Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve/Baca Ranch Purchase

Posted: Sep 1, 2005
Written by: 
Brendan Smith
Location: Southern Colorado, approximately 25 miles northeast of Alamosa

Objective: San Luis Valley residents and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) spearheaded the effort that resulted in the creation of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, designated as the 58th national park in September 2004. The park—home to the tallest sand dunes in North America and eight species of insects found nowhere else in the world—protects a unique ecosystem including, the park’s  purpose statement says, “the ground water system on which the sand dune and wetland systems depend.”  It was threats to that system that galvanized the locally-driven collaborative endeavor.

Participants: Local residents; The Nature Conservancy; the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund; David and Lucile Packard Foundation; Colorado State Land Board; Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund; National Park Service; U.S. Bureau of Land Management; U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and other local, state and federal officials and non-government organizations.

History: More than 12,000 years ago, retreating glaciers and the meandering Rio Grande deposited sand and gravel across the San Luis Valley. The Valley receives less than 10 inches of rain during the year, creating naturally dry surface conditions.  Strong  winds blowing across the Valley sweep up the sand  from the sand sheet, a flat sandy area anchored by brush and nourished by an underlying aquifer.   As the winds are funneled upward and out of the Valley through three low mountain passes, the sand drops out  against the flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, creating shifting dunes that rise and fall under their own natural rhythm. Sandwiched between the 14,000-foot peaks of the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangres to the east, the Great Sand Dunes tower more than 750 feet above the valley floor. In 1807, in the first known description of the Great Sand Dunes, U.S. Army expedition leader Zebulon Pike wrote, "Their appearance was exactly that of the sea in a storm, except as to color, not the least sign of vegetation existing thereon."

 Sandhill Cranes use wetlands in the Great Sand Dunes for feeding and resting during migrations.
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
In 1932, in response to a local effort led by San Juan Valley chapters of the national women's society PEO, President Herbert Hoover declared the dunes a national monument. But it would take more than 70 years for the monument to be expanded into a national park, following the purchase of the adjoining 151-square-mile, 97,000-acre Baca Ranch in one of the most complicated legal and real-estate transactions undertaken by TNC.

The Baca Ranch contains the northwestern corner of the dune field, wetlands, archaeological sites, and sections of the sand sheet.  Previous ranch owners, including American Water Development, Inc. (AWDI) and Cabeza de Vaca Land and Cattle Company, wanted to export water commercially from the underlying aquifer to the growing cities and suburbs on the Front Range. The potential negative impact on the community, its economy, and the unique ecology of the Great Sand Dunes so concerned local residents that they sought federal protection for the Baca Ranch.  "Buying the Baca Ranch and adding it to the Great Sand Dunes was not an idea of the federal government. It was a grassroots movement. The people of the valley started it." said Ralph Curtis, then-general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in a 2005 interview.

"A lot of people here have a long history [in the Valley] and very much value the continuation of a rural life style here," explains Paul Robertson.  "This is still very much an agricultural area.  The aquifer is used for cropland irrigation as well as pasture irrigation.  With 10 inches or less annual rainfall, if you're going to have a lot of agriculture you're going to have to have irrigation.  The Valley grows about 25% of the nation's potatoes and most, if not all, of the barley for Coors beer. It's a big area for the production of alfalfa, a substantial portion of which is organic.   The community was very much behind the Baca Ranch acquisition and saw it as a way of protecting both the water and the rural and agricultural lifestyle."

The water war in San Luis Valley began in 1986 when AWDI, owned by Canadian oilman Maurice Strong, applied for water rights to sell 200,000 acre feet from the aquifer lying beneath Baca Ranch to Front Range municipalities.. Local ranchers, farmers, and environmentalists feared the economic and ecologic  effects of the proposed water exportation and teamed up to fight it. Even though some state and federal agencies helped in the resulting court case, the Rio Grande Water Conservation district "took the brunt of the fight," Curtis said. Voters in the district overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative allowing it to borrow up to $472,000 from local banks for legal costs. In 1994 the Colorado Supreme Court denied AWDI's water-rights application, upholding a lower court ruling that the water AWDI wanted to export was tributary water that could affect surface stream flows and neighboring wells.

