One of the West’s most iconic rivers, the Rio Grande flows nearly 2,000 miles from Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. After its swift descent from the San Juans, the river enters the high San Luis Valley, where it forms channel-meanders, wetlands and vibrant riparian habitat. Although much of the lower river has been diverted or dammed, extensive reaches of the upper river remain critical to imperiled fish and wildlife and offer excellent recreation opportunities.
With an average elevation of 7,664 feet, the San Luis Valley is one of Colorado’s natural and cultural treasures. It sits at the western edge of the Central Flyway, and the wet meadows, river oxbows and riparian corridors of the Rio Grande floodplain provide crucial habitat for over 200 bird species, including 95 percent of the Rocky Mountain’s sandhill cranes. Cutthroat trout inhabit the river’s mountainous stretches, and Rio Grande chub and Rio Grande sucker inhabit the valley’s slower reaches. All three fish are listed as sensitive species.
The San Luis Valley is also rich in human history, inhabited first by the Ute Indians and later by Mexican and white settlers. Today, a significant portion of the valley’s residents are Hispanic, and descendants of Mexican settlers still practice communal acequia irrigation.
In the heart of San Luis Valley, Western Rivers Conservancy is working to protect tens of thousands of acres along the Rio Grande and key tributaries like the Conejos and Rio de Los Pinos. In 2018, we created the San Luis Hills State Wildlife Area, conserving 17,019 acres of open space along 4.5 miles of the Rio Grande in Costilla County. The effort created new recreational access to the Rio Grande in a county with almost no public land or river access. We continue our effort to conserve the 1,330-acre Olguin Ranch, immediately across the Rio Grande from the new state wildlife area. Both properties lie within the congressionally designated Rio Grande Natural Area, between the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge and New Mexico’s Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River corridor. Together, the proejcts will conserve exceptional wetlands, riparian habitat and Critical Habitat for endangered southwestern willow fly catcher.
Upstream, we are working to conserve 638 acres along a prime reach of the Rio de Los Pinos, where we will create new access to exceptional fly fishing water just off Hwy 17, near Cumbres Pass. We completed the first phase of this effort in 2017.
On the outskirts of the city of Alamosa, we recently acquired a property to preserve 180 acres of the Chefas family ranch with the goal of anchoring the city's park and trail system to this stunning stretch of the river. Currently, the residents of Alamosa have little access to the Rio Grande, which flows through the city's backyard. We are now working to convey the lanes to the city of Alamosa for protection as open space and wildlife habitat within the city’s park system.
The San Luis Valley Conservation Fund
In 2015, WRC, the LOR Foundation, Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust and Colorado Open Lands created the San Luis Valley Conservation Fund. The Fund is a collaborative effort to bolster local conservation efforts in Colorado’s scenic San Luis Valley and to preserve the region’s rich cultural heritage, all while enhancing livability for Valley communities. The fund includes a $2-million re-granting program called the San Luis Valley Conservation and Connection Initiative. The program will support local conservation organizations and ensure healthy futures for the culture and communities that the Rio Grande has sustained for generations.
October 4, 2017
Intermountain West Joint Venture
July 17, 2016
The Pueblo Chieftain
November 17, 2015
The Pueblo Chieftain
April 19, 2017
July 18, 2016
June 21, 2016
November 3, 2015
Apr 6, 2018
In the heart of the San Luis Valley, a new state wildlife area now protects 17,019 acres of public open space along the Rio Grande, as well as outstanding habitat for fish and wildlife, thanks to the efforts of Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC) and its partners Costilla County, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), the LOR Foundation and Colorado Open Lands.
Nov 9, 2017
This arcticle ran on October 4, 2017 online at Intermountain West Joint Venture.
As a kid growing up in the San Luis Valley, Brian Bechaver, now a district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, had free run of his family’s ranch, plus the sagebrush and riverside cottonwood groves on neighboring ranches, too. Over several decades he’s watched familiar agricultural land go up for sale and end up in hands that might not continue the access-friendly neighbor practices of the past.
But at least a few of the ranches Bechaver roamed will always be open to everyone. In 2016, with the goal of protecting prime fish and wildlife habitat and improving public access, the non-profit Western Rivers Conservancy purchased the Brownie Hills and Olguin Ranch properties in the San Luis Valley.
Mar 27, 2017
Deepening our commitment to Colorado’s San Luis Valley and the upper Rio Grande, Western Rivers Conservancy is preparing to purchase 368 acres along the Rio de los Piños. This high-elevation trout stream flows from nearly 10,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains and descends swiftly toward the San Luis Valley. Below Cumbres Pass, just off the Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway, the river enters a high plateau and slows to a picture-perfect, meandering trout stream, surrounded by open meadows and mixed conifer forests of spruce and fir.