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 Colorado’s land and water resources are under enormous pressure as the state’s population continues to grow and urbanize. The Gates Family Foundation plays an active role in conserving 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. We also support increasing the numbers and diversity of people engaged in natural resources stewardship statewide to ensure Colorado’s conservation future. We advance these ideals through a number of strategies:
- Landscape Conservation
- Land Trust Capacity Building
- Balanced Water Management
- Stewardship at Scale
- Ecosystem Services
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. Our first project supported the protection of Mueller Ranch, which is now a state park at the base of Pike’s Peak. Since the launch of Great Outdoors Colorado in 1992, Gates has been the state’s largest source of matching funds for public-private land protection. 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.
Land Trust Capacity Building
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, the Foundation is keenly interested in building the capacity, vibrancy, and sustainability of the state’s land trusts.
Since 2011, we have invested in leadership development for strong land trusts and supported new operating models and partnership agreements among smaller trusts. We’ve also helped land trusts of all sizes develop and adopt best practices, create and defend tools for conservation, and strengthen collaboration to address complex, statewide challenges and opportunities. In 2018, we helped to steer and support the Conservation Futures Project, a year-long effort that helped Colorado’s land trusts launch 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.
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.
Stewardship at Scale
More than 75% of Colorado’s residents recreate outdoors on a weekly basis, and the state’s annual tourist population is growing rapidly — bringing 86 million visitors and $1.28 billion in tax revenue to the state in 2018. Increased use threatens to permanently damage the natural areas that are so beloved, just as public land management agencies and their partner nonprofits often lack sufficient resources and manpower for adequate stewardship. The Foundation supports large-scale efforts to engage residents, especially youth and diverse populations, in the care of natural resources throughout Colorado. We also support job training and employment opportunities that create pathways to engage new populations with the outdoors, such as those being developed through Great Outdoors Colorado’s “Generation Wild” programs statewide. We prioritize partnerships and collaborations that result in a much larger and more diverse network of stewards to help meet the needs of Colorado’s threatened outdoor spaces and wild places.
Decisions regarding natural resources management are often made without data illustrating the real economic cost that can result from damaging or destroying natural systems. Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) tools monetize the value that healthy ecosystems provide to human communities, and utilize market mechanisms to address threats to those ecosystems through “win-win” finance and practice models. This emerging field has great potential, but the practical implementation of these concepts is still in its infancy.
The Foundation supports research and pilot projects in Colorado that advance valuation and market development for ecosystem services, integrate these tools into public and private decision-making, and demonstrate the potential to provide viable, long-term, market-based solutions to conservation’s most pressing issues.
How We Support Natural Resources
Foundation staff work closely with a diverse set of partners to initiate and support natural resources projects that advance the strategic priorities and goals listed above. A few examples include the Conservation Futures Project, our multi-year work in Focus Landscapes, and our investments in innovative water projects. If you think your project or organization might be a fit for our Natural Resources program, we encourage you to browse our past strategic grants or contact a team member below.
Three times a year, we accept applications for natural resources projects that fit the criteria of our capital grants program. In this way, we support land conservation in Colorado geographies not included in our Focus Landscape program; projects that acquire, construct, and improve parks, greenways, and trail systems; and public recreation facilities, outdoor spaces, and community gardens — particularly those in underserved urban and rural areas.
Alongside grantmaking, impact investments deploy more of the Foundation’s capital in mission-aligned ways. Our natural resources portfolio of Mission-Related Investments includes 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 an election where not a single statewide initiative passed, taxes for land, water, and parks were popular with local voters. Learn More
Thanks to these two legislative victories, the state's conservation partners are positioned for even greater success over the next 25 years. Learn More
A pilot program under which farmers and ranchers in the Upper Colorado River Basin volunteered to be compensated for temporarily ... Learn More
Natural Resources Grantmaking