Beaten in court, AWDI looked to sell Baca Ranch. After a local plan to buy the ranch failed for lack of funding, valley residents asked TNC to step in, but AWDI received a higher offer from Cabeza de Vaca, according to David W. Robbins,the water district's general counsel..  Cabeza's managing member was Stockman's Water Co., headed by local rancher Gary Boyce. Despite AWDI's failure in court, Boyce proposed to pump up to 150,000 acre-feet of water per year from the aquifer beneath Baca Ranch to the Front Range or into New Mexico. Cabeza spent approximately $1 million to promote two controversial 1998 statewide ballot initiatives . One would have required the costly installation of water meters on many irrigation wells in the San Luis Valley, while the other would require local irrigators to pay four times the market rate for water pumped from beneath state trust lands in the Valley. "Boyce was after the organizations that had spent a lot of money in the AWDI case and was trying to drain their monetary ability to fight him in water court," Curtis said.

Citizens for San Luis Valley Water, a nonprofit incorporated in 1989 "to defeat corporate attempts to export SLV water", raised funds to fight the initiatives, collecting donations from local banks, agricultural groups, and environmental organizations.  In a 2005 interview Chris Canaly (former Citizens' program director and now San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council director).recalled, "It was an amazing coalition of people. They all decided this was way bigger than the rest of us individually, so it was really important to come together as a community.  What Boyce thought he could do was to manipulate the state of Colorado to vote against the San Luis Valley." Instead, Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected the initiatives by a three-to-one margin.

During the battles with Cabeza de Vaca, Valley residents and TNC convinced Colorado's congressional delegation to draft the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act. Passed by Congress in 2000, it called for the acquisition of Baca Ranch and expansion of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument into a national park almost four times its original size. It also required creation of a local, 10-member advisory council (to be chartered under the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act) to advise the Department of the Interior "with respect to preparation and implementation of a management plan for the national park and the park preserve."

Cabeza de Vaca, faced with overwhelming local opposition and increasing political pressure never filed a water-rights application and finally agreed to sell Baca Ranch to TNC. "There were definitely some rough days. We always had the sense we were going to make it happen," says TNC state director Charles Bedford. TNC "was essential in putting all the players together and brokering the deal," said Canaly. In December 2001, TNC signed a purchase agreement for Baca Ranch and its associated water rights, using a mix of public and private financing. In November 2004, the final federal appropriation to repay TNC Baca's $34.5 million purchase price was approved, allowing full ownership of the ranch to be transferred to the federal government. It was then divided among three federal agencies, with 53,135 acres included in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, almost 13,000 acres added to the Rio Grande National Forest, and the 31,000 remaining acres included in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

 Wetlands in the Great Sand Dunes
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
During the negotiations to purchase Baca Ranch, students at Yale University discovered that Yale was a 50 percent partner in Cabeza de Vaca. Embarrassed by indirect involvement in Cabeza's water-exportation scheme and the questionable ballot initiatives, Yale agreed to donate its $1.6 million in profits from the ranch sale to TNC to help create the park. In 2002, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said, "The Baca Ranch purchase is the largest land preservation effort in our state history, which finally ends speculation over the transfer of San Luis Valley water to the Front Range."

Accomplishments: The boundaries of the park (which take in some private and state-owned lands) now include the entire ecological area needed to preserve the Great Sand Dunes.. From 2005 through mid-2007 the NPS and the Great Sand Dunes National Park Advisory Council held numerous public meetings and field trips, published newsletters, and gathered and studied information necessary to develop the General Management Plan (GMP) for the park. A wilderness study was included with the GMP to review lands within the expanded park boundaries to determine which were eligible for wilderness designation, and which should be recommended for it. The draft GMP included two action alternatives - one to  maximize access and recreation in the park, and the other to maximize wilderness.  The draft rejected NPS management of a bison herd because of limited forage and the time-consuming nature of such a project, but provided that TNC  would be allowed to continue its bison ranching within the park on its private inholdings and leased lands.

