Science Story August 2020

Rescuing the Range

Easily the main feature that brings people to Colorado, and especially to Gunnison Valley, is the breathtaking beauty of the landscape. Part of that is due to Gunnison County being 83 percent public land. The rest is due to ranchers — ranchers who have preserved the unparalleled beauty of the Valley simply by being there and making the land their livelihood.

The ranchers who have maintained and kept intact their vast spreads of open range have given the rest of us extraordinary vistas of one of Earth’s most beautiful places.

But other ranchers have been forced to sell parcels, or all, of their land to developers, a move that secures their finances but chips away at the uncompromised wilderness and wildlife habitat that draw people here to live or visit. With developers in charge of the land, Gunnison Valley could eventually look more like a suburb than a mountainous retreat.

Enter RMBL’s former director Susan Lohr with a plan to rescue Gunnison Valley’s wide-open spaces and the ranchers that depend on them. It’s conservation easements, a brilliant idea that pays ranchers to sell their development rights to an organization that then places those rights into a permanent trust that guarantees that the property can never be developed. The rancher receives an infusion of cash, gets to keep working the land, and helps ensure the preservation of critical wildlife habitat.

In 1995, Susan founded Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy to preserve ranchland and ranching in Gunnison County. Twenty-five years later, nearly half of Gunnison County’s private agricultural land has been permanently protected with conservation easements. That represents intact grasslands and forests. As Susan explained, “You can’t chop it up. You can’t trash it. You can’t clear-cut it. It’s permanently protected.”

Susan’s involvement in land preservation came by way of RMBL. An ornithologist who graduated from Stanford University and did graduate work at the University of Arizona, she was leading birdwatching tours in South America as the director of WINGS Natural History Tours when she decided to apply for the job of RMBL director. She became RMBL’s first full-time director and jumped in with both feet. At one point she lived in Gothic year-round.

But her fascination with environmental conservation, coupled with her desire to help people for whom land is everything, pulled her into exploring conservation easements.

Conservation easements help more than ranchers. The water rights stay with the land, allowing 85 percent of the water to return to rivers and streams. The wildlife habitat is protected from degradation by landowners who conserve the natural resources their businesses depend on. The agricultural lands remain available to continue producing the nation’s food supply. And ranchers whose ancestors have preserved a way of life for generations maintain their heritage as the backbone of the community. The state gains, too. Conservation easements on private land provide $646 million in economic benefits to Colorado every year.

The money used to purchase the easements is mostly sourced by grants from federal agencies, like the USDA, and from conservation organizations. The work of the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy has yielded over 300 conservation easement projects. One of the most recent happens to be the townsite of Gothic — all 270 acres of it. That means that the property will never be sold to become a housing development or resort. It will stay just what it’s always been: a world-renowned source of scientific discovery and learning.

“This job has brought me full circle,” said Susan. “I came out here 34 years ago to be the director of RMBL. Now I’m able to do something that honors their research and education. I’m really grateful for that.”

Susan Lohr

Susan Lohr is a consultant specializing in ranchland conservation and in facilitating planning for biological field stations and marine laboratories. She has completed more than 300 conservation easements for willing landowners over the past 25 years.