Current Activity in Focus Landscapes Across Colorado

In Colorado, approximately 100,000 acres of privately owned farm, ranch or forest lands are lost every year to development. Despite great strides in the past 20 years, land conservation has not kept pace with growth pressure. Landscapes critical for the state’s biodiversity, scenic values, water protection and agricultural production continue to be lost to new development and the impacts of other activities including energy development. These impacts are especially significant in river corridors. Riparian habitat makes up less than 3% of the land in Colorado, but is used by over 90% of wildlife in the state.

The Foundation has historically been an important source of grants and matching funds for land protection in Colorado. Gates prioritizes projects with demonstrated impact, strong funding leverage, scale and connectivity, a high degree of collaboration, demonstrated landowner commitment and community support.

While the Foundation will continue to consider all requests for support of land conservation projects in its capital grantmaking program, the initiated grant program concentrates its investments over a multi‐year period in four “focus landscapes” (see below for detail).

Between 2012 and 2014, the trustees of the Gates Family Foundation approved a series of multi-year grant commitments to work with land conservation and community partners on the protection of four landscapes of statewide significance. These “focus landscapes” were selected based on criteria, including biodiversity, habitat, agricultural and aesthetic resources, the potential for conservation activity at a significant scale, strong community support and the potential to leverage investment by other partners.

North Park

North Park was the first focus landscape established, in partnership with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT). Seven ranch properties were conserved between 2011 and 2014, totaling over 11,000 acres, leveraging GFF funds over 10:1. A second phase of activity is currently underway.  North Park is a high mountain valley, situated along the North Platte River. It features strong, independent-minded communities and rich wetland habitats, including two national wildlife refuges. It is ringed by the Medicine Bow, Never Summer, Rabbit Ears and Park mountain ranges providing spectacular vistas. The area is a heritage landscape, containing many multi-generational ranches, and has been largely unaffected by growth pressures that have impacted other parts of the state. It is also important habitat for the Greater Sage Grouse (a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act).

Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust-Hell Creek Ranch

Southeast Colorado

Southeast Colorado was selected as the second focus landscape in 2013 with primary partners Palmer Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy. The southeast quadrant of the state is the most intact, least protected landscape in Colorado, and is largely unvisited by the state’s residents. The region features vast expanses of untilled short grass prairie habitat, as well as significant cultural and historical resources, red rock canyons in the Purgatoire River basin, and a rich and historic farming corridor along the Lower Arkansas River. Other historic sites include Bent’s Old Fort, the Santa Fe Trail, Boggsville, the Amache World War II internment camp and the Sand Creek Massacre site. These places draw visitors interested in the region’s complex history. The landscape also features some of the most diverse and abundant bird habitat in the United States, as it is situated on the North American flyway. 

Pressures on the area in recent years have included the purchase of agricultural water rights by Front Range cities (“buy and dry”), the proposed expansion of the US Army’s Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, and historic drought. Over time, towns in the region have trended toward declining populations, and there is a continuing challenge to maintain a critical mass of economic activity. 

The Foundation has partnered with an unusual coalition of resource conservation and economic development interests in the region, with a common goal of protecting the area’s rich natural, cultural and historic resources as a driver for heritage tourism and related economic development opportunities. This group has worked together to expand land conservation, stewardship, and agricultural infrastructure, and advance development of heritage tourism opportunities built on these resources.  To date, 176,000 acres have been protected, emphasizing working ranchland, water rights, and grasslands ecosystems.

Upper Rio Grande Headwaters

The most recently approved focus landscape is the Rio Grande Headwaters focus landscape in the San Luis Valley, in partnership with the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT), among others.

Multiple conservation values overlap along the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers, and in other tributary corridors in the San Luis Valley. These corridors are home to sizeable ranches and their associated senior water rights, wildlife habitat and scenic landscapes. Unlike the fragmented river systems often found in the West, the Colorado portion of the Rio Grande and the Conejos River corridors contain a majority of relatively intact traditional farms and ranches. Approximately 50,000 acres of private land remain in 80-acre or larger parcels, many still owned by multi-generational ranch and farm families. In the San Luis Valley, agriculture remains a leading economic driver, comprising one out of every three “base industry” jobs. Keeping a critical mass of agricultural land intact is vital to sustaining this economy and heritage. In addition, the river corridors support abundant wildlife, including at-risk species such as the federally endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, a candidate species for federal listing. These riparian areas provide important habitat for many waterfowl, shorebirds, water birds, and migratory birds, as well as winter range and migration routes for big game such as moose, elk, deer and Canada lynx.

Work in this landscape is expected to be leveraged by significant current investments in community conservation in the region by the LOR Foundation. Since 2015, almost 4,000 acres have been protected through conservation easements, allowing the trust to surpass its 2007 goal of conserving 25,000 acres.

Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

Colorado River Headwaters

The Upper Colorado River Headwaters in Grand and Eagle counties was also approved in 2013. Leadership is provided by Colorado Open Lands on behalf of the Colorado Conservation Partnership (CCP), which represents five of the state’s largest land conservation groups (Colorado Open Lands, the Conservation Fund, the Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust) working with local partners, Colorado Headwaters Land Trust, Eagle Valley Land Trust, and Eagle County Open Space, to preserve land and water in the headwaters region and improve access to the river in some locations.

The goal in this landscape is to provide seed funding over a period of 5-7 years for the protection of up to 22,000 acres of high-priority private lands, including many centennial ranches, as well as important wildlife habitat. This effort will improve recreational access and build upon local and regional efforts to manage the river and its tributaries for multiple objectives (healthy habitat and recreational benefits as well as water supply). To date, nearly 5,000 acres have been permanently conserved across five working ranches. Additionally, the partners led a successful campaign to secure dedicated open space funding in Grand County in 2016.

Upper Colorado River Headwaters