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Green and Growing after 2 years in the San Luis Valley

Article by Marcia Darnell

The Nature Conservancy – June 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

TO SAY THE San Luis Valley chapter of The Nature Conservancy has made progress in the past two years is like saying the San Luis Valley is a little chilly in the winter. What Nancy and Chuck Warner have accomplished since late ’96 is astounding. The couple, who staff the Conservancy’s offices, give credit to Valley residents for their success.

“It’s great,” says Nancy. “It’s really exciting. The people have the vision — we’re just helping them do it.”

State director Mark Burget agrees. “The quality of the scenery is matched by the quality of the people,” he says.

People are the hub of the organization. There’s an advisory group, which recently grew from 12 to 16 members, to increase representation in the southern Valley.

“The group helps to make sure our projects remain in line with the community’s values,” Nancy says.

The big project for 1999 is the acquisition of the Medano/Zapata Ranch next to the Great Sands Dunes National Monument. The parcel, over 100,000 acres, includes an inn, golf course, restaurant and bison ranch.

The Nature Conservancy needs to raise $7 million by July 1 to buy the property and create a management endowment. The owner, Hisa Ota, priced the ranch low to sell it to the Conservancy.

“It’s a good deal,” says Nancy, “But it’s still a lot of money.”

Once the deal is done, the Conservancy will have community meetings to determine what to do with the land, and may establish a separate advisory group to oversee its operations.

The Conservancy’s existing advisory group oversees operations in six areas, the first of which, research and inventory, represents the bulk of the work of the last two years. Biological inventories – that is, cataloguing the flora and fauna in a particular area – have been completed in Saguache, Mineral and part of Alamosa counties. Inventories are planned for Conejos, Costilla, and Rio Grande counties this summer. That will mean the whole Valley — an area larger than New Jersey — will have all its species tabulated in only three years.

The Warners have gone above and beyond the call of inventory duty, though, and have included oral histories in their research. An oral history may reveal land use, wildlife sightings, and ecological changes that otherwise aren’t apparent.

“It’s another layer of information,” says Nancy. “It does take a lot more work, but it enhances our understanding of the land.”

For that work, they enlisted the help of high school students in the Valley. Oral histories on the Rock Creek area were compiled by biology and creative writing classes at Monte Vista High School; a history of the Alamosa River was taken by students at Centauri High. This outreach is another part of the Conservancy’s mission.

“Our strategy is to involve the community in effective ways,” says Nancy. She points out that with the input of landowners and the research of residents in the Valley, preservation “becomes a big partnership.”

Land and water protection, the third branch of the Conservancy, includes the easement on the L Cross Ranch, near La Garita. Over 6,200 acres in the easement are home to golden and bald eagles, deer, elk, leghorn sheep, moose and many species of fish and plants.

MORE LAND has been added to Mishak Lakes, previously the only Nature Conservancy holding in the Valley. In addition, the Warners are working with ranchers and landowners on the Cochetopa Pass Heritage Corridor, to protect open space there from development. A similar effort is gearing up in the Rock Creek area in Rio Grande County.

The Warners point out that these protection projects were initiated by the landowners, who came to the Conservancy for help in keeping their land.

“It was like somebody flipped the switch after the L Cross easement,” says Chuck Warner. “We get a call per week, on average, seeking information on easements.”

If The Nature Conservancy can’t buy the property, it often acts as a facilitator, recommending other entities that may be able to help.

“We don’t care who holds the easement when it’s done.” says Nancy.

Preserve management, another part of the job, includes the expansion of Mishak Lakes, and plans to build a fence around the preserve. Field trips to Mishak Lakes come under preserve management, too.

The fifth element of the advisory group’s work is compatible economic development. That’s just getting started – that committee intends to have a strategic plan for Saguache County completed by July 1. Economic development in the San Luis Valley is tough, though coupling it with the environment makes it more attractive to residents.

The sixth part of the Conservancy’s work in the Valley is fundraising, always difficult. The emphasis this spring is on raising money to buy the Zapata/Medano Ranch. Nancy Warner says acquisition of the ranch will increase membership, as well as staff. Seminars, camps and field trips are ideal for the ranch, and that will mean a jump in volunteer training and school outreach.

THE WARNERS’ WORK in the San Luis Valley since their arrival has also included becoming part of the Valley. They credit Valley residents for this, too. “The community has been above and beyond what we expected,” says Nancy. “We’ve been amazed.”

And people are amazed with the Warners. Peggy Godfrey, Moffat rancher and Colorado Central contributor, is working on the economic development committee.

“I’m real positive about the fact that there are so many people in the community involved,” she says of the work. “I look for all the positive things that will come out of this.”

She’s also positive about the Warners. “I like them. They seem like real positive people. They’ve made an effort to meet and connect with people here.”

The admiration for the Warners and their work extends beyond the Valley as well. Mark Burget, state director of The Nature Conservancy, gave the two a glowing review.

“Since The Nature Conservancy opened its office in the San Luis Valley two and half years ago,” he says, “we’ve been able to protect some of the most significant places in the Valley, including the L Cross Ranch. We’ve begun work with ranchers in the Cochetopa Pass area, and we’ve signed a transaction to protect one of the most significant areas in the Valley, the Zapata/Medano ranch.

“That’s a lot of work for two years, by any measure.”

For information on The Nature Conservancy, or to contribute to its work in the San Luis Valley, call (719) 655-2772, or e-mail

Marcia Darnell lives, writes, and enjoys open space in the San Luis Valley.

The Nature Conservancy is an international nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to preserving plants, animals and natural communities by protecting the land and water they need to survive. To date, the Conservancy has protected more than 10 million acres in the United States, including 185,000 acres of Colorado. Currently, the Conservancy is working to preserve the diversity of life and rich natural heritage of the San Luis Valley. Nancy and Chuck Warner are the Conservancy’s representatives in the Valley.