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 a swift descent from its headwaters, the river enters the high San Luis Valley, where it forms channel-meanders, lush wetlands and vibrant riparian habitat. Although much of the lower Rio Grande has been diverted or impounded by dams, extensive reaches of the upper river remain critical to imperiled fish and wildlife and offer excellent recreation opportunities. In these upper reaches, Western Rivers Conservancy is working on multiple projects to purchase and protect over seven miles of riverfront and riparian habitat along the Rio Grande.
In 2016, WRC purchased two San Luis Valley properties: the 17,019-acre Brownie Hills property and the 1,167-acre Olguin Ranch. Both 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.
Acquiring these properties will allow us to conserve 18,349 acres along four miles of the Rio Grande and a crucial reach of the Conejos River, where it flows into the mainstem Rio Grande. Our efforts will preserve an important stretch of the Rio Grande in an area that has lost significant fish and wildlife habitat, and where precious little riverfront is accessible to the public. We will conserve prime habitat for endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and threatened yellow-billed cuckoo, as well as bald eagle and great numbers of waterfowl, including teal, mallard and Canada goose.
The wet meadows, river oxbows and riparian corridors of the Rio Grande floodplain provide crucial feeding, resting and breeding habitat for over 200 bird species. Because the San Luis Valley sits at the western edge of the Central Flyway, thousands of birds, including 95 percent of the Rocky Mountain’s sandhill cranes, migrate through the valley. Rocky Mountain elk, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyote, porcupine, beaver, endangered Mexican jumping mouse and large concentrations of bald eagles all inhabit the area.
Three imperiled fish species are found in the upper Rio Grande. Rio Grande cutthroat trout inhabit the mountainous reaches, while Rio Grande chub and Rio Grande sucker inhabit the warmer, slower reaches within the valley. All three are listed as sensitive species. Acquiring the Brownie Hills property will allow for restoration of fish habitat, including undercut banks, plant debris, pools, runs and riffles.
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 on the valley floor. Costilla County, where the project lands are located, is Colorado’s poorest county and contains virtually no public land or river access. WRC’s acquisition represents the most important public access project in the San Luis Valley today.
Upstream, roughly 20 mile from the town of Creede, Colorado, WRC acquired a 92-acre property that will create the only legal resting spot for boaters along an otherwise private, eight-mile stretch of the Rio Grande. The acquisition also creates new walk-in access to an area with excellent trout fishing, just off the Silver Thread Scenic Byway. The property lies between the Weminuche Wilderness and the scenic byway, where Texas Creek and Spring Creek flow into the Rio Grande. By partnering with the Rio Grande National Forest, we will place a key piece of land into public hands and ensure boaters and anglers have a half-mile refuge where they can stop their boats and put their feet on the banks of the Rio Grande without trespassing.
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
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.