The Great Sand Dunes: the next new national park?

by Sanjay Advani

A park proposal aims to protect water as well as land




SAN LUIS VALLEY, Colo. - Though it encompasses an area larger than Connecticut, the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado is a single, small community. People still wave as they pass on the highways. Centennial ranches, owned by the same families for over 100 years, are as common here as hobby ranches are in other parts of the state.


And while residents don't always see eye-to-eye, when it comes to defending the valley's hardscrabble lifestyle and natural resources from the forces of the outside world, they speak with one voice. Twice in the last 15 years, deep-pocketed investors have tried to pump the valley's groundwater to cities along the Front Range, just across the towering Sangre de Cristo mountain range. Twice, irrigators, environmentalists and federal and state agencies have joined forces to keep the water in the valley.


At the center of these water schemes is the 100,000-acre Baca Ranch just north of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument (not to be confused with the Baca Ranch in northern New Mexico, (HCN, 5/8/00: Baca Ranch buy-out has strings attached).) The Baca is the only piece of private land in the valley large enough to support a major groundwater exportation plan, according to Ralph Curtis, the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.


Now, Colorado Republican Rep. Scott McInnis has written a bill that would authorize the federal government to buy the Baca and incorporate some of it into the Great Sand Dunes, which would become a national park. The bill has the backing of all but one of Colorado's congressional delegation, including Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Wayne Allard, both Republicans. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says he wants the deal clinched before the year is out.


The bill is ostensibly about protecting land. But the heart of the proposal is the salvation of San Luis Valley water.


Water for sale

In 1986, Canadian oilman and environmentalist Maurice Strong bought the Baca Ranch for the stated purpose of growing quinoa, a South American grain, and starting a small brewery. Locals were outraged when they discovered that Strong and his partners planned to export 200,000 acre-feet of water to the Front Range - enough water to support 200,000 families of four for a year. The deal threatened to strip the valley of water that supplies not only agriculture but also some of the most productive wetlands in the country, says Chris Canaly, executive director of Citizens for San Luis Valley Water.


The water conservation district, environmental groups and federal and state agencies spent $3.1 million on a legal battle that took them all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, finally scuttling the project.


Then, in the spring of 1992, Gary Boyce, a rancher with a flair for the dramatic - he carries a six-shooter and drives a purple Humvee - revived the idea of selling the water. After purchasing the ranch in 1995, Boyce and his partners with the San Francisco-based Farallon Capital Management put two amendments on the 1998 Colorado ballot aimed at bankrupting the Rio Grande Conservation District, the organization best able to challenge water exportation in court.


Again, residents rallied the troops and raised a war chest. Voters turned down the initiatives by a 2-to-1 margin (HCN, 10/26/98: A water baron takes on the establishment).


As long as the Baca is owned by out-of-state investors who see it as a water mine, valley residents will have to "pay lawyers and engineers to resist," says David Robbins, the attorney for the conservation district for the last 20 years. A federal buyout of the Baca, he says, is the best way to ensure that the water stays in the valley.


Many agree. Although the plan can offer no guarantees that the water will stay in the valley forever, it does bring in the federal government as a powerful ally, says Chris Canaly. For the Park Service to allow water exportation out of a national park, she says, "would take a breakdown in our culture as we know it."


How much for that ranch?

McInnis has said that the primary purpose of a buyout is to keep San Luis water in the valley. The bill states that water rights attached to the ranch would go either to sustaining the dunes ecosystem or to neighboring Alamosa and Saguache counties.


There's a major hitch. The legislation authorizes the Interior secretary to purchase the land, but only if he can find a willing seller.


The Nature Conservancy was at one time negotiating with Boyce and his associates, according to Conservancy spokeswoman Becky Johnson. She says the last price she heard was $35 million. The Conservancy's Nancy Fishbein says "negotiations are continuing," but they are confidential. Boyce was not available for comment. The federal government will not be authorized to step into those negotiations until Congress has approved McInnis' bill, according to Dunes Superintendent Steve Chaney.


The legislation has been introduced on the floor of the House of Representatives and is now under review by committee. Sen. Allard says he will introduce a version in the Senate soon. Last month, both houses in the Colorado Legislature voted overwhelmingly to support the bill, a move that McInnis says will help it move through Congress.


- Sanjay Advani


The author lives and writes in Del Norte, Colorado, in the west end of the San Luis Valley.




Stories on pages 5 and 6 were funded with a grant from the McCune Foundation.


Copyright © 2000 HCN and Sanjay Advani




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