Celebrating The Nature Conservancy's Legacy in Colorado
For more than 55 years we've helped protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends in Colorado and beyond.
It started with a small property near Crested Butte. In the 1960s, scientists from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory were exploring a series of linked ponds in glacially created shelves on the side of Galena Mountain. They found unlimited opportunities for aquatic research with the diversity of plants, animals and amphibians living in and around the wetlands. They knew the property needed protection and contacted TNC for help.
The Nature Conservancy purchased that property, Mexican Cut, in 1966, and with this acquisition, TNC formed its Colorado chapter. Now, in our 56th year in Colorado, we’re looking back at some of our favorite conservation successes throughout the state.
Protecting Parks for People
We’ve helped found several popular parks around the state, making nature accessible and welcoming for people from all backgrounds. In 2004, TNC worked with local residents, the National Park Service and elected officials to develop legislation to designate the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Connected with two ranches protected by TNC, it’s one of the most biologically significant landscapes in the state, with rare insects found nowhere else in the world and an abundance of habitat for native wildlife.
More Than 55 Years of Conservation in Colorado
TNC protected Phantom Canyon in the Laramie Foothills. Phantom Canyon Preserve is a spectacular 1,700-acre, roadless canyon encompassing six miles of the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River.
The Colorado Chapter made significant progress for conservation by acquiring more property around the state and working with policy makers.
TNC worked with the Great Outdoors Colorado Citizens Committee to establish a trust fund that invested in the outdoors. This initiative was approved through a ballot measure which directed lottery money to the fund.
TNC acquired the Aiken Canyon Preserve. Aiken Canyon is one of the best known remaining examples of shrubland and woodland communities that once dominated the foothills of the Front Range.
TNC purchased the Carpenter Ranch adjacent to the Yampa River Preserve. By keeping the property as a working ranch and education center, TNC hoped to learn how conservation and agriculture worked in tandem.
TNC acquired the Medano & Zapata Ranches located in the San Luis Valley. Totaling 100,000 acres, the ranches along with Great Sand Dunes National Park constitute the most biologically significant landscape in the state.
TNC worked to establish Great Sand Dunes National Park. Participating in discussions with residents of the San Luis Valley, National Park Service staff and elected officials, the group came up with a plan for legislation that would designate the park.
TNC helped launch the Colorado River Program. This program was created to address the multitude of threats and demands on the Colorado River that cross state and national lines.
Governor Polis opened Fishers Peak State Park, a project that The Nature Conservancy helped spearhead with partners at Trust for Public Land, GOCO, the City of Trinidad and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
TNC dove into a new strategic plan with a focus on tackling climate change and protecting biodiversity while elevating diversity, equity, inclusion and justice throughout our work.
The Nature Conservancy bought and conserved a new property near Walsenburg: Silver Mountain. This working ranch provides important habitat for a wonderful diversity of wildlife, such as elk, mountain lion and pronghorn.
TNC also played a key role in establishing Mueller State Park and Dome Rock State Wildlife Area. Recognizing that the property was threatened by development, TNC purchased the 12,000-acre ranch in 1978 and transferred it to the state for public use.
More recently, TNC was integral in creating Colorado’s newest state park: Fishers Peak. We purchased the property in 2019 along with our partners the Trust for Public Land, the City of Trinidad, Great Outdoors Colorado and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Together we are developing a plan to meld outdoor recreation with conservation needs for the park. A small section of the 19,200-acre park began welcoming visitors in October 2020, and more will open over the coming years.
Keeping Rivers Flowing
Our efforts to conserve water for rivers, native species and people goes back to 1983, when TNC helped purchase a water right for Boulder Creek. This transaction was the first time in Colorado that a water right was converted from agricultural use to an instream flow, benefitting the river and surrounding habitat.
Since then, we’ve expanded our toolbox of ways to meet the water needs of both people and nature. We worked with partners to form the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program, which protects habitat and ensures there is enough water for the four federally listed endangered fish species in the upper basin: humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.
In 2015, the state of Colorado created its first-ever water plan. For more than eight years leading up to this plan, TNC staff provided science, policy and conservation expertise, which directly informed strategy for the final plan.
We also helped launch the Yampa River Fund in 2019. This unique funding source will invest in projects to enhance water security, boost river flows and restore river ecosystems for the Yampa River in northwest Colorado.
On-the-Ground Conservation in Action
Securing protection for important lands has always been central to TNC’s work. Over the past 55+ years we have helped protect more than one million acres of land throughout the state, from Carpenter Ranch near Steamboat Springs to JE Canyon in southeast Colorado to Phantom Canyon along the Cache la Poudre River northwest of Fort Collins.
One of our favorite stories happened in 1990. Deer Creek Elementary School in Bailey, Colorado, launched a project for the students to visualize how big the number one million is. Over the course of the year, they collected one million pennies, planning projects and events to reach their goal. They decided to donate the $10,000 of pennies to The Nature Conservancy to help purchase High Creek Fen, a unique marsh that contains more rare plant species than any other wetland known in Colorado.
More recently, in January 2021 we purchased 11,040 acres of Silver Mountain Ranch located west of Walsenburg in southern Colorado. With a wide diversity in habitats and elevations, the ranch is home to a large variety of mammals including elk, mule deer and mountain lion and supports the habitat used by Canada lynx. It’s a key link for wildlife to move freely as climate change alters their habitat.
Working with Communities to Live Better with Nature
True to our mission, we’ve built strong relationships over time with local communities to ensure we are in line with their interests and creating change that will last.
In northwest Colorado, through our work at the Carpenter Ranch and with landowners, local land trusts and many others, we have protected a network of lands that provide habitat for all the iconic Colorado species that live there: elk, bear, greater sage grouse, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, mule deer, pronghorn and more. Over time, we’ve had a hand in protecting 30,000 acres, and, counting in this important area, that also provides livelihoods for centuries of ranching families.
In southwest Colorado, our work centers on water and people. With partners, we launched the Dolores River Restoration Partnership in 2009, which removed invasive species such as tamarisk and restored native habitat along 175 miles of the Dolores River. We also worked for nearly a decade on a plan to release a surge of water from the McPhee Reservoir on the Dolores River to mimic spring flows on the river. The plan for the release was born from many years of discussions between TNC and its partners: water managers, government agencies, and conservation and boating organizations.
Building on the History of Our Success
As we look back on these great successes, we are inspired to look ahead and dream of what we can achieve in the future. We have ambitious goals, driven by the urgency of the need for durable, scalable and transformative climate solutions. Our story is one of continual evolution and growth.
With a legacy of success and a strong foundation of supporters like you, we can continue to shape the future for Colorado and beyond.