Colorado’s iconic mountain ranges, farms and ranchlands, public lands, rivers, and open spaces are an undeniable part of our shared identity as Coloradans. We live in a state where three in four residents consider themselves conservationists, and 87% understand that Colorado’s open lands and outdoor lifestyle give the state an economic advantage.
Yet the forces of climate change, population growth, and urbanization are producing unprecedented conditions that threaten Colorado’s quality of life and economic stability. Gates Family Foundation works collaboratively with a cross-section of partners, fellow funders, and grantees to conserve Colorado’s unique landscapes, waterways, and agricultural heritage in ways that allow both natural and human systems to thrive. We believe that collaboration, innovation, and non-traditional partnerships are the key to balanced management of limited resources. Additionally, we are committed to closing the gap that exists for Indigenous and people of color in conservation decision-making, organizational leadership, and access to the outdoors.
Our Strategies for Natural Resources
- Balanced Water Management
- Forest Health and Watershed Restoration
- Landscape Conservation & Land Trust Capacity-Building
Balanced Water Management
Colorado is home to the headwaters for four major rivers (the Colorado, Rio Grande, Arkansas, and South Platte) that flow out of state, supplying water to 19 other states and more than 35 million people. Population growth and urban development in Colorado and throughout the region are intensifying conflicts between the diverse needs of these urban and rural water users, as well as our wild places and ecosystems. The state’s first-ever Water Plan was approved in 2015, and recognizes the need to balance protection of Colorado’s river flows — precious for both environmental and recreational use — with the demands of municipal, industrial, and agricultural water users.
The Foundation seeks to advance new tools, processes, and ideas to realize a long-term, sustainable balance between all of these demands. We prioritize projects that promote cross-sector cooperation and market-based tools, connect land use and water conservation, support instream flows and healthy rivers, develop better water data and analysis, and advance priorities identified in the State Water Plan.
Forest Health and Watershed Restoration
In 2020, the forest health crisis that began building nearly 20 years ago intersected with a rapidly intensifying climate crisis and resulted in the worst wildfire year on record. In that single season, more than 665,000 acres burned at a cost of more than $266 million for suppression alone. More than 1,150 homes were destroyed and two lives were lost. As of early 2021, ninety-five percent of Colorado was experiencing some form of drought.
In the coming decades, the changing climate is likely to decrease water availability and agricultural yields in Colorado, and further increase the risk of wildfires. The destabilizing ripple effects could have social and economic impacts in addition to the ecological implications. These conditions have persisted for so long that it is now characterized as a permanently shifted baseline resulting in a new normal that is drier and warmer.
For these reasons, Gates Family Foundation adopted forest health and watershed restoration as a core focus area in its 2021-2026 strategic plan. We invest in projects and organizations that:
- Create collaborative, cross- jurisdictional and statewide strategies for address these issues at scale
- Increase the pace, scale and integration of wildland fire mitigation and water quality efforts
- Improve landscape-scale forest health conditions in priority headwaters and watersheds of Colorado
- Develop creative finance mechanisms to support forest health and watershed restoration
Landscape Conservation & Land Trust Capacity-Building
In Colorado, approximately 100,000 acres of farm, ranch, or forest lands — an area roughly equivalent to the City and County of Denver — are lost every year to development. These landscapes are critical for the state’s biodiversity, scenic values, recreation, water protection, agricultural production, rural economies, and cultural heritage.
Gates Family Foundation has been funding land conservation since 1978, and we’ve been the state’s largest source of matching funds for public-private land protection since the launch of Great Outdoors Colorado in 1992. We prioritize projects with demonstrated impact, strong funding leverage, scale, connectivity, and a high degree of collaboration, landowner commitment, and community support.
Our strategic grants program makes large, long-term commitments to land conservation and community partners who are protecting two “focus landscapes” of statewide significance: Southeast Colorado and the San Luis Valley. In addition, we support land conservation projects statewide through our capital grants program.
Nonprofit land trusts are responsible for the stewardship of nearly 80% of the 2.2 million acres of private land conserved in Colorado. Because of this, since 2011 we have invested in land trust capacity building, including leadership development for strong land trusts and supported new operating models and partnership agreements among smaller trusts. In 2018, we supported Colorado’s land trusts in launching Keep It Colorado — a new, statewide coalition with the vision, capacity, and structure to most effectively guide and support the land conservation community as it evolves to meet current and future challenges.
How We Support Natural Resources
Foundation staff work closely with a diverse group of partners to initiate and support projects that advance the strategic priorities and goals listed above. See our strategic grantmaking in natural resources here. If you think your project or organization might be a fit for our Natural Resources program, we encourage you to contact a team member below.
Two times a year, we accept applications for our capital grants program. Natural resources projects that qualify include land conservation across Colorado; projects that acquire, construct, and improve parks, greenways, and trail systems; and public recreation facilities, outdoor spaces, and community gardens. See a list of our recent grants here.
We put the Foundation’s endowment dollars to work through mission-aligned investments in natural resources and conservation. Examples include projects that generate a market rate of return for restoration of ranch properties in Colorado and nearby states, and sustainably harvested timberlands across the U.S.
Natural Resources Team
Our natural resources team brings an array of experiences and talents to work with our partners and grantees. From strategic planning and partnership development, to deep knowledge of water and land conservation issues statewide and nationally, our team is here to help our partners thrive.
Natural Resources News & Insights
In early 2021, the Gates Family Foundation natural resources team reached out to peers, partners, policymakers, and nonprofit leaders for feedback to inform the development of strategies to reduce challenges and maximize opportunities for conservation of our beautiful state and its natural resources. Learn More
CSU Study Shows Future Land Conservation Could Bring $195 Million in Economic Activity and 1,200 New Jobs to Rural Colorado Communities
As much as 80 percent of this economic activity would bolster rural economies, by helping to reduce farm debt, increase savings, and mitigate risk, the study finds. Learn More
Applications are due February 27 for the first round, which will award up to $2.5 million to 6-12 projects statewide. Learn More
Natural Resources Grantmaking
|Year||Grantee||Amount||Type||Strategic Priority||Area Served|
|2021||American Rivers, Inc.||$25,000|
|2021||The Nature Conservancy||$25,000|
|2021||Water Education Colorado||$25,000|
|2021||Avesta Fund I||$1,000,000|
|2021||New Venture Fund||$25,000|
|2021||Aspen Valley Land Trust||$25,000|
|2021||Next 100 Colorado||$105,000|
|2021||Colorado Future Farmers of America Foundation||$50,000|
|2021||Trust For Public Land||$250,000|
|2021||Palmer Land Conservancy||$500,000|
|2021||Encourage Capital – One State Investment Partners Fund||$500,000|
|2021||Sand County Foundation, Inc.||$13,000|
|2021||Ember Infrastructure Management||$4,000,000|
|2021||Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust||$20,000|
|2021||Continental Divide Trail Coalition||$25,000|
|2020||National Fish and Wildlife Foundation||$225,000|
|2020||Trout Unlimited/Colorado Council||$250,000|