A more than 700-acre property northeast of Durango has been placed in a conservation easement, seen as a huge win for protecting not only wildlife habitat, but also the city of Durango’s drinking water supply.
La Plata Open Space Conservancy announced this week the permanent protections for the Florida River Ranch property, which is near the western intersection of Florida Road (County Road 240) and County Road 245.
“This is an incredibly biodiverse property that could otherwise be a prime development opportunity for large mountain homes and the like,” Christy Curd, with the conservancy, said in a statement. “This property preserves a classic Southwest Colorado rural landscape, and that is priceless.”
The property has been jointly owned by the Parker and Sisk families for 40 years. While the land has been used for grazing, timber sales and recreation, the two families realized they wanted long-term conservation measures to quell any concerns about future development.
“One thing that happens to ranch land all over the West is it’s difficult to keep it in the family and used for agricultural purposes, just because of all the pressures for development,” said Tom Sisk. “But we’re in a fortunate position where a large group over three generations all had the same shared values.”
A conservation easement essentially is an agreement with a property owner in which the owner agrees to limit development on the land to benefit things such as scenic quality and wildlife habitat. In return, the property receives a tax advantage.
The easement, it should be noted, does not provide public access, but instead protects open space and a public viewshed in an area that faced development pressure.
Pamela Parker Jones said she hopes the conservation of the Florida River Ranch inspires neighbors along the Florida River corridor to do the same.
“We’re hoping this might inspire nearby properties to do the same, so that we keep the entire corridor from being overdeveloped,” she said.
The benefit of protecting the Florida River Ranch appears twofold: conserving wildlife habitat and migration corridors, as well as the city of Durango’s water supply from the Florida River.
Colorado Open Lands, which helped with the conservation easement, said the ranch connects public lands on Missionary Ridge with lands near Vosburg Pike, south of Florida Road.
“Elk, mule deer and others use the lands as corridors for seasonal movements, and many characteristic species, including wild turkeys, Lewis’s woodpeckers and tiger salamanders are found on the property,” Colorado Open Lands said in a statement.
A request for comment to Colorado Parks and Wildlife was not returned.
The property also protects about a half-mile of the Florida River, immediately upstream of the city of Durango’s drinking-water diversion structure, “making this project a true asset to our community,” the conservancy said.
The city of Durango gets the majority of its water supply from the Florida River, which comes out of Lemon Reservoir, about 18 miles northeast of Durango.
When needed, the city has the ability to also draw from the Animas River.
The city’s diversion structure that pipes water out of the Florida River over to the city’s reservoir near Fort Lewis College is located along Florida Road, just west of the turnoff for County Road 245.
“It’s nice to know no additional development will happen on that piece of property above our intake,” said the city’s assistant utilities director Jarrod Biggs.
Biggs said when planning for protecting a water supply, water managers are looking at a number of risks, including wildfire damage and potential pollutants going into the river.
“With less development, that means there’s less of those opportunities to foul that supply,” Biggs said.
Ben Lenth, a community conservation program manager for Colorado Open Lands, said private lands are often the most important places for wildlife, agricultural production, water resources and other ecological benefits.
“And that is certainly the case here,” he said. “This conservation easement will keep the property in an open and natural condition, forever, while providing the flexibility the landowners need for their long-term ownership.