privately owned—20 of 116 river miles, estimates Felicity Broennan, former program director for the watershed project. But that small stretch is also the most impacted section of the river, with the most irrigation diversions and grazing. “That mandates that we work with [the landowners],” says Broennan.

So far, six landowners have agreed to restoration projects on their property. Roland and Joan Hoch are among them. When the Hochs bought their ranch 23 years ago, the river had been colonized by beavers, which, at the time, the Hochs considered a nuisance. The beavers’ dams caused floods and made some areas of the ranch inaccessible to cattle. “We trapped the beavers and broke some of those dams to reclaim the land,” says Roland. “But in the long run, it hurt the fisheries.”

Now, the Hochs are prepared to give the river back to the beavers through a fishery restoration project that will commence on the property this summer. The Hochs have already put two conservation easements in place, one on a part of the ranch Roland describes as “highly developable.” Although they’ve considered opportunities for river restoration in the past, the economic barrier—$20,000 to $30,000 in personal financing—was too high. “This one, thanks to Felicity and her people, is funded pretty much entirely by third parties,” says Roland.

Broennan expects more landowners to come on board as the restoration projects show results. Through her work creating a watershed plan for the Mancos, she has already witnessed the potential for people with diverse interests to unite. More than 80 people were involved in that process. “It was really an incredible group of people,” Broennan says. Recalling early meetings during the 2002 drought that unraveled into screaming matches as some water users were asked not to use their full allotments, she says, “You would’ve thought there were going to be bombs in the building.”

“You never would have imagined there would have been commonality of what we all wanted to see on the river,” says Broennan. But with persistence, the group discovered there were, in fact, compelling reasons to work together: “It was all about clean water and clean air.”

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