by Alan Carpenter, Land Stewardship Consulting, Boulder
This winter, the Centennial Land Trust will complete its first project when it purchases a conservation easement covering a 3080-acre ranch along the South Platte River near Orchard in Morgan County. “We are fortunate to have this property as a first project and are excited about its completion,” said Centennial Land Trust President Rick Sandquist. “Besides being one of the centerpiece properties identified by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in its refuge proposal, this project exemplifies conservation by private initiative and the value of partnerships among local, state, federal, private conservation organizations, water conservancies, and the agricultural community.”
The land consists of riparian areas and wetlands and contains large expanses of cottonwood forest, plus sandsage/midgrass prairie. The property has been owned for decades by Joe Roccio, who operates a cattle ranch on bottomland along the South Platte River. He has decided to protect the land permanently by selling, at a bargain price, a perpetual conservation easement over his property to the Centennial Land Trust. In this way, Mr. Roccio is able to finance his retirement and ensure that the property will never be developed. The conservation easement will mean little difference in the day-to-day operation of the ranch because the easement allows ranching to continue but precludes residential, commercial or industrial development in perpetuity. This project is a proactive way of conserving wildlife habitat and maintaining agriculture in the face of increasing development in the area. Funding for the project comes from a number of sources, particularly the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund.
One requirement of the conservation easement is a stewardship and management plan for the property. This plan will be a joint effort by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), Natural Resources Conservation Service, the land trust, and the landowner to address best management practices for the land. The plan will include recommendations for livestock grazing and wetland protection and enhancement. The USFWS, Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Partners for Wildlife program, Ducks Unlimited and others are expected to play key planning and implementation roles in increasing the conservation values of the property, while helping the landowner maintain and enhance his agricultural operation.
The Centennial Land Trust began operation two years ago following the demise of the proposed Centennial National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge would have protected 15,000 acres of floodplain along the South Platte River under the management of USFWS. However, many local residents did not want the federal government to own a large amount of land and water rights in the area, and the refuge idea failed. Nonetheless, the Fish & Wildlife Service persisted in the idea of protecting riparian areas and wetlands along the South Platte. Following two years of discussions by a task force, local leaders decided to form a land trust that would acquire conservation easements by gift or purchase from willing landowners. This approach features a private organization leading the wetland and riparian conservation efforts along the South Platte between Kersey and Ft. Morgan in Morgan and Weld Counties. Rick Sandquist is confident that successful completion of this project will establish the Centennial Land Trust as a viable conservation organization. Success here will encourage other agricultural landowners to protect their lands as lasting legacies and help conserve the most valuable wildlife habitat and agricultural resources along this portion of the South Platte.
For more information about the Centennial Land Trust, contact Rick at (970) 645-2471 or drop him a note at P. O. Box 23, Orchard, CO 80649.
Section Manager, Aquatic Habitat Section, Wyoming Game & Fish Department