Environmental highlights of the Baca Crestone community

The Crestone Eagle • July, 2022

by Bill Sutherland, President, Crestone/Baca Land Trust

Our local environment is changing. The extreme drought has banished former wetlands and streams have atrophied. Much more space is now occupied by people, their homes, and pets. Newcomers intend to create their own history, which is as it should be. However, all of us living here have a sense that there’s a story behind the physical features and how important the surroundings have been to our choice of this as our home. I’m the long-overdue-for-replacement president of the Crestone Baca Land Trust (CBLT) and I think it’s time for the community’s environmentally concerned residents to consider some possible futures. It may be helpful to recount a bit of the community’s history of environmental activism, looking first at CBLT, originally the most prominent champion of our environment.

Land Trust created

Nearly 25 years ago CBLT had its origins from a number of conservation-oriented men and women, among them Lisa Cyriacks, Linda Eickhoff, Jim Erdman, Suzanne Frazier, Thomas Hall, Jillian Klarl, and Tom Tucker (Glider). At first they were supported through the Manitou Foundation (created with the support of Hanne Strong in 1988) and The Nature Conservancy, culminating in the granting of 501(c)3 non-profit status in 2001.

The community itself was strongly supportive as judged by the extremely positive expressions from the 888 Property Owners Association (POA) members responding to a 1998 survey, 733 of whom were not even full-time residents. The Manitou Foundation sponsored a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), awarded in the amount of $129,000 in July, 2000. Focusing on the protection of the wetlands in the lower Grants (weren’t those the days!) and the preservation of corridors for wildlife migration, a total of 177 acres were obtained by purchases with GOCO funds and through contributions by private owners and Saguache County. The newly acquired lots were placed under Conservation Easements (CEs), which among other things block development; the CEs were transferred to The Nature Conservancy in 2003.

Later that year Manitou transferred ownership of all the lots at fair market value to the POA in lieu of payment for past dues assessments. In 2005 The Nature Conservancy transferred the stewardship of the CEs to the Land Trust.

The lots that had been acquired were selected for their location along the streams and wetlands coursing through the Baca into the Wildlife Refuge (at that time the Baca Ranch). An earlier study of the area’s ecology was expanded in 2005 through a grant awarded to CBLT from the Colorado Department of Wildlife. This money allowed the Land Trust to contract with the prestigious Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP), based at Colorado State University, to conduct a biological assessment of the Baca Grande. The results of the study, published in 2006, identified the riparian (streamside) areas as supporting vulnerable and rare or uncommon occurrences of a woodland plant community (narrow-leaf cottonwood-Rocky Mountain juniper). Also, 5 animal species which are rare or uncommon live in the Baca, among the 45 species that were recorded. Increasing development and contamination from septic systems were especially identified as threats to these valued areas and to the people living there.

Awareness of the biological importance of Cottonwood and Spanish Creeks, not to mention their aesthetic values, prompted the Land Trust to continue acquiring adjacent properties. These instincts were again supported by the results of another member-survey reported in the POA Newsletter of winter, 2006. These further acquisitions by private individuals had development-limiting deed restrictions placed on them through the work of the Land Trust. It was intended by the owners that ultimately their lands would devolve to the POA to augment the community’s legacy of ecologically and aesthetically valuable lands. Much of this work was facilitated by Kim Malville, then the Land Trust’s president (and for many years now author of “Dark Skies over Crestone”).

The Land Trust itself has never aimed to be a land-owner, wanting always to pass its protected properties into the hands of the POA and then providing stewardship of them. For various reasons it was difficult for the Land Trust to actually sell the properties, but it could transfer them to another 501(c)3 non-profit. Thus it was agreed by the CBLT and POA to obtain 501(c)3 status for the POA. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was unanimously approved by the POA Board on 6/5/2006 and signed by the president of the Land Trust and General Manager of the POA on 6/15/2006. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the POA ever made an effort to achieve its part of the agreement, nor was any explanation for this dereliction ever forthcoming.

