Land trusts consolidate conservation efforts

A new sign displays the new name for the consolidated operations of what formerly were the Mesa Land Trust and Black Canyon Regional Land Trust. 
The staff includes, from left, Executive Director Rob Bleiberg and Mary Hughes, Ilana Moir and Libby Collins. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)
A new sign displays the new name for the consolidated operations of what formerly were the Mesa Land Trust and Black Canyon Regional Land Trust. 
The staff includes, from left, Executive Director Rob Bleiberg and Mary Hughes, Ilana Moir and Libby Collins. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

It’s not so much a question for Rob Bleiberg of whether or not growth will come to Western Colorado, but when and how much.

It’s also question, Bleiberg believes, of accommodating growth while protecting the very things that attract people to the region — scenic beauty, wildlife and outdoor recreation.

“How do we grow and protect the special places we want to call home?” asked Bleiberg, executive director of what’s now called the Colorado West Land Trust based in Grand Junction.

The recent consolidation of the Mesa Land Trust and Black Canyon Regional Land Trust into the Colorado West Land Trust constitutes part of the answer, Bleiberg said.

The Colorado West Land Trust will offer not only a more regional approach, but also a more efficient operation that takes advantage of a consolidated staff and economies of scale, he said.

The consolidation has been under consideration for two years as the two groups have explored ways to work more closely together, Bleiberg said. The fit is a good one, he said, because the two groups share the same mission in conserving land through conservation easements — binding agreements with willing property owners that preclude development.

Since the Mesa Land Trust was founded in 1980, the group has conserved a total of more than 65,000 acres through 200 easements. That includes land in Glade Park and the Plateau Valley as well as farms and open spaces in the Grand Valley.

The Mesa Land Trust also was involved in efforts to conserve the Three Sisters, an area in the Grand Valley named for three hills that rise in front of the Colorado National Monument. A conservation easement prevents certain types of development and deeds ownership of the property to the City of Grand Junction. The city and U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversee the use of the property for mountain biking, hiking and environmental education.

A trail is expected to open in June 2019 connecting the Colorado Riverfront Trail and downtown Grand Junction to the Three Sisters and nearby Lunch Loop trail systems. Great Outdoors Colorado awarded a grant worth more than $1.5 million to help fund the project.

The Black Canyon Regional Land Trust based in Montrose has conserved a total of about 55,000 acres through more than 300 transactions since its inception in 2000.

Together, the Mesa Land Trust and Black Canyon Regional Land Trust have conserved more than 80,000 acres of natural habitat that includes winter range for elk as well as 20,000 acres of irrigated farmland and nearly 2,000 acres of orchards.

“Pick a beautiful area that you love,” Bleiberg said of the combined conservation efforts. “It’s pretty amazing the scope and breadth of the lands that have been conserved by the two groups.”

The consolidated land trust operates in a region that extends from the Book Cliffs south to the San Juan Mountains and Utah border east to the Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River. That area includes all or parts of Mesa and Montrose counties as well as Delta, Gunnison, Ouray and San Miguel counties.

“We think it makes sense to look at conservation across the region,” Bleiberg said.

The Colorado Land Trust will continue to operate two offices with a staff of six in Grand Junction and two in Montrose. The two entities remain separate corporations, but share a name and resources. The staff works for Colorado West Land Trust. Members of the boards of the two land trusts serve on the Colorado West Land Trust board.

The consolidation offers efficiencies and savings and, in turn, creates a more sustainable operation, Bleiberg said.

Those advantages likely will prove important as the Colorado West Land Trust continues to work to conserve agricultural lands, scenic areas and wildlife habitat in the face of what’s projected will be substantial growth.

According to the state demographer’s office, 2 million people are expected relocate to Colorado over the next 25 years. Growth will occur not only along the Front Range, but also the Western Slope, Bleiberg said.

If anything, the growing population and traffic congestion along the Front Range could prompt even more people to relocate to Western Colorado, he said.

Mesa County is expected to grow the equivalent of another city the size of Grand Junction. Montrose Country will add the equivalent of another Montrose. Delta County will add the equivalent of the Delta along with the towns of Hotchkiss and Paonia, he said.

That makes it important to identify those areas where it makes sense for growth to occur, Bleiberg said. There are areas better suited for development than conservation — places in or near urban settings with access to needed infrastructure, for example. In those situations, conservation easements might not be a good idea, he said. “We do say no.”

But it’s also critical to identify those areas with important attributes that should be conserved, he added.

Tourism, outdoor recreation, fishing and hunting all constitute important components of the regional economy that depend on scenic vistas, open spaces and wildlife habitat, he said. The agriculture industry similarly depends on the ongoing availability for land for farms, orchards and ranches.

Moreover, the quality of life that makes Western Colorado an attractive place to live can’t be separated from the landscape, Bleiberg said. “This what we love about living here and makes this place so special.”

For more information about the Colorado West Land Trust, call 263-5443 or log on to the website at www.cowestlandtrust.org.