La Plata Open Space celebrates 25 years of land conservancy, 30,000 preserved acres in seven counties
La Plata Open Space Conservancy turns 25 in March.
Because of it, more than 30,000 acres of land in seven counties are to remain untouched by development.
The land trust manages about 20,100 acres within 176 conservation easements, and has helped protect an additional 900 acres for other organizations. In December, two additional properties totaling more than 470 acres were placed in conservation easements in La Plata County.
These lands typically are open to hunting, agriculture and fishing. They preserve family legacies, and some, such as Overend Mountain Park and Horse Gulch, are popular places for public recreation. They exist in La Plata, Archuleta, Montezuma, Hinsdale and Ouray counties as well as San Juan counties in Colorado and New Mexico.
“Land trusts bridge the gap between government and the private landowner,” said Executive Director Amy Schwarzbach. “We have kitchen table conversations with a lot of these people.”
Protecting open lands on the local level began in the mid-1980s with a county governmental committee, formed at a time when a parks program and related policy didn’t exist in Durango. Kathy Roser was asked to lead the program in 1987.
The group was unlike other county committees in that it was semi-autonomous. Committee members would negotiate deals with landowners, then approach county commissioners for approval.
“There was not a lot of public support, mainly because people felt it was a government organization,” Roser said. “And there wasn’t a lot of support from the government. They didn’t stand behind it.”
Hesperus ranch placed on historic register
Helen Ruth Aspaas lives in a white house a mile south of the Old Fort campus in Hesperus.
The old coal-burning stoves are gone, and additions have been built, but the structure’s original design and layout – military officers’ quarters in the 1800s – are largely untouched. In summer, oriental poppies bob near the south windows and lilacs blossom to the north, both planted more than a century ago by Aspaas’ great-grandmother.
The 149-acre ranch was homesteaded 130 years ago by some of the first European settlers – Aspaas’ great-grandparents – to try their luck in the San Juan Basin.
On Tuesday, La Plata County commissioners unanimously voted to add the property to the La Plata County Historic Register, joining more than 10 ranches, old roads, government buildings and schoolhouses on the list. Between a conservation easement and the new historic designation, the ranch’s historic, cultural and natural integrity are among the most well-protected in La Plata County.
Standing close to the north-facing porch where her great-grandmother’s photo was taken a century ago, Aspaas, 65, explained her decision to preserve the place: “I grew up here.”
A working-class family
Fortune lured Hans Aspaas to the mineral-rich San Juans from Norway with his wife, Annette, and infant son (who later founded the town of Ignacio) in the early 1870s. Over the next 10 years, the family left its tracks all over San Juan and La Plata counties.
They weathered their first Colorado winter in Silverton in 1874 where Hans worked as a postman, but the cold drove them south the following year to farm the Animas Valley. The family subsequently moved to Parrott City where Hans tried placer mining along the La Plata River, then Hermosa, Animas City and finally to western La Plata County in the 1880s.
“That was typical,” local historian Duane Smith said of the family’s frequent migration. “As families tried to find their angle of repose, where they could make a living, that’s what a lot of them did. Mining: There was glamor and excitement over the idea of quick wealth, but then settlers found mining was hard. There was not a lot of wealth in it, and there were better occupations. The Aspaas’ were a pioneering family to prove that.”
At the Hesperus ranch, Hans worked as a clerk and mail dispatcher in Fort Lewis.
When Hans died, leaving Annette with four children, she worked as a laundress at the Southern Ute boarding school at the Old Fort. The officers’ boarding house was reportedly moved from the campus to Annette’s ranch sometime in the 1890s, and she filed for property rights in 1913.
Annette’s second son, Ralph, was Helen Ruth’s grandfather.
Year-end brings gift of land protection, agriculture, wildlife, recreational values
Reading a bit like a birth announcement, La Plata County Open Space Conservancy’s website boasts, “Newly Saved Land!” As it should. The 472 acres of land, which will be protected with conservation easements as announced last week, is part of the legacy the Slade and Sauer families are leaving their children and La Plata County, protecting our quality of life through open space. They and the conservancy deserve our thanks.
Putting land in a conservation easement is a permanent, and not often easy, decision. It requires dedication and determination and is indeed a labor of love. There is ample reason then to celebrate these two new easements being finalized since the average easement takes about 18 months to complete, Elaine and Gilbert Slade have been at it a bit longer. They started working with the conservancy eight years ago. The new 439-acre easement will help them keep their Dryside family ranch land producing cattle and hay, protect scenic open space and wildlife habitat and preserve 1.2 acres of prime riparian area along the La Plata River. Just in time, it seems, as also last week, Colorado’s agricultural income was reported to be in a free-fall from $1.3 billion in 2015 to $444 million in 2016 caused by a decline in cattle prices.
What is gained in income- and estate-tax benefits may only help a ranching family remain economically viable. It is certainly not a lucrative proposition and comes at a cost, typically $50,000 to $75,000 in up-front expenses and the long-term development potential (and value) of the property.
Though some landowners negotiate easements to retain the right to develop several building envelopes as the Slade’s did, Maggie and Bob Sauer did not. Their 33-acre easement at Hidden Valley brings the total of permanently protected lands near Turtle Lake to 140 acres. It will protect a critical corridor and winter habitat for elk and other wildlife and scenic open space so important to our local community and recreation economy.
In 2017, the Conservancy will be celebrating 25 years forever protecting the values Southwest Coloradans hold dear. Thanks to all current and future donors.
View to Turtle Lake and Animas Mountain from the new Sauer Conservation Easement.Properties in Turtle Lake and on Dryside to remain pastoral.
Two properties totaling nearly 475 acres have been placed under conservancy easements, ensuring limited development in areas around Turtle Lake and the La Plata River.
According to La Plata Open Space Conservancy, the local nonprofit that facilitates conservation easements, the land designation will “forever protect resources of great value to Southwest Colorado.”
The first property is along the La Plata River, on what is known locally as the “Dryside,” and is owned by Elaine and Gilbert Slade, both in their 80s. Their families have ranched for several generations.
Now, the 439-acre conservation easement will ensure the land remains pastoral in nature, dedicated to agricultural use, thereby protecting 1.2 acres of the La Plata River, family ranch lands and wildlife habitat.
The other recently designated conservation easement is northwest of Durango near Turtle Lake, an area known as Hidden Valley.
Maggie and Bob Sauer decided to place their 33-acre property under a conservation easement, promising limited development on “one of the largest, undeveloped parcels remaining in the Turtle Lake area.”
“Just a couple miles from downtown, this area hosts diverse wildlife habitat and terrain, as well as contributes significantly to the scenery as local residents and visiting tourists access recreational opportunities at Hidden Valley, on Animas Mountain and along the Colorado Trail,” the news release said.
The area is also known as a critical corridor and winter habitat for elk.
The La Plata Open Space Conservancy said efforts to preserve open space around Turtle Lake/Hidden Valley began in 1992. Since then, 143 acres – including the new 33 acres – have been protected.