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Landowners a force in conservation

Private interests preserve land along Colorado-N.M. border

Straddling the Colorado-New Mexico border, where the broken peaks of the San Juan Mountains give way to the high desert’s windswept buttes and mesas, a 1.4 million-acre expanse harbors some of the wildest land in the Southwest. The last grizzly in the Southern Rockies lurked unnoticed here for decades. Extirpated wolves and wolverines are still rumored to roam the backcountry. Re-introduced Canadian lynx prowl the deep snow beneath conifers.

But this unnamed region, stretching between Colorado’s Wolf Creek Pass and Abiquiú, New Mexico, isn’t pure wilderness. Right in the middle are 500,000 acres of privately owned land, surrounded by three national forests and the Jicarilla Apache reservation.

Betty Shahan’s great-grandfather, who arrived by wagon from Arkansas in the late 19th century, was among the settlers that kept it out of public domain. Shahan is now 79. She still rides her horse, Dusty, and the Honda four-wheeler she calls her “Japanese horse” around her family’s 3,177-acre ranch in Chromo, Colorado (population 57), repairing fences and putting up hay and moving the 120 or so head of cattle she raises each year.

Although Shahan raises cattle – admittedly not the most environmentally friendly use of the West’s arid environment – she prides herself on responsible stewardship. She rotates her cows religiously, restores riparian corridors and has put her entire ranch in a conservation easement. “I love the land,” she told me from her cozy home one day this winter. Her voice broke, and she paused, looking up at the old farm tools and family photos on the wall. “It’s just such a part of me. I’m part dirt, I guess.”

Part of the reason Shahan feels emotional is because the land has changed so dramatically in her lifetime. Her great-grandfather’s 18,000 acres were divided up among his children, and with each generation, the holdings got smaller. In the early ’90s, a number of these smaller ranches were sold off and subdivided.

Nationwide, 1.6 million acres of private farms, ranches and forests are sold each year for development. Some go to well-off individuals, like those around Shahan’s ranch. Others are scooped up by mega-developers, like the 12,446-acre ranch southeast of Tucson that may soon become a 28,000-home planned community. And though some buyers are conservation-minded, this development often leads to fragmented wildlife habitat, over-stressed rivers and unnaturally dense vegetation from fire suppression.

Yet, it’s increasingly tough for ranchers like Shahan to hang onto land that’s been in their families for generations. And it’s even harder if they want to be environmentally friendly: In Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states, private land managed for conservation purposes might be taxed at a higher rate than agricultural or residential land, says Lesli Allison, director of the nonprofit Western Landowners Alliance. Plus, individual landowners often struggle to communicate their needs to land managers and policymakers.

An alliance with influence

In 2010, a group of landowners on the Colorado-New Mexico border came together over those very problems. They disagreed with the way migratory elk were being managed across borders but didn’t have much say in the matter. Being organized would give them a stronger collective voice, but even that was controversial: Some ranchers were suspicious of the Western Environmental Law Center, which had offered to help.

Eventually, with the help of a young woman named Monique DiGiorgio – one of the few environmentalists who seemed to understand them – they formed the Chama Peak Land Alliance. DiGiorgio, now the executive director, is helping the landowners preserve and protect open spaces and ensure that the Colorado-New Mexico borderlands are managed not as a hodgepodge of private, state, federal and tribal interests, but as a whole, intact ecosystem. Together, Chama Peak’s members own a whopping 250,000 acres – roughly half the private land in the area.

With outsized land ownership comes outsized influence. So far, the group has successfully deferred Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases near community drinking water sources, restored miles of riparian habitat, implemented water-quality monitoring and mapped the forests most at risk for high-intensity fires. Its members have also been vocal opponents of a controversial ski development on Wolf Creek Pass.

In the process, they’re showing that private-land conservation can be at least as effective as public-land management, and requires a lot less red tape.

“When we think about wild, we think about public lands,” DiGiorgio says. “But these private landowners are managing some of the most intact wild spaces we have left.”

A long reach

The group’s work has had impacts that echo for hundreds of miles. Thanks to a series of diversions, one-third of New Mexico’s drinking water comes from rivers that begin in Chama Peak Land Alliance territory. If an unnaturally intense fire erupted in the beetle-killed forests surrounding these headwaters, ash in the Rio Grande’s tributaries could end up affecting the water supply as far downstream as Albuquerque and Santa Fe. That’s what happened in 2011, with the Las Conchas fire in the Santa Fe National Forest.

But it doesn’t have to happen again, says Mary Stuever, the Chama District forester for the state of New Mexico.

The last massive fire in the Chama Peak area was in the 1870s, and, she realized, the region is due for a big burn. But the deliberate suppression of smaller fires over the last 150 years had robbed the landscape of its ability to bounce back.

Plus, federal forest policy hasn’t kept pace with scientific understanding of fire ecology. State and federal foresters are trying to play catch-up in the Chama Peak region, but even small forest treatments on public lands take an ungodly amount of environmental review and paperwork. Two years isn’t an uncommon time frame.

Decades of fire suppression can be reversed, however. Thinning or prescribed burns can help forests recover their resiliency, and private landowners can conduct those treatments at a rate that federal managers can only dream of.

Recognizing this, The Nature Conservancy has enlisted the Chama Peak Land Alliance as a partner in its Rio Grande Water Fund. The idea is to provide money for land managers (both public and private) to conduct prescribed burns and tree thinning to reduce the intensity of future fires, thus protecting water quality downstream. The project began in 2013 with 3,000 acres of treatments, and director Laura McCarthy says she’s on track to complete 20,000 acres in 2016 alone. After that, the goal is 30,000 acres a year for 20 consecutive years.

With money comes power

Landowners who can afford huge parcels can do the most good. Dan Perry, for instance, secretary of the Chama Peak Land Alliance, considers Ted Turner a personal hero.

One day in 2011, a friend in Santa Fe told him about a brown trout he had caught up north, a big one, slippery and wild and made of muscle. You’d love this place, the friend said – the river winding down from the mountains, the sandstone buttes sharp against the blue sky, the open ranchland scattered with cows.

Perry wanted to visit immediately, but his friend explained that it was too late: The ranch had just been foreclosed. It was being sold the next week, subdivided into 10-acre parcels with a tidy ranchette to be built on each one.

So Perry called the bank, and within a month, came up with enough cash to buy the 300 acres outright. He’s not outrageously wealthy, but he’s the kind of guy who can do that. His wife, Ashlyn, is retired from pharmaceutical sales, and Perry still works as a lawyer, representing Texas landowners who want to lease their mineral rights to oil and gas companies.

Today, the Perrys – who call themselves “accidental ranchers” – have bought an additional 1,000 acres and halted the tide of subdivisions flowing down from the buttes. They’ve spent thousands of dollars of their own money to restore fish populations in the Rio Chama. Most significantly, they negotiated with the state of New Mexico to shut down a wastewater treatment plant that was spewing E. coli and nasty chemicals into the Chamanita Chamita and Chama rivers, and donated 9 acres for a new, cleaner wastewater facility. But because they’re newcomers with money – and perhaps because they blocked housing meant for ordinary people – their neighbors still eye them with suspicion and hostility.

Yet, when Perry talks about his land, his tone is the same as that of Frank Simms, a lifelong rancher who grew up on a 246,000-acre Colorado ranch and says the saddest day of his life was the day it was subdivided at $20 an acre. While it may sound cheesy, nearly everyone I spoke to about the Chama Peak Land Alliance agrees that’s what makes it work: The diversity of members bound by an abiding love for this place.

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