Stories in Colorado

35 Years of Conservation in the Laramie Foothills

A pronghorn standing on a grass hill with a rainbow in the background.

Pronghorn at Phantom Canyon Pronghorn at Phantom Canyon preserve in Northeast CO. © Carly Voight/TNC

It started with a small, yellow flower found almost nowhere else on Earth. Growing along the rocky canyon walls, this rare flower—Larimer aletes—was one of the original reasons for The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to conserve Phantom Canyon 35 years ago. But as science and conservation evolved, this place became a catalyst for a new scale of conservation: looking at the landscape beyond the borders of a single property.

A green shrub growing on the side of a rock.
Larimer Aletes This flower is endemic to the Colorado Front Range and thrives along rocky canyon walls. © Anya Byers/TNC
A green and yellow plant under a protective wire netting.
Close monitoring The aletes does not produce flowers or seeds in dry years - a rare life history trait and one reason that TNC monitors the plant populations very closely over time. © Kevin Grunewald/TNC
Larimer Aletes This flower is endemic to the Colorado Front Range and thrives along rocky canyon walls. © Anya Byers/TNC
Close monitoring The aletes does not produce flowers or seeds in dry years - a rare life history trait and one reason that TNC monitors the plant populations very closely over time. © Kevin Grunewald/TNC

More nature is just a click away

Updates from the conservation world & how you can get involved.

Sign up for Nature News

“In the early 1990s, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Colorado was starting to look beyond the boundaries of the properties that we owned to understand the impacts of conservation in a larger landscape,” says Nancy Fishbein, director of resilient lands. 

Phantom Canyon was the focal point for conservation efforts that grew to include over 140,000 acres of land in the Laramie Foothills. Alongside partners, including local governments, land trusts, landowners and supporters, we collectively connected a landscape stretching from the mountains to the plains.

The Conservation Story

The Laramie Foothills stretch northwest of Fort Collins to the Rocky Mountains and into Wyoming. The foothills were created by the merging of two great landforms, which gave rise to a rich and complex interface where red-rock outcrops and mesas emerge from expansive grasslands. The resulting mosaic of vegetation communities and landforms is a fertile place, rich in human history and host to an incredible diversity of plants, animals and natural communities.

Laramie Foothills Conservation (3:12) The Nature Conservancy's purchase of Phantom Canyon in the Laramie Foothills changed the way the Conservancy approached land protection, growing our work from conserving small swaths of land to larger landscape conservation goals.

Phantom Canyon first caught TNC’s eye for its rare plants and diverse array of wildlife, as well as its role as a connecting point for wildlife to move from the mountains to the plains. TNC purchased its 1,120 acres in 1987. After the purchase of Phantom Canyon, we began building a vision for community-based conservation, developing projects with private landowners, public land management agencies, non-profits and government agencies, including Larimer County, the City of Fort Collins, and the local land trust.

Phantom Canyon

One of the last remaining roadless canyons on the Front Range.

A blue river is flowing through a canyon next to yellow wildflowers.
A man is standing in a river fly fishing.
A snake is laying on a rock in the sun.
A truck is parked in snow with a cabin behind it.
Wildflowers are dispersed in a grass field.
A rainbow in the sky with a canyon below.
A group of pronghorn are standing on a grass hill.
Three birds are perched on top of a snowy tree.
A wide river is flowing between a canyon.
A landscape shot of a grass field.

“At that time, there was a massive exurban explosion of people, and we were losing a lot of working rural lands to exurban development,” explains Heather Knight, of Natural Conservation Solutions, LLC, who was TNC’s Phantom Canyon steward for over 20 years.

A woman describing the nature behind her in a canyon to four people.
Stewardship Heather Knight was TNC's Phantom Canyon steward for over 20 years. © Heather Knight/TNC

"[Unmanaged development] fragments the landscape and we lose lands for wildlife, enjoyment, healthy water, food and so on. When everything was under a lot of pressure to grow and change, people collectively saw a common need and an opportunity to work together and achieve something greater than if we were at odds with each other".

