Digging Deep

Holistic approaches to land management could sustain land, water and wildlife into the future

Their methods are as diverse as the problems they are trying solve, yet the desired result is constant:keep the water flowing to keep life on the land. In the San Luis Valley, land managers face water shortages and environmental changes that could not only hinder the future of local agriculture, but also affect the quality and availability of wetlands and wildlife habitat.

In the foothills and mountainous regions to the east and west of the valley, decades of natural forest fire suppression have led to conditions now primed for massive, unpredictable burns. And along the southern reaches of the Rio Grande, unsupervised animal grazing is despoiling valuable riparian areas that serve as habitat for many species, including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher.

These realities have some land managers turning to both historical and innovative practices that not only preserve what lives today, but also stabilize and enrich the many ecosystems— forest, farm and ranch—that make the San Luis Valley’s precious landscape productive and full of promise for coming generations.

Beneath three 14,000-foot Sangre de Cristo mountain peaks rests the largest conservation easement in the nation. The Trinchera and Blanca ranches comprise 170,000 acres of safeguarded land near Fort Garland, and are considered the foundation for the new Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area. The conservation area, established in 2012 after the ranches’ owner Louis Bacon committed additional acres to the conservation easement, is one of the world’s longest protected wildlife corridors, expanding from southern Colorado into New Mexico.

The Trinchera Ranch was already partially protected through a Colorado Open Lands easement, and last year Bacon entered into an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue ongoing conservation efforts across the Blanca Ranch with an easement’s added protections for water rights and limits against subdivisions.

The Trinchera Ranch entered a conservation easement with Colorado Open Lands in 2004. Current ranch owner Louis Bacon added additional protections in late 2012 on the Trinchera and his adjacent Blanca Ranch. At 170,000 acres, the Trinchera Blanca Ranch is the largest contiguous ranch property in Colorado, extending to the top of one of Colorado’s highest peaks, Mt. Blanca, seen here to the right. Photo By: John Fielder

The Trinchera and Blanca ranches’ main conservation goal is to improve wildlife habitat. In cooperation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the ranches have piloted Ranching for Wildlife, a program to provide public hunting opportunities.

The ranches are managed with wildlife and the role they play in the ecosystem in mind—in part to maintain a healthy herd of 3,500 elk. But, says second-generation Trinchera Ranch manager Ty Ryland, “When we look at habitat improvement, we don’t look at just deer and elk. We look at all of the species that are on the land from an environmental standpoint. We are trying to look at it from a broad base to help everything that we can.”

That broad base leads to conservation practices that include aspen regeneration, conifer rehabilitation, 16 center pivots and 25,000 acres of flood-irrigated ground, plus stream restoration and sustainable crop rotations alongside unique habitat improvements designed to keep and attract wildlife. In addition to rotating crops, the ranch plants cover crops following its harvests. “We use those crops mainly to help retain moisture and to use as a forage for elk in the winter,” says Ryland.

Blanca Trinchera Ranch environmental manager Craig Taggart has erected fences to protect young aspen from
foraging deer and elk. Photo By: Kevin Moloney

Above the fields, Ryland has witnessed prescribed burns, used as a conservation tool both on public and private lands, slowly stabilize his forest. “Suppressing all of the fire has made the forest too thick and there are too many stems per acre,” Ryland says. “We are trying to get back to that sustainable levelwhere the trees have enough moisture to grow.”

The burns are resulting in improved habitat for antelope, deer and elk while also satisfying other ranch conservation goals, including capturing water that once flowed without direction. “We try to encourage the native grasses to grow back within those areas and it has been a great success,” Ryland says. “It has reduced our erosion on the ground by at least 80 percent, and the overland flow of water is now absorbed.”

In the heart of San Luis Valley crop country, Brendon Rockey looks out over his Center potato fields in a spring windstorm, watching his soil stick to the ground while sand stirs for miles around. It is what he expects, and he relishes in his resilient creation that is in tune with Mother Nature. For several years, he has been repairing what he views as man’s land management mistakes, which include neutralizing the soil with powerful chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

“Soil health has come in and is gaining a lot of momentum now, but all we are doing is solving the problems we created ourselves,” says Rockey, who leads the local soil health group and won the 2011 Colorado Association of Conservation Districts Conservationist of the Year award. Now, in a course correction, Rockey and others are going back to the past. “We are moving back to the way that we used to farm,” he says.

A green manure seed mix is planted, grown, then plowed under to nourish Rockey Farms’ soil. Photo By: Kevin Moloney

Rockey and his brother Sheldon practice holistic potato management, which began two generations ago with their grandfather and uncle. The practice focuses on all the living organisms in a farming system instead of just the final product or cash crop’s health and yield. It analyzes the effect of one input on the many factors that create the “whole” and aims to develop a balanced agroecosystem. Management decisions are made only after considering the impact to system components like insect populations and purpose, irrigation frequency, soil microbiology and soil structure. Specifically, Rockey Farms develops soil aggregates—clusters of bound soil particles that aid retention and exchange of air and water—through diverse microbiology and a strict irrigation regimen. If over-irrigated, the soil can become waterlogged, enabling certain pathogens and weeds to thrive in the anaerobic environment, Rockey explains.

Two major holistic management components Rockey Farms incorporates are green manure crops in the potato rotation and companion crops, like peas, in the potato fields during the growing season. “Adding companion cropping has increased the amount of carbon being added back to the soil, especially when my peas germinate and grow a whole new crop after potato harvest,” explains Rockey. And the multispecies green manure crop—which can include sudan grass, peas, common vetch, buckwheat, tillage radish, turnips and oats—out-competes weeds and also adds carbon to the soil, striking chemical products entirely from the equation.

