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Know the West

Dunes shifts toward park status



Rural communities often cringe at the prospect of the federal government owning more land. But residents in Colorado's San Luis Valley are breathing a sigh of relief now that their valley is one step closer to becoming home to a new national park.

In January, The Nature Conservancy signed an agreement to buy a 97,000 acre ranch that borders the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. The group plans to sell the $31 million Baca Ranch to the federal government once numerous legal questions are ironed out and Congress has allocated funds, setting the stage for a national park designation. Nearly a third of the money has already been set aside and, with the support of Colorado's delegation and the Bush administration, the remainder is expected over the next two to three years.

The deal ends more than a decade of schemes by speculators to pump water from a huge aquifer beneath the ranch to Denver's booming suburbs (HCN, 6/19/00: The end of a water mine?). Many feared that siphoning off the water would destabilize the monument's sand dunes and lead to the end of farming and ranching in the valley. Says rancher Greg Gosar, "It's lifted a cloud that's been over the future."

Monument Superintendent Steve Chaney calls the purchase a "huge boon" for protecting the giant dunes, wildlife and rare plants in the valley, as well as the locals' way of life. The ranch, one of the largest unbroken landscapes in the state, will nearly quadruple the size of the national monument, which will officially become a national park by 2005. Says Chaney, "This assures that we can fulfill our mission that the valley looks the same 1,000 years from now as it does now."