This committed group of partners successfully conserved many places in the Laramie Foothills and advocated for policies to fund conservation. In 2004 Great Outdoors Colorado funded the Mountains to Plains Project, an $11.6 million request with a projected local match of $13.7 million—the largest-ever GOCO grant at the time. Over the years, these partnerships and projects protected more than 140,000 acres of land in the area.

“The advisory group would often meet at my house, and we’d have people all together, looking at maps, discussing things that were really challenges,” remembers Knight. “People were willing to sit beside each other and set aside their own individual needs for a while to think about how we make this place better.” 

These efforts stitched together a vast, conserved landscape that literally connects the mountains to the plains and provides a vital corridor for wildlife movement along the rapidly developing Front Range.

Quote: Heather Knight

At the beginning Phantom Canyon was just one small piece, but it became a springboard for something much larger than itself.

A group of people picking up trash by a river.
Working with Partners Each year, students with The Greenway Foundation join TNC and Wildlands Restoration Volunteers for a day of trail work and canyon enjoyment. © Kevin Grunewald/TNC

Visiting the Laramie Foothills

You can visit the Laramie Foothills today to see the legacy of this conservation work. Places like the Soapstone Prairie and Red Mountain Ranch are open to the public. Keep an eye out for birds, wildlife, and dramatic skies as you explore these places that have been protected for the future.

The work that TNC and our partners do in this area continues as well. Each year, we host hundreds of visitors at our Phantom Canyon preserve, including fishers, interns, scientists, volunteers, students, birding and plant interest groups, and more. In the summer, students with The Greenway Foundation join TNC and Wildlands Restoration Volunteers for a day of trail work and canyon enjoyment.

As one student said on this year’s trip, "I think my favorite thing about Phantom Canyon is that you never finish getting to know the place. Being here for three years has definitely changed my view, and I had never seen most of the things I got to see this time." - River Rangers participant

Growing Phantom Canyon’s resiliency into the future

We continue to conduct monitoring and research in the area. Our former Phantom Canyon steward, Kevin Grunewald, explains, “Being out here makes us aware and connected with the issues that are happening. We have a close understanding of the ecological health of the area.”

For example, golden eagles are frequently spotted nesting in Phantom Canyon. They tend to return to the same place year after year, as they mate for life and live for an average of 20 years. Several years ago, bald eagles were spotted using a golden eagle nest. TNC set up a wildlife camera where people around the world could watch the bald eagles raise their young. Both types of eagles still nest in and around the canyon today, a good indicator that this place has enough space and prey to support these big predators.

Wildlife at Phantom Canyon Preserve (1:56) From bears to mountain lions, elk to bighorns and beyond, wildlife are constantly roaming around The Nature Conservancy's Phantom Canyon Preserve in Colorado. Check out this footage captured on TNC's trail cameras around the preserve.

TNC staff and volunteers are working on reintroducing the natural ecological processes of grazing and fire, restoring the prairie through seed collecting, planting and invasive weed management, and creating partnerships within the local community to promote conservation through easements and best management practices.

The lessons learned from this conservation story still impact our work today. Now, TNC’s focus is on conserving resilient, connected landscapes—places that provide core conservation areas with connecting corridors for wildlife adaptation and movement in a changing climate. 

Quote: Nancy Fishbein

Connectivity is an essential part of building resiliency, and now that we are feeling the impacts of climate change places like the Laramie Foothills are even more critical.

TNC CO Director of Resilient Lands

The Laramie Foothills was one of the first places in Colorado where TNC saw the potential to make a bigger difference by looking beyond the fences of a single property and connecting to the lands around it. As science and conservation changed together over time, research supported the idea that species need large, connected landscapes and room to roam.

“This was part of the evolution of conservation,” says Fishbein.