With a positive recommendation from the Advisory Council and strong public support, the "maximize wilderness" alternative was adopted by the NPS  in a decision memo issued July 19, 2007.  The decision also provided that, if additional habitat becomes available, NPS management of a bison herd may be reconsidered.   TNC and the Colorado Division of Wildlife are in the last year of a three-year elk and bison study examining elk population size and dynamics, elk-bison interactions, and local carrying capacity.  Per the terms of its enabling legislation, the Advisory Council was dissolved upon the completion of the GMP.

Friends of the Dunes, a local nonprofit established in 1989, obtained $270,000 in grants for archaeological investigations and have compiled an oral history of local residents' recollections of the Great Sand Dunes. They raised substantial funds to help remodel the visitor center (a $2 million project completed in 2005) and provide other park improvements.  . The Friends' annual "Castles, Kites & Concert" day and other special events have helped increase park visitation.

"The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), The Nature Conservancy, and the Forest Service all share a big boundary with the park," says TNC's Robertson.  "We all share the responsibility for the appropriate stewardship of this 400,000 acre complex.."  With shared concerns about water, wildlife, fire, invasive weeds, and cultural resources, the land managers strive for consistent cross-boundary management. "  I think to date it's been very successful," says Robertson.  "The Valley is an unusual place because of the high degree of cooperation between federal agencies, state agencies, and private organizations, as well as the community." 

Challenges/constraints: Extended negotiations with Cabeza de Vaca, together with lawsuits among Cabeza's partners, delayed the purchase of Baca Ranch. The federal bureaucracy imposed layers of additional requirements concerning mineral and water rights and title issues. Bedford estimates TNC spent more than $1.5 million on staff time and unreimbursed expenses related to the ranch purchase.

Under the authorizing legislation, the federal government was required to apply to the State of Colorado for water rights from the Baca Ranch purchase  In December 2004 the government filed a non-consumptive "in place" ground water application seeking an absolute right to "all unappropriated water" lying beneath the park "in order to maintain, as nearly as possible, natural water levels and flows  The filing was developed cooperatively with representatives of the state and water users in the San Luis Valley.  A decision is pending, according to TNC's Robertson, and a positive outcome seems likely, but action has been stymied by other lawsuits originating in the Valley challenging rules filed by the State Engineer to protect the aquifer  On March 24, 2008, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the State Engineer's new rules were legal and properly adopted, which may open the way to action on the park's water rights application

When the purchase of Baca Ranch was negotiated, it did not include the subsurface mineral rights.  In August 2006, Lexam (a Canadian company which owns a 75% interest in those rights) informed the USFWS that it planned to begin oil and gas exploration in the Baca National Wildlife Reserve. USFWS initially decided that because of the "split estate"nature of the surface and subsurface ownerships, Lexam's exploratory work was not subject to NEPA analysis requirements.

Lexam obtained permits from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to drill two exploratory wells, conducted field work and baseline water quality sampling, and performed a cultural resources survey and, in early 2007, conducted a 3-D seismic survey on the Baca NWR.   In May 2007, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) announced it had filed suit in Federal District Court "to ensure that the public is fully informed of Lexam's drilling plans for the Baca NWR [and] that a full range of alternatives and mitigation measures are presented to the public before the drilling project causes any further surface impacts to the Baca NWR."

In August, USFWS initiated a 30-day scoping process for a NEPA Environmental Assessment of the proposed Lexam project and received over 48,000 public comments, the vast majority of which opposed drilling on the Baca NWR.  In December 2007, the District Court ruled in favor of SLVEC and decreed that the USFWS "prohibit all ground disturbing activities related to the exploration and development of the mineral estate underlying the Baca National Wildlife Refuge during the National Environmental Policy Act process."

On January 18, 2008, USFWS released its draft EA and initiated a 45-day comment period ending March 2, 2008.  The proposed action alternative would set "standards for ensuring that the planned exploration...does not unreasonably degrade or impact the Refuge's surface estate and associated resources."  In addition, the agency proposes "specific environmental measures" to implement those standards.

For more information see:
Memory Oasis, the oral history of the park prepared by Friends of the Dunes

From Subsistence to Supermarkets, abstracts of the research projects funded by Friends of the Dunes

Draft Environmental Assessment for the proposed Lexam project

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Baca National Wildlife Refuge

Rio Grande National Forest
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