In October, Valerie Gates joined Gates Family Foundation President Tom Gougeon to accept the “Champion of the Land” award from Colorado Open Lands. Since its founding in 1981, Colorado Open Lands has played a direct or critical role in conserving more than a half-million acres of Colorado ranches, farms, open space, and wildlife habitat. The organization can’t do this alone – and each year at its annual benefit dinner in Denver, Colorado Open Lands honors a strategic impact partner for making an enduring impact on conservation in the state.

An edited excerpt of Tom’s remarks follow:

I’d like to thank the board and staff of Colorado Open Lands for this generous recognition.  We view it as a chance to celebrate the history, accomplishments, and future of the conservation community and the generations of people who have all contributed to making a lasting difference in this place.

The Gates Family Foundation is 72 years old this year, and its history in supporting conservation is rooted in its origins and in a family that loved nature, valued experience in it, and cherished this place.  Few foundations created in that earlier era evolved with a commitment to nature and place as part of their DNA.

The Foundation’s earliest conservation project with Colorado Open Lands was the Evans Ranch, an effort to preserve a glorious and iconic property at the base of Mt. Evans in the early 1980s.  Since that time, the modern conservation community and movement have grown and evolved.  We have gone from a few pioneering organizations, including Colorado Open Lands, to a land trust community of three dozen land trusts, and a large number of public open space programs in counties across Colorado.  Along the way, we have created important tools like Great Outdoors Colorado in 1992 – which leverages lottery proceeds to conservation purposes – and the state’s private land conservation tax credit program in 2000.

As a result, millions of acres of private land have been conserved in the years since the preservation of the Evans Ranch, and significant public open space and trail systems have been created.  We have also all come to appreciate that water resources are critical and a vital element of a total conservation vision for Colorado.  Throughout this history, the Gates Family Foundation has supported the leaders and visionaries that have driven success on the ground and advanced a vision for the importance of conservation to our way of life – resulting in the Foundation’s participation in hundreds of projects and investment of many tens of millions of dollars.  We recognize we are not the ones doing the work, and that our job is to facilitate the success of all of our partners statewide who are doing the work on the ground.

Evans Ranch, Colorado Open Lands

In 1982, with the help of a loan from the Gates Family Foundation, Colorado Open Lands purchased the historic 3,200-acre Evans Ranch at the base of Mount Evans in Clear Creek County. The project’s importance was two-fold: it preserve the historical ranch of John Evans, the second territorial governor of Colorado, which was threatened by the development of hundreds of homes. With the careful placement of only five lots, it was also widely praised as an innovative conservation development project that would not only define Colorado Open Lands’ work in the 1980s, but would also serve as a national prototype.

In 1982, with the help of a loan from the Gates Family Foundation, Colorado Open Lands purchased the historic 3,200-acre Evans Ranch at the base of Mount Evans in Clear Creek County. The project’s importance was two-fold: it preserve the historical ranch of John Evans, the second territorial governor of Colorado, which was threatened by the development of hundreds of homes. With the careful placement of only five lots, it was also widely praised as an innovative conservation development project that would not only define Colorado Open Lands’ work in the 1980s, but would also serve as a national prototype.

Many, many people have played important roles within the Foundation in advancing its conservation work over time.  Fittingly, many of those people are in this room tonight.  It began with Charlie Gates and Chuck Froelicher – two people with a love of nature and enormous energy.  As a family foundation that has given majority control of its board to community members, the Gates Family Foundation is unique.  Over decades, numerous trustees from within and outside the family have championed the Foundation’s work in conservation.  Starting with Charlie Gates, and continued on by people like Valerie Gates, Diane Wallach, George Beardsley, Tom Stokes, Don Elliman, Chuck Cannon, and many others.  I would like to acknowledge our current board, who continue this commitment to conservation in Colorado:  Lauren Cannon Davis and Dane Harbaugh (who represent the next generation of family commitment to this work), as well as Rich Kiely, Wally Obermeyer, Dick Celeste, Dori Biester, and Wes Brown.

There have also been many talented staff people at the Foundation who have driven this work forward over many years. In addition to Chuck, that list includes people like Tom Stokes, Ellen Fisher, Tom Kaesemeyer, Karen Mather, Lisa Flores, and most recently Beth Conover and Russ Schnitzer. Beth in particular was an important partner in shaping the current direction and reach of GFF’s work in land and water over the last eight years, and Russ is now stepping into that role.

I would like to end by recognizing Valerie, who is here tonight representing the Gates family. Valerie is the ideal person for this role, having served as a trustee of the Foundation in two different eras for more than 16 years. She has always been a passionate advocate for our work in land and water, and has been a significant investor personally in supporting the conservation community in many ways.

The family’s values have made the Foundation’s work over decades possible.  It is their love of nature, commitment to the place, belief in citizenship and taking responsibility, their willingness to think long-term, recognize and support the development of talent, and take risk intelligently when necessary, that have made it all possible.  Equally importantly, they have been able to sustain that commitment across multiple generations.

Everyone in this room recognizes that despite all of the heroic work over the last 50 plus years, there is so much more to be done. The stakes and the pressures on Colorado’s open lands and waterways have never been greater.  In the last few years, the Foundation has joined with leaders from the conservation community to bring more focused attention to the health, capacity, and sustainability of the sector.  Over the past year, through the Conservation Futures Project, the Foundation, Great Outdoors Colorado, and the land trust community have developed a vision for the sector that we believe will help it thrive and meet the challenges that a future with climate change and 10 million people will surely bring. We are proud of the work the community has done in preparing to meet that future, and urge everyone to continue to invest not only in the ability to complete conservation transactions, but also in the capacity of the land trust community as a whole.  Both will be essential going forward.

On behalf of the Foundation and the family, we thank you for the honor of this award.