Keeping a treasured San Luis Valley landscape permanently protected
In spring 2021, Western Rivers Conservancy began a partnership with the Colorado State Land Board (SLB) with the goal of permanently protecting one of the most important landscapes in the San Luis Valley: the 45,650-acre La Jara Basin property. Centered at La Jara Creek, the property is surrounded by public lands, including the Rio Grande National Forest, BLM land, wilderness and several Colorado State Wildlife Areas.
The La Jara is one of the San Luis Valley’s great natural, cultural and community treasures, a vast swath of public land with all the benefits that conservation landscapes provide—from recreation to seasonal grazing, to the climate benefits of intact open space and free-flowing streams. It is also home to important Native American and cultural sites, some dating back to the earliest signs of human habitation in North America.
Because of the La Jara Basin’s importance as protected, intact open space, it no longer meets the objectives of the SLB’s mission. Aware of WRC’s conservation work across the state, especially in the San Luis Valley, the land board approached WRC to help deliver a conservation solution for this important place. WRC has since assembled a diverse partnership of state and federal natural resource land management agencies to initiate a strategy for public acquisition of the property that will permanently protect it and keep it open to all.
Preserving habitat, history, recreation and legacy land use
For WRC, the great value of the La Jara Basin is its relationship to the upper Rio Grande, the lifeline of the San Luis Valley. More than 30 miles of perennial cold-water streams flow through the property, including La Jara Creek, Jim Creek and Torsido Creek, all tributaries to the Conejos River and the Rio Grande. Jim and Torsido creeks support populations of Rio Grande cutthroat trout (a Colorado Species of Special Concern), and the property provides critical winter range for large ungulates like elk, bighorn sheep and mule deer. The 635-acre La Jara Reservoir, which is located within the property, is managed as a State Wildlife Area by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The La Jara Basin is extremely important to the people of the San Luis Valley, including some of Colorado’s most underserved communities. For centuries, people have utilized the property for hunting and fishing, and local families have leased parts of the La Jara for seasonal grazing for as many as six generations. Looking further back, research on the eastern flank of the property has uncovered hundreds of archaeological sites and isolated finds, including a site known as La Botica, or “the pharmacy.” Eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, the site contains evidence of 8,000 years of medicinal plant gathering.
WRC is uniquely positioned to deliver the conservation outcomes that the SLB, our agency partners and the communities of the San Luis Valley seek. For nearly a decade, we have been working in partnership with local organizations to protect habitat and public access in the San Luis Valley. WRC also recently wrapped up a four-year conservation initiative in the valley in partnership with the LOR Foundation, Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust and Colorado Open Lands. Now, we have the tremendous opportunity to build on these efforts and ensure the lasting protection of the vast and vulnerable landscape of the La Jara Basin.
WRC's efforts in the San Luis Valley
WRC’s work in the La Jara Basin is part of our broader efforts in the San Luis Valley, where we are conserving increasingly rare intact habitat along the upper Rio Grande and its tributaries, while providing much-needed public access to this great western river and the streams that feed it.
In 2015, we created the San Luis Valley Conservation Fund in partnership with the LOR Foundation and our local partners Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust and Colorado Open Lands. The Fund was 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 included a $2-million re-granting program called the San Luis Valley Conservation and Connection Initiative, which supported local conservation organizations and helped ensure healthy futures for the cultures and communities that the Rio Grande has sustained for generations.
To date, our work in the San Luis Valley includes creating the San Luis Hills State Wildlife Area; conserving Olguin Ranch; creating the Alamosa Riparian Park; conserving a reach of the main-stem Rio Grande and; protecting two properties on the Rio de los Pinos.