Protecting riparian areas

In the next years more lots were acquired to protect the riparian areas. With the expiration of the MOU with the POA, Land Trust properties became liable for dues. To solve this impossible-to-bear expense, the Land Trust negotiated with the POA to be relieved of dues if the properties were re-zoned as Open Space by Saguache County. This was achieved and in July, 2008, the POA Board of Directors unanimously approved Diane Dunlap’s motion to have the Association waive the annual dues in perpetuity. Two additional lots were acquired by the Land Trust for the community, re-zoned as Open Space, and similarly processed by the County and the POA Board. The fact that the County waived its taxes and the POA agreed to waive their dues assessments enabled the Land Trust to accept the properties, thereby adding to the POA’s valuable open space. Without this implicit contract these lots, all near streams in the Grants, may have been developed, with the permanent loss of aesthetically and biologically valuable ecosystems.

Problems with $$ and the POA

This plan worked well until 2014 when a member of the POA Board (both Nigel Ferguson and Bruce McDonald claimed “credit” for it) instructed some employee (responsibility denied all around) to send out dues assessments to the Land Trust for all Open Space properties. No action validating this action was ever posted by the Board of Directors. The bill was for about $10,000, an amount which would devastate the Land Trust and would presumably recur annually. However, since the lots were safely zoned “Open Space” it hardly seemed worthwhile to enter expensive litigation and the lots in question were transferred to the POA via Quit Claim for the princely sum of $10. The Land Trust continues to monitor the properties under Conservation Easements, as well as to observe the stability of the Open Space areas. No new properties have been acquired for the obvious reason that owning property in the POA ends up being too expensive for us.

Committee for Natural Surroundings

As early as 2004 Kelly Hart of the Baca Grande Environmental and Architectural Committee (E&AC) and Kim Malville of CBLT, suggested the establishment of an advisory relationship of the Land Trust with the POA’s E&AC. They suggested that building proposals that appear to impact on open space, wildlife corridors, community parks, or ecologically sensitive lands could be referred by the E&AC to the CBLT for a timely consultation. In 2010 the POA established a Committee for Natural Surroundings whose purpose was to be “to identify best practices and provide recommendations to the Board for building and development in the POA that will allow members to develop their property while still protecting the natural environment”’. The first members appointed were Bill Sutherland, Julie Reinhart-Sutherland, and Tom Tucker (Glider). The committee was to function strictly through the Board only as an information-gathering body. There was turnover in the committee’s membership and it is at present dormant, perhaps dead because of its designated “ad hoc” status. This committee had failed “to consider environmental rules”, but perhaps it is not necessary to make new or expanded rules. Perhaps a general statement of principles of living in our particular environment could be a starting point for the formation of a new committee, one which might serve as a source of enviro/eco information and guidance to balance the concerns of the E&AC “to preserve, protect, and enhance property values within the Planned Community” (Articles of Incorporation for the BGPOA, 2001). Being a standing committee with authority comparable to that of the E&AC could lend visible support to the factors that hold most of us close to our community.

Lexam oil & gas development threat

Recent arrivals to Baca/Crestone may be unfamiliar with some events that galvanized community action. The property of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) was situated on a “split estate”, and owned only the surface of the land, not any subterranean minerals or such. In 2006 Lexam Explorations, chiefly in gold-mining but in this case seeking hydrocarbons, sought to explore within the NWR. They proposed drilling two 14,000ft exploratory wells. This plan was approved by the Department of Interior/Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in a contract formulated in part by Lexam, a Canadian company. The area was considered by the US Geologic Survey to merit only a 0,03% chance of finding developable minerals. In September, 2007, US District Court Sr. Judge Walker Miller granted a Preliminary Injunction, considering among several reasons that the government never even considered buying the mineral rights, despite their acquisition was only omitted from the original federal legislation because it was expected to take too long and instead could be carried out later.

Much pressure was applied to the FWS to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to overcome the deficiencies of their initial assessment. This was completed, but it continued to neglect or undervalue important concerns. Perhaps the subject was too “soft”, but little to no concern was addressed to issues of the spiritual nature of the region, both of Native Americans and the many spiritual organizations which have created centers here.

