97,000 Acres Protected for New National Park

By Cat Lazaroff

DENVER, Colorado, January 30, 2002 (ENS) - The nation's newest national park drew closer to reality today, as the Nature Conservancy signed an agreement to buy the Baca Ranch, an unbroken stretch of 97,000 acres in Colorado. The announcement culminates years of efforts to protect the San Luis Valley and its unique wildlife as the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Baca Ranch

Sunset on the Baca Ranch (Photo courtesy The Nature Conservancy)
The Nature Conservancy announced today it has signed an agreement to purchase the Baca Ranch, which borders the Great Sand Dunes National Monument and Preserve northeast of Alamosa, Colorado. Carrying a purchase price of $31.28 million, the deal is the Nature Conservancy's most expensive acquisition ever in the Rocky Mountain West.

The agreement was made possible through interim financing provided by a unique consortium of private, state and federal partners, including the Department of Interior, the Colorado State Land Board and private donors. The purchase is separate from federal efforts to acquire the Baca Ranch in New Mexico, an unrelated property.

"This project represents conservation and partnership at a truly heroic scale," said Steve McCormick, the Nature Conservancy's president and CEO.

"Not only will the protection of the Baca Ranch create a protected area large enough to sustain the area's natural diversity for the long term," continued McCormick, "but it brought together an unprecedented coalition of local, state and federal partners, all aligned with the same goal in mind: the conservation of this awe inspiring place."

At just over 151 square miles (391 square kilometers), the Baca Ranch is one of the largest unfragmented landscapes in the state. It harbors important wildlife, including numerous rare and at risk plant and animal species. The property ranges in elevation from 7,500 feet (2,286 meters) on the valley floor to 14,165 feet (4,317 meters) at the top of Kit Carson Peak.


The entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Monument - soon to be part of the nation's 56th national park (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
The agreement to acquire the Baca Ranch is the first of a complex set of transactions that, by 2005, will create the Great Sand Dunes National Park, a new national wildlife refuge and several additions to the Rio Grande National Forest. Completion of the sale and establishment of the new park are contingent upon the resolution of an outstanding lawsuit involving the current owners, and the raising of about $22 million more in federal funds.

A law creating the nation's 56th national park, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000, was authored by Colorado Senator Wayne Allard and Representative Scott McInnis, and became law in November of 2000.

The law allows national park status to be granted to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument once the Baca Ranch is acquired by the federal government.

"There is an old proverb that tells us that when one generation plants a tree; future generations enjoy the shade," said Senator Allard, a Colorado Republican. "The purchase of the Baca Ranch ensures the Great Sand Dunes will be around for our children and grandchildren to enjoy for many years to come."

So far, Congress has appropriated $10.2 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to help buy the Baca Ranch. The rest of the purchase price is covered by a $7 million low interest loan from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a $5 million partial purchase by the Colorado State Land Board, a $3 million loan from the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund and private fundraising by The Nature Conservancy.

The private and state funds were required to keep the ranch intact while the additional federal funds are sought. While no definitive plans to develop the ranch had emerged, proposals on the table included a plan to pipe water from the ranch to populated regions in Colorado's Front Range, New Mexico and even California.


The Baca Ranch's water resources and sand sheet help sustain the sand dunes for which the Great Sand Dunes National Monument is named (Photo by Fred Bunch, courtesy National Park Service)
The purchase agreement, which includes the acquisition of the ranch's water rights, puts a stop to those plans.

"The Baca Ranch purchase is the largest land preservation effort in our state's history," said Colorado Governor Bill Owens. "But in fact, this represents much more than land preservation. This finally ends speculation over the transfer of San Luis Valley water to the front range. The acquisition represents the permanent preservation of the history, culture and way of life of the entire San Luis Valley."

Until the rest of the federal money is obtained, allowing the ranch to be transferred fully into public ownership, the ranch will be jointly held by The Nature Conservancy, the Department of Interior and the Colorado State Land Board. To complete the transfer, those funds, expected to come from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, must be secured by the end of 2005.

Once federal appropriations have been secured, the ranch will be transferred to the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. Parts of the ranch will be transferred from the park service to the U.S. Forest Service for inclusion in the Rio Grande National Forest.

"The acquisition of the Baca Ranch was the centerpiece of our effort to preserve the Great Sand Dunes ecosystem in its totality," said Representative McInnis. "With the Baca, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve will be second to none in natural beauty and ecological diversity. Equally important, the purchase puts an end to the San Luis Valley's water wars once and for all."


Endangered whooping cranes make annual stops in wetlands among the sand dunes of the Baca Ranch and adjacent areas (Photo by Steve Hillebrand, courtesy USFWS)
The purchase of the Baca Ranch - also known as the Luis Maria Baca Grant No. 4, an 1824 Mexican land grant - and its associated water rights will protect the very existence of the Great Sand Dunes. A significant portion of the dunes occur within the boundaries of the ranch, and streams and wetlands on the ranch play an important role in the creation and preservation of the dunes.

Roughly the size of Connecticut, the San Luis Valley is one of Colorado's most biologically significant regions and provides habitat for more than 70 species of rare plants and animals, such as sandhill and whooping cranes. The area is home to eight species of insects, including the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle, that are found no where else in the world.

The ranch also contains two 14,000 foot peaks, the 14,165 foot Kit Carson Peak and 14,080 foot Challenger Point.

Another large protected area, the Nature Conservancy's 100,000 acre Medano-Zapata Ranch, lies adjacent to the Baca Ranch, the Great Sand Dunes National Monument and the Sangre de Cristo wilderness area. The protection of the Baca Ranch will complete the conservation of what biologists call a functional area, an unfragmented landscape large enough to ensure the long term survival of a wide variety of native plant and animal species.

"The Nature Conservancy has been working with local communities for years to preserve the magnificent natural wonders of the San Luis Valley," said Mark Burget, The Nature Conservancy's Colorado state director. "The preservation of the Baca Ranch has long been the community's most important goal. It is a beautiful and remarkable landscape that rightly should be included among America's great national parks."

Michael Horak, director of media relations for the Nature Conservancy, says the deal is remarkable in part because so many interests, including private landowners, several levels of government, and conservation groups, all support the creation of the new national park.

"There are few places in the West where conservation at this scale has been so successfully accomplished," Horak said. "The way the financial aspects of this deal are structured represents the future of how large land deals in the West likely will be funded."


Colorado Senator Wayne Allard coauthored the legislation authorizing the creation of the Great Sand Dunes National Park (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Through the efforts of Senator Allard, some of the funds need to acquire land for the new park will come from Yale University. Yale is one of the principal investors in the partnership that currently owns the ranch.

After learning of Yale's investment, Senator Allard contacted Yale president Charles Levin to express concern about the university's involvement. Soon after hearing from Allard and reviewing its position, Levin issued a statement saying, "Yale University will contribute its investment gain on the Baca Ranch property for conservation use in Colorado Because Yale has a long standing commitment to the highest ethical standards in all its activities, we are taking this direct action to eliminate any concern."

At the request of San Luis Valley citizens, the Nature Conservancy has set up a fund to raise about $500,000 to cover the nonprofit group's loan interest expenses and other costs associated with acquiring the Baca Ranch.