Brendon Rockey (center) and brother Sheldon raise a variety of seed potatoes on their farm near Center, rotating their crops to maintain bio and nutrient diversity. Photo By: Kevin Moloney

“[Conventional farmers] think inorganic chemicals were the savior of agriculture,” Rockey says about modern practices blamed for weakening the soil so it cannot process nutrients or retain water. “It is actually what has led our agriculture down this downward spiral.”

With his own farm’s soil health ever improving, Rockey says that when the water stopped coming from the sky, their work had unintended yet beneficial consequences. They have reduced water use an average of 9 inches per acre compared to the conventional 15 to 22 inches for a two-year potato and grain rotation.

“Through the addition of carbon to the soil and the soil structure, we increased infiltration and water-holding capacity,” says Rockey. “When we started down this path, the water savings wasn’t a huge issue to us. Then the water savings came along, which worked out really well because we were already so far ahead of the curve when we hit a drought in the San Luis Valley.”

To the west of Center sits La Garita, a tiny town hidden off the main road in the vast high desert and nestled in the San Juan Mountain foothills. Mike Spearman, a retired rancher, has called La Garita home for more than 30 years. Today, he has the privilege of watching what was once his livelihood—the L-Cross Ranch—pass to the hands of another without fear development will devour decades of labor and love.

“The type of agriculture might change, but [the land] is still going to be in agriculture,” says Spearman, who also formerly served as Saguache County Commissioner. “You can’t take the water away from it,” he continues, explaining that the easement binds the water rights permanently to the land. “That improves the odds that the land will stay in agriculture and those special places will remain protected.”

Mike Spearman, retired L-Cross Ranch manager, helped create a conservation easement on the property near La Garita before it recently changed hands, ensuring it will remain a working ranch. Photo By: Kevin Moloney

In 1998, Spearman worked with The Nature Conservancy to place the 6,000-acre L-Cross Ranch into a conservation easement that fit the area’s unique characteristics including wildlife and people. “In this part of the world, when you ranch, you have to figure out how to do that with wildlife,” Spearman says. “You co-exist with all living things.”

The Nature Conservancy describes its easements as selectively targeting “those rights necessary to protect specific conservation values”—like Spearman’s desire to enable co-existence. The land remains in private ownership, and continues to provide economic benefits for the area in the form of jobs, economic activity and property taxes into the future. A conservation easement is legally binding, even if the property is sold
or passed on to heirs.

Outside of the conservation easement, elkand cattle co-exist with help from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management through Spearman’s implementation of a rapid rotational grazing program, a land management regimen that moves a large number of animals quickly through specified pastures. The goal is to have the animals remove a percentage of available forage in a short time, then relocate the herd to allow the grasses to recover.

“A 45-day period with no grazing allows grass to manifest itself very well,” Spearman says. “Once cattle return they love the re-growth. We validated this concept on the forest by noting that the elk were seen grazing just ahead of when the cattle were due back in the pasture.” In addition, the pasture re-growth creates a ground canopy that enables water to remain in the soil profile longer without running off.

Carnero Creek Rio Grande cutthroat trout are also recognized in Spearman’s land management plan. Their stream habitat is protected with aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a voluntary program providing financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers through contracts.
The contracts help land managers plan and implement conservation practices addressing natural resource concerns including soil, water, plant and animal resources with assistance from Natural Resources Conservation Service specialists. The practices are subject to NRCS technical standards tailored for local environments.

As of February 2013, the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher’s critical habitat spans 1,227 stream miles and 209,000 acres in six southwestern states. Photo By: Jim Rorabaugh/USFWS

The L-Cross Ranch conservation easement also designates preexisting sites called “building envelopes” that allow people to build homes in La Garita, but not too close to fragile riparian areas. “You have to have an affinity for riparian areas and how important those types of ecosystems are to us all,” Spearman explains. “Not every state has them. Gobs of things depend on that water source coming through this desert.” The easement, he adds, is one action that keeps the streams and riparian zones intact and migration corridors open.

“It is so future generations can see what the natural habitat was to begin with,” says Spearman, who is now working to put easements on other, smaller nearby ranches. “You have to have some kind of action that keeps the land from being developed.”

Far from Carnero Creek, in the southern end of the San Luis Valley, abandoned and feral horses are exhausting many natural resources on public lands and causing mixed reactions. Early in 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared parts of the San Luis Valley critical habitat for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher in spite of a costly Habitat Conservation Plan created by local entities to avoid such federal designation. The plan was crafted to protect both agriculture and the songbird, while implementing abandoned and feral horse management techniques.

The horses are a threat to the rangeland because, when left to their own devices, they can eat grasses and shrubs down to the soil and beyond. Their teeth allow them to access roots under the ground, which can enable weaker pioneer plants to propagate. The weaker plants struggle to maintain the riverbank’s integrity and permit the riverbed to recede. There is potential for improved habitat for many wildlife species if the grazing can be brought under control.

In 2006, the Rio Grande Natural Area was established to conserve, restore and protect a 33-mile stretch of the Rio Grande, including land where the abandoned horses roam. In partnership with the BLM, the area’s managers have prioritized the problem and are hoping to work with local landowners to develop solutions through education and cooperative efforts to improve management of the area.

Up the road, Ryland has observed southwestern willow flycatchers living in riparian corridors near both the Trinchera and Blanca ranches and sees opportunity to invest in the bird’s future. “It is just a matter of trying to help where we can,” Ryland says. “We do have considerable willows on the ranch, and we work to protect that species. Any of
that we can help restore—we want to.”

Ultimately, it’s that personal investment and cooperation between man and nature, public agencies and private landowners,that will ensure the region’s farms, ranches and public lands continue to thrive.