It is no secret that Montezuma and Dolores counties are blessed with incredible natural beauty, fertile soils and a rich history. Any driver passing through on the way to Telluride, Durango or elsewhere witnesses the stunning beauty of our little corner of Colorado. From the Dolores River Valley and McElmo Canyon to views of Mesa Verde National Park and Sleeping Ute Mountain, our region has something special to offer and to preserve.
However, natural beauty is not our only asset. A passerby might also recognize the bounty of meat, vegetables and legumes our area produces, especially during the growing season when our farmers market is up and running. The agricultural tradition of our region runs deep and has so much to offer.
It is also no secret that what we have here productive farms and ranches, open space and abundant wildlife can quickly be lost without proper foresight. Across Colorado, 80 percent of privately held lands are owned and managed by agricultural operators, and more than half are nearing retirement age. In just the past two decades, 25,000 acres of farm and ranch land have been lost to subdivision in Montezuma County alone.
There is no debating the fact that there is room for development in our community, but proper care must be taken to conserve the places, soils and lifestyles that are truly irreplaceable. When it comes to productive agricultural lands, it has often been quoted that following subdivision, asphalt is the last crop. When a farm or ranch gets converted to a subdivision, our community loses a part of our history, a part of our landscape, and a part of the reason we have all chosen to live here. With a projected million-plus people slated to live on the West Slope by 2030, we simply cannot afford to take our landscape and agricultural heritage for granted.
Luckily, in our midst are 57 landowners who have taken the invaluable step to protect their agricultural resources, natural habitats and open spaces from development things that we as a community benefit from as a whole. Since its founding in 1998, the Montezuma Land Conservancy (MLC), a local non-profit land trust, has worked with local community members to conserve over 30,000 acres of open space and productive lands. In the last two years alone, 13,462 of those acres were conserved. Recent projects have ranged from the permanent protection of a 409-acre parcel with relatively natural habitat, to a 6,700-acre working ranch and everything in between.
Permanence is a powerful concept, and the permanent relationship that is formed between the landowner and land trust is what sets MLC and all other land trusts apart from most businesses and organizations. When a landowner approaches MLC about conserving their land and the project comes to fruition, a perpetual relationship is formed. This relationship begins between MLC and the landowner, but is defined and lives on between MLC and our community. MLC never owns the land it conserves it remains in private hands, it stays on the tax rolls, and private property rights are respected however MLC does take on the responsibility of sound stewardship and guardianship in perpetuity. As a result of this perpetual relationship, MLC is invested in the vibrancy of our community for both the present and the future.
MLC believes in a strong economy anchored by our open spaces and rich agricultural history and has worked diligently toward preserving those resources for current and future generations. Economically speaking, open space protection makes sense. Not only do landowners sometimes receive cash payments for limiting the development potential on their lands, but there is immense value in the presence of open spaces that protect working landscapes and historic settlements its why people come here and support our local economy. Heritage tourism is a growing economic driver in our region as visitors escape the big cities and come to experience our history, western lifestyle and scenic landscapes that radiate from our community. Likewise, people come here for agricultural adventures, such as visiting vineyards, ranches, orchards, and seasonal farmers markets.
Numerous local families have recognized this trend along with the real threats to this growing economic engine. Fortunately, through their thoughtful gifts and partnership with MLC, they have bestowed on our community a lasting legacy that will keep our community both beautiful and strong long into the future.
MLC will be leading a discussion titled Keeping it in the Family: How Conservation Easements Can Benefit your Family and Your Land at the upcoming Agricultural Exposition at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds March 16th from 4 to 5 p.m. in the FSAE Tent.
Jon Leibowitz is the Land Protection Fellow of the Montezuma Land Conservancy. For inquiries or information, call 565-1644 or visit www.montezumaland.org.