by Larry Calloway
The Crestone community’s wild front yard—the Baca National Wildlife Refuge—is becoming more public-friendly after 12 years of protective isolation. A visitor center should be open to the public by this time next year, and members of Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges are organizing a local support group.
Refuge Manager Ron Garcia disclosed in an interview that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has allocated more than $600,000 for immediate construction that will combine offices, artifact archives and an exhibition hall. The 2,500-square-foot center will be adjacent to the historic buildings of the former Baca ranch headquarters in a grove of cottonwoods five minutes from Crestone.
Peter Schlegel, the Crestone-area member of the Friends board, said potential volunteer efforts include informing visitors, researching history of the ranch, preserving buildings, and assisting biological and archeological surveys of the 92,500-acre property. Schlegel, a retired mechanical engineer, said it makes sense to become a Friend “since we live so close and since it is our front yard.” And, it’s a way to influence the future of the refuge and “develop a relationship with the management.”
In another development that could come to fruition by next year, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council is trying to work out an exchange in which the privately owned mineral rights on the refuge would be retired. Lexam, a Canadian company now known as VG Gold, bought the rights before the refuge was created by Congress under the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of November 2000. Council director Christine Canaly said U.S. Sen. Mark Udall is playing a pivotal role in a possible exchange of the rights for property elsewhere. This would settle an environmental lawsuit regarding Lexam’s proposal to drill for oil and gas in the refuge.
The Baca land title originates with an act of Congress in 1860 granting descendants of Luis Maria Baca five land grants in the Southwest in exchange for what is now the city of East Las Vegas, NM. The Colorado location, grant No. 4, where creeks from the Crestone group of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains poured into the San Luis Valley, went to the lawyer who lobbied the legislation, and it became a wealthy ranch with easy railroad access and a reputation for fine Hereford cattle.
Garcia said the preliminary design for the visitor center reflects features of the historic ranch buildings, which would be preserved. The elevation for the entry side on the west, for example, shows a long porch with unique tapered wood pillars similar to those on one of the earliest historic buildings. The exhibit hall drawing features a low bay window in the form of the one on the main ranch house. From the site already staked out there is an unobstructed view of the high mountains. “A big part of it will be the vistas,” Garcia said.
What he called “a significant collection of artifacts that came off the ranch” is in private hands, but there is a good chance it will be donated if the Baca refuge provides adequate storage facilities. Thus, the third part of the construction project.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is in the middle of a four-year process of adopting a long-term “comprehensive conservation plan” for all three San Luis Valley refuges. So the Baca will not be fully accessible until the management plan is complete in early 2015. But Garcia said the ranch headquarters and some of the environment around it will be accessible when the visitor center is open in, hopefully, October 2013.
“The purpose of the refuge is wildlife, but a lot of the wildlife here developed over a century and a quarter of ranching,” Garcia said. So to avoid any abrupt changes in the ecosystem, the ranch still has irrigated hayfields and grazing for about 500 cattle. “It’s important that we not lose the ranch history of this place.”
Wild mammals include several thousand elk, which are threatening the riparian areas, plus antelope, coyotes and Gunnison prairie dogs. Unlike the Alamosa and Monte Vista refuges, the Baca does not have thousands of periodic migratory birds, but it is in an interesting transition zone between the mountains and the valley. Birds include pretty Western Tanagers and Orioles as well as jays of the pinyon-juniper forest. And there are predatory kestrel, peregrine and prairie falcons, Swainson’s, Ferruginous and red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles.
Among reptiles there are bull snakes and garter snakes but no rattlesnakes (because of the sand, Garcia says). Some interesting amphibians include Great Plains and spade-foot toads, chorus frogs, tiger salamanders and, “We think we have leopard frogs.” The refuge hopes to provide opportunities for visitors to see unusual fish: the Rio Grande Sucker, which is on the state endangered species list, and the Rio Grande chub, a “species of concern.”
To join the Friends, send a check with the annual dues ($15 individuals, $20 families, $10 students and seniors over 62) to Friends of the SLV National Wildlife Refuges at P.O. Box 857, Monte Vista, CO 81144. Membership includes subscription to a newsletter which, among other things, publishes the annual Christmas bird count.
Garcia seconded Schlegel’s invitation in these words: “It’s an opportunity to take a little greater degree of ownership in national wildlife refuges by participating in events that support the refuge.” Events include not only the historical and archeological, but also field work like placing and monitoring bluebird and bat houses or joining work days when members “do everything from taking down fence to painting buildings,” the manager said.
And, Garcia added, “We do offer the Friends group special tours—stuff that would not ordinarily be offered.”