OURAY COUNTY – A sprawling, majestic mountain property at the foot of the Cimarron Range near Ridgway is one huge step closer to being conserved for years to come, thanks to $3 million of federal funding that will go toward purchasing a conservation easement on the land.
Last week, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) announced that the Sawtooth Mountain Ranch has received necessary funds through the Forest Legacy Project to be protected from future development.
The Forest Legacy Program is a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation program designed to protect environmentally important forest lands threatened by development.
The Sawtooth Mountain Ranch, a 2,448 acre working cattle ranch situated just below Owl Creek Pass not far from Sleeping Indian Ranch, was a perfect candidate for the program, and is now the largest Forest Legacy Project in the state.
“It is probably one of the most beautiful properties we have ever worked on,” said Justin Spring of the Trust for Public Land, which has been working with the ranch owner over the past several years to find a way to conserve the property. “It’s been a long effort until now, and we are still at the very beginning stages, but we are really excited and we wouldn’t be going anywhere without the Forest Legacy funding. It is a huge step forward.”
The ranch owner, who according to Spring wishes to keep his name out of the spotlight at this time, approached TPL about five or six years ago with an interest in protecting his property – an assemblage of parcels which he has obtained over time from the mid-90s to as recently as two years ago.
“He has a real attachment to the land and wants to preserve the land the way it is,” Spring said. “He uses it as a hunting property and allows limited public access through leases. It’s a successful hunting ranch, and from time to time he also allows summer grazing.”
These uses will continue under the pending conservation easement.
The conservation effort got a big boost last year, when Bennet and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) wrote a letter on behalf of the Sawtooth Mountain Ranch, requesting the allocation of Forest Legacy dollars for the project. Bennet, a member of the Senate Agricultural Committee who fought to reauthorize the Forest Legacy Project Program as part of the Farm Bill earlier this year, visited the site at the beginning of July and described it as “a state and national treasure.”
As a next step, TLP has applied for $680,000 from Great Outdoors Colorado in matching funds to augment the Forest Legacy grant. If awarded, the bulk of the GOCO funding would go toward the conservation easement purchase, with a small amount going toward the transactional cost.
Springs anticipates that “we are at least a year away from finishing the project.”
The Trust for Public Land, an offshoot of the Nature Conservancy, is unique among land trusts in that it does not hold conservation easements itself, but rather focuses on protecting the land and assigning the associated conservation easement to a longterm steward.
When TPL collaborates with the Forest Legacy Project on projects in Colorado, the easement holder by default becomes the Colorado State Forest Service – “a key and critical partner, and a required partner, when working with the Forest Legacy Project,” Springs noted.
In the case of the Sawtooth Mountain Ranch, this easement transfer will be a natural progression, as CSFS has been already been working closely with the land owner to develop a forest stewardship plan for the property – a document that guides the longterm stewardship and management of the property, with a focus on timber resources, noxious weeds and reducing the potential for wildfire.
Ouray County, and in particular Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett, has also been “a great supporter of the project,” Spring said.
Padgett expressed her appreciation for the Forest Legacy funding for the Sawtooth Mountain Ranch project in a recent statement. “This is a fantastic opportunity to conserve a spectacular working ranch while also protecting pristine wildlife habitat and big game hunting grounds,” she said. “I’m grateful to everyone who has worked on this forest legacy project since 2011 and especially the landowner and Senator Bennet for their vision, leadership, and perseverance. It is an exemplary Forest Legacy Project.”
According to a release from Bennet’s office, the Sawtooth Mountain Ranch Project complements 15,000 acres of land already protected along the San Juan Skyway, one of 31 scenic All-American Roads. The ranch “is an important habitat for large game and several endangered species, and will also protect tributaries of the Uncompahgre River that provides drinking water to over 76,000 people,” the release noted.
In addition to the Sawtooth Mountain Ranch, the Forest Legacy Project Program is currently looking at funding projects in Vermont, Montana, Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina.
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