June 22, 2022

Conservation Milestone in Colorado’s San Luis Valley

Sandhill crane
Sandhill crane
Photography | Daniel D. Auria

In Colorado’s high San Luis Valley, Western Rivers Conservancy recently completed its effort to conserve Olguin Ranch—1,180 acres of prime fish and wildlife habitat along the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers. Our protection of the ranch puts an exclamation point on nearly a decade of work in the valley, where WRC and our partners have been preserving habitat and connecting people and communities to the Rio Grande and its tributaries.

Just below its headwaters, the Rio Grande winds through the San Luis Valley, a region where birds outnumber people and small family farms are a way of life. Olguin Ranch lies near the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Conejos River and was a critical part of WRC’s effort to create the 17,019-acre San Luis Hills State Wildlife Area in 2018. In order to create the wildlife area, WRC had to purchase two properties—the larger Brownie Hills property on the east side of the Rio Grande and the Olguin Ranch, which controlled crucial access to the river. The ranch is also a block of superb habitats in and of itself, with willow thickets, a cottonwood gallery forest and slough wetlands that support diverse bird life.

While creating the state wildlife area, WRC partnered with the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust to place a conservation easement on the remainder of Olguin Ranch, ensuring the property will remain intact and undeveloped. We then donated an additional, smaller conservation easement on the ranch to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, thereby establishing the country’s 567th unit of the National Wildlife Refuge system: the San Luis Valley Conservation Area. With it now in place, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is poised to protect 530,000 acres in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. That will mean more fish and wildlife habitat protected and increased recreational access for people in an area where access has long been limited.

Conejos River, Photo by Russ Schnitzer

Finally, in late 2021, WRC dropped the last piece of the Olguin Ranch puzzle into place by selling the land itself, with the ranch’s habitat protected through a conservation easement, to a buyer who shares WRC’s long-term vision. Now, the Olguin Ranch joins a mosaic of protected areas in the San Luis Valley, including the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, the Rio Grande Natural Area and the Bureau of Land Management’s McIntyre-Simpson Wetlands Area. The fact that we were able to conserve this piece of the valley while preserving the property’s legacy as a working ranch ensures that people are winners in this effort as well.

Now complete, this project wraps up our multiyear effort alongside the LOR Foundation, Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust and Colorado Open Lands to expand conservation in the San Luis Valley while preserving the area’s rich cultural heritage and enhancing livability for people. These efforts included our creation of the San Luis Hills State Wildlife Area; two projects on the Rio de los Pinos; one near the old Freemon General Store, near the town of Creede; and the creation of the Alamosa Riparian Park.

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