Oil & water don’t mix

Drilling is noisy and if the exploration were successful (for Lexam!) the Sand Dunes National Park, officially the quietest park in the lower 48, would no longer be quiet, nor would the 24-hour operation operate in the dark: lights would be constant, some on moving trucks. Water is needed for drilling and the drilling liquid contains chemicals known to exhibit serious acute toxicities, but these have mostly not been studied as to long-term effects and the effects of persisting residual chemicals. The environmental hazards of the constituent biocides are little known.

The Spanish Wetlands of the Baca Grants pass directly into the Refuge and are Potential Conservation Areas harboring the globally threatened narrowleaf cottonwood/ juniper system and are home to threatened and endangered species (slender spider flower, Rio Grande sucker, Rio Grande chub, northern leopard frog, and others; Baca Grande Biological Assessment, 2006). Although mandated to consider the Baca’s water situation, no apparent thought had been evident. The hydrogeology of this area is quite uncertain and it’s unknown what the punching in of two wells to 14,000’ would prompt. Oil exploration in the 1930s unleashed what is now Sand Dunes Swimming Pool, a vast 118° geothermal source that has had major permanent impacts on the surrounding area.

Protests

The Town of Crestone and Saguache County protested the Lexam plan. The CBLT (Ceal Smith and Jillian Klarl) and other organizations, prominently the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC; Chris Canaly) provided impetus to public and governmental concern to prevent the drilling. In 2010 the FWS (of which NWR is part) purchased the mineral rights and the day was saved. The local community and its organizations were key here, in preserving the water that preserved the economy and preserved our natural beauty and preserved our health. Thus ended the greatest perceived threat to our environment.

Water threats to wetlands

Our water has always been desired by the Front Range cities. In the 1980s American Water Development, Inc. sought it but it was blocked through the courts and finally by the passage of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000. Now there is a new scheme to export our water in the form of Renewable Water Resources (RWR). This group has been courting Douglas County as a buyer for our water, a prerequisite for getting approval by the water court. It is well known that even in wet years our area is over-allocated for water; with the current yearslong drought it will take many seasons of greater-than-average rainfall just to replenish to normal. It would seem we cannot afford to share our water.

Another interesting situation is the drying-up of the wetlands whose maintenance has been a goal of the Land Trust. Historically a fork of Spanish Creek was annually flooded to aid haying in the Baca Ranch. The Baca Ranch became part of the NWR with the federal legislation of 2000. The original plan in effect, mandated by the enabling Great Sand Dunes Act, was to keep things as they were until adequate assessments had been made. Instead, the Spanish Meadows and lower wetlands were cut off from flooding and nearly all of the Spanish Creek flow sent ostensibly for the NWR to wet the playas (dry basins which are briefly wet). It may be in the larger view that preserving the Spanish Creek wetlands is a better biological value. Undiscussed and unresolved.

Open space

At its inception the Baca Grande development had, by many observers’ estimation, way too many buildable lots. Many property owners now have elected to buy adjacent lots and to consolidate all their lots into one because the POA has a policy which makes it very attractive to consolidate. Since consolidated lots may only contain one residence this would seem a desirable action if there were too many buildable lots, as it would also create much more open space. Of course, every lot consolidation results in lessened revenue for the POA, since dues are only charged to every developable individual lot. It is worth noting that our current annual POA dues are about the same as those who live in, for instance, condos pay each month Although it is a financial benefit to those who do consolidate their several lots and it’s a benefit to gain the additional open space that provides, the steady decline in the number of dues-paying lots via consolidation does impose challenges to the POA’s revenue, an issue surely requiring the discussion by the community of the Association’s priorities and plans.

Conclusion

Our community wants to be involved, if the past is any evidence. I think a renewal/regeneration of the Crestone Baca Land Trust and a committee of the POA (not necessarily the existing Committee for Natural Surroundings) could be the active agents for undone projects for the good of our environment. What would we do? Besides the hints above, I worry about fire mitigation and further development in the Grants. Do you have suggestions? Wanna get together sometime with like-minded folks?