San Isabel celebrates 25 years of protecting land, water and wildlife

In late 1994, the warning signs were gathering like smoke on the horizon, signaling trouble ahead.

Rapid population growth, troubling ranching economics and increasing development pressures worried newcomers and pioneer ranching families, environmentalists and private property rights advocates. What could save the Wet Mountain Valley’s sweeping landscape of working ranches and open spaces, an agricultural heritage that enriched the lives of longtime residents and the newly arrived, as well as provided unparalleled wildlife habitat?

The answer, a group of concerned residents concluded, would be a strategy built on a foundation of collaboration and science – a local land trust that would protect forever thousands of acres of ranchlands and open space. Thus, San Isabel Foundation (later San Isabel Land Protection Trust) was born, on a hope and a prayer and a strong belief that this region deserved to be ­– and could be – saved from a fate suffered by too many of Colorado’s high mountain valley communities.

Peggy McIntosh, sister-in-law of longtime San Isabel leader and supporter Charles Proctor, sparked the idea for establishing a local land trust and protecting property through conservation easements. McIntosh, then the county’s zoning officer, attended a workshop on land use issues in Crested Butte and returned with the land trust idea.

Pari Morse, an early San Isabel leader and its first paid staff member, said, “Peggy thought it would be valuable here. There’s only so much you can do with regulation. We needed to look to incentive-based conservation solutions.”

Randy Woods, San Isabel’s first board president and a wildlife advocate, said of San Isabel’s beginnings, “None of us had any money, just idealism. We did have a group of people who were in love with this area. We knew what we wanted to do. But we also knew ‘we want to conserve stuff’ wasn’t going to fly.”

The group set about laying the groundwork for success. They educated themselves and the community on land use issues and the value of conservation easements, looking to the Land Trust Alliance for guidance and resources. By fall 1995, they had incorporated. They received grants from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) to build capacity and fund a study of the region’s resources.

The San Isabel Resource Plan described Custer County’s natural and cultural resources and options for protecting them. Along with the GOCO funding, the landmark plan was completed with the help of matching funds, in-kind support, data and analysis from 10 organizations and several local businesses. The planning effort, data gathering and community outreach to complete the work helped launch a robust land protection network in the region.

Vic Barnes, a member of a longtime valley ranching family and an 18-year member of San Isabel’s board of directors, said collaboration and communication were vital to winning over the community to the planning process and conservation easement strategy.

“Lots of community involvement, lots of communication,” Barnes said of early efforts. “Some people thought conservation easements took rights from people. ‘In perpetuity’ scared a lot of people. … People who had been here a long time were skeptical at first, but once one or two got involved, they were OK.”

Woods, who had moved to the valley with his young family in 1991, said, “We were educating ourselves, educating the public, building partnerships. In the initial stages, people would listen to you with respect. It gave us a chance to get off the ground. … Other groups helped us solidify our vision that protecting agricultural lands was the way to go. It was the path of least resistance, and cost-effective, too.”

A key partnership involved the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit organization that works with communities to protect and restore important natural landscapes in western North America, and the Custer Heritage Committee, an informal group of local ranchers and landowners concerned about agriculture and open space.

The Sonoran Institute helped organize and facilitate a series of community meetings to get local residents to visualize together the future they wanted. The inaugural weekend opened with a barbecue attended by more than 400 people. Local partners in the effort also included the Custer County Stockgrowers Association, the towns of Silver Cliff and Westcliffe, the chamber of commerce and the Planning Commission. The result was “Keep Custer County Special,” which identified important community threads that all tied to the health of the landscape. An important component was a groundbreaking cost-of-growth study that showed residential development cost more than it generated in revenue for local governments, while agricultural lands generates more in taxes than they demand in services.

Barnes said, “Quite a few of the people who generated the Sonoran Institute effort were recognized leaders of the community – Ben Kettle, Sara Shields, Bill Jack and Paul Snyder, for example. The credibility of the people who were active in it helped a lot.”

The group recognized early that funding would be an issue. In 1997, they came up with an innovative solution in the land trust world. Art for the Sangres, a fine art show, was held for many years at the historic Pines Ranch and later at A Painted View Ranch. The show reflected the experience and talents of those involved in San Isabel. Sarah Woods, Randy’s wife and a successful artist, was instrumental in starting the show. The steady source of income proved key for the fledgling organization. It continues to generate tens of thousands of dollars a year for San Isabel.

“Art for the Sangres was more critical than I had identified initially,” Randy Woods said. “It was an opportunity to bring fine art to Westcliffe. It was good outreach to the community, and it expanded our reach beyond Custer County. It made money that first year and became a needed source of revenue for us.”

As the work continued, another key partnership developed, resulting in 2002 in the Wet Mountain Valley Ranchland Preservation Project, which set a first-phase goal of protecting 10,000 acres in the northern part of the valley across six working ranches. GOCO awarded $2.5 million for the project, which aimed to help pay transaction costs to put easements in place.

San Isabel's partners in this transformative collaboration included the Sonoran Institute, Trust for Public Land, Colorado Conservation Trust and Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (which also celebrates its 25th anniversary this year). In 2007, a $2 million GOCO grant extended the program to the southern end of the valley. The grant helped to protect the 3,800-acre Music Meadows Ranch and other valley properties. By the end of 2008, San Isabel had protected another 9,947 acres in Custer County. That brought the total number of acres protected in Custer, Fremont, Huerfano and west Pueblo counties to 31,951.

In 2009, San Isabel became one of the first small land trusts to achieve national accreditation. Dianne Whalen, who led the effort to get accredited, said the process helped get San Isabel on a sounder footing, both financially and operationally.

“It helped us set things up better,” Whalen said. “We got things in order. It was good to get our ducks in a row.”

She said San Isabel was held up later as an example for other small land trusts considering accreditation.

In 2014, San Isabel took on a new role as the owner of five acres at the Bluff, the beloved and much-visited scenic western terminus of Westcliffe’s Main Street. The parcel – with its stunning views of the Wet Mountain Valley – are protected forever by a conservation easement held by Colorado Open Lands. San Isabel was one of the first nonprofits to receive a tax credit for the donated easement, money that supports managing and improving the Bluff today.

Woods said he was amazed when he considered all San Isabel has accomplished in 25 years.

“The biggest thing is that every single person involved had such a love of this area,” Morse said. “It became a labor of love to find a solution that might take our conservation efforts to the next level. They were doing it from the heart.”

Janet Smith

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  • "My family put 720 acres under conservation easement in 2009. We did it to protect the integrity of the property and to help secure the water rights to the irrigated hay land in perpetuity. In this age of agricultural and economic uncertainty, conservation easements are the thing to do."

    – Larry Vickerman, executive director, Denver Botanic Gardens, Chatfield