Colorado Sand Dunes America's Newest National Park

MOSCA, Colorado, September 15, 2004 (ENS) – The Great Sand Dunes of Colorado have become the nation's newest national park. At a ceremony in Colorado on Monday, Interior Secretary Gale Norton designated the Great Sand Dunes National Monument as the country’s 58th national park, calling it a "living hourglass."

The new park - named the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve - is in southern Colorado's San Luis Valley near the Sangre De Cristo Mountains.

The park’s 750 foot dunes are the tallest in North America and the landscape of grasslands, the dunes and skyline includes two 14,000 foot mountains and alpine lakes.


Great Sand Dunes National Park (Photo courtesy NASA)
"The ebb and flow of rushing wind and pulsing water sweeps across the landscape, creating a natural sculpture worthy of permanent preservation," Norton said.

In 1807, explorer Zebulon Pike, for whom Pike's Peak in Colorado Springs is named, recorded the earliest known description of the Great Sand Dunes as a "sea in a storm, except as to color, not the least sign of vegetation existing."

Norton also announced the creation of the new Baca National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Both actions were made possible when the Department of the Interior last Friday reached agreement on acquisition and management of the 97,000 acre Baca Ranch.

Some 31,000 acres of the Baca Ranch are included in the new Great Sand Dunes National Park. The remaining acres will be transferred to the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.


Great Sand Dunes National Park (Photo courtesy Robert Tardif)
Norton's action implemented a law authorizing the Interior Secretary to create the Sand Dunes National park once she determined that "sufficient land having a sufficient diversity of resources" warranted a national park designation.

The law was authored by members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation, including Senators Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and Representative Scott McInnis.

Norton said one of the significant aspects of the creation of this new national park is its ability to protect the overall ecosystem, including groundwater.

The Interior Secretary credited the Nature Conservancy for its efforts to acquire the Baca Ranch. "The Nature Conservancy stepped in and negotiated to buy the ranch and provided interim funding until federal appropriations could be obtained," Norton said. "Without its help, this golden opportunity might have been lost."

"This is an emotional day for the hundreds of people who poured their heart and soul into this 10-year conservation odyssey," said Steve McCormick, the Conservancy’s president and CEO.

"The success of this effort lies in the dedication and commitment of the unprecedented coalition of individuals and organizations that came together, determined to protect the San Luis Valley’s water and conserve one of the nation’s most spectacular and ecologically-important places," McCormick said.


The Baca Ranch with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. (Photo courtesy FWS)
The Conservancy will continue to manage the remainder of the Baca lands in partnership with the Interior Department pending a final $3.4 million federal appropriation. Once the funds are in hand, the full ownership of the ranch will be transferred to the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service to create the Baca National Wildlife Refuge and expand the existing Rio Grande National Forest.

The Baca Ranch is one of the largest, unfragmented landscapes in the state and takes in two 14,000-foot peaks, Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point.

The ranch shelters more than 70 species of rare plants and animals, including several species found nowhere else in the world. A large elk herd roams the ranch, and the land is inhabited by fox, mountain lion, bighorn sheep and numerous migratory bird species, including sandhill cranes.

Protection of the Baca Ranch and the associated water rights secure the very existence of the Great Sand Dunes, as well as the local agricultural economy, the Conservancy says, adding, "Streams and wetlands on the ranch play an important role in the creation, replenishment and preservation of the dunes."

"The completion of this transaction is the realization of a vision put forth by the people of the San Luis Valley," said Charles Bedford, the Conservancy’s Colorado associate state director. "The local community’s desire to preserve the valley’s agricultural and natural heritage is ultimately what made conservation of the Baca Ranch possible."

Desire to conserve the Baca Ranch is not limited to the local community.


One of the 23,000 sandhill cranes that migrate biannually through Colorado's San Luis Valley. (Photo courtesy FWS)
Yale University of New Haven, Connecticut had endowment funds invested in a for-profit limited partnership that purchased the Baca Ranch in 1996. After that fact was made public two years ago, U.S. Senator Wayne Allard of Colorado prevailed upon the university to contribute its profit toward the purchase of the Baca Ranch by The Nature Conservancy for inclusion in the park.

That donation has made possible the inclusion of even more land for Great Sand Dunes National Park. The Conservancy was able to transfer its ownership of the 30,000 acre Medano Ranch, where bison are raised, to the federal government to enlarge the new national park, extending it to San Luis Lakes State Park.

Bedford thanked the Great Outdoors Colorado board, which provided a no-interest $3 million loan from state lottery proceeds that kept the project on track at the right moment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for early financial assistance; and Farallon Capital Management, with whom the Conservancy negotiated the sale of the Baca Ranch.

The Nature Conservancy will retain the Zapata Ranch, the other portion of its holdings in the area.