January 30, 2002
The Nature Conservancy signed an agreement to purchase the approximately 97,000-acre Baca Ranch, which borders the Great Sand Dunes National Monument and Preserve in the San Luis Valley, northeast of Alamosa, Colo. The agreement was made possible through interim financing provided by a consortium of private, state and federal partners.
The purchase price is $31.28 million, making it The Nature Conservancy’s most expensive acquisition ever in the Rocky Mountain West.
At just over 151 square miles, the Baca Ranch ranges in elevation from 7,500 feet on the valley floor to 14,165 feet at the top of Kit Carson Peak.
The signing of the purchase agreement to acquire the Baca Ranch is the first of a complex set of transactions that, by 2005, is expected to result in the establishment of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the creation of a new national wildlife refuge and significant additions to the Rio Grande National Forest. Completion of the sale is contingent upon the resolution of outstanding litigation involving the current owners.
Financing was provided through an existing $10.2 million appropriation from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, a $7 million low-interest loan from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a $5 million partial purchase by the Colorado State Land Board, a $3 million loan from the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund and private fundraising by The Nature Conservancy. Through the efforts of U.S. Senator Wayne Allard, additional funds to support acquisition of land for the new park are expected from Yale University, one of the principal investors in the partnership that currently owns the ranch.
The agreement was more than five years in the making,
“The Baca Ranch purchase is the largest land preservation effort in our state’s history,” says Colorado Governor Bill Owens said. “But in fact, this represents much more than land preservation. This finally ends speculation over the transfer of San Luis Valley water to the Front Range. The acquisition represents the permanent preservation of the history, culture and way of life of the entire San Luis Valley.”
Until approximately $21 million in federal appropriations are secured, enabling the ranch to be transferred fully to public ownership, the ranch will be jointly held by The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Colorado State Land Board. To complete the transfer, those funds, expected to come from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, must be secured by the end of 2005.
According to The Nature Conservancy, once federal appropriations have been secured, the ranch will be transferred to the U.S. National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. Parts of the ranch will be transferred from the NPS to the U.S. Forest Service for inclusion in the Rio Grande National Forest.
The law creating the new national park, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000, became law in November of 2000. The law allows national park status to be granted to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument only upon acquisition of the Baca Ranch by the federal government.
The purchase of the Baca Ranch — also known as the Luis Maria Baca Grant No. 4, an 1824 Mexican land grant — and associated water rights is important because a significant portion of the dunes occur within the boundaries of the ranch, and streams and wetlands on the ranch play a role in the creation and preservation of the dunes. Acquisition of the water rights ensures that the ranch’s water will remain available to sustain the dunes ecosystem.
The Nature Conservancy’s 100,000-acre Medano-Zapata Ranch, adjacent to the Baca Ranch and the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, is home to nearly 2,000 bison, large herds of elk and significant bird populations. Several plant and animal species found at Great Sand Dunes National Monument, and on the Baca and Medano-Zapata ranches – including the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle – are found nowhere else in the world.