Colorado pushes to save 3.3M acres of private land from development

A state-backed coalition of conservation groups is launching an unprecedented push that would pay private landowners to save 3.3 million acres of natural terrain from development.

That’s a small portion of Colorado’s total 66 million acres, which include nearly 40 million acres of private property. Robust real estate activity and new construction, bringing high-end houses and commercial buildings to once-pristine mountain valleys, has added urgency to the effort.

“They’re not making any more land. We can always build more, but we can’t get those natural spaces back,” said Jim Petterson, a board member for the Keep It Colorado coalition, made up mostly of land trusts. The coalition also includes other conservation nonprofits, Colorado Springs Utilities, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Colorado Youth Corps Association.

Saving 3.3 million acres of private land within ten years — the goal Keep It Colorado announced Wednesday at the Denver Botanic Gardens — would match the amount of private land protected against development since 1965, according to data in a “Conserving Colorado” strategy unveiled after a $300,000, 18-month planning effort. Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Great Outdoors Colorado provided funding.

Private land conservation increasingly is seen as essential for enduring multiple threats: cascading impacts of climate warming, including droughts, heat waves, wildfires, erosion, extreme storms; degradation of ecologically sensitive areas; water scarcity; and economic challenges that threaten to drive ranchers and farmers out of agriculture.

But this effort doesn’t sit well with builders.

Colorado Association of Home Builders chief executive Ted Leighty said his group is aware of the effort to preserve private land but hasn’t been able to review details.

“However, since addressing the affordability and availability of housing is clearly one of the top issues of this legislative session — and a core issue for Governor Polis and the home building industry,” Leighty said, a push to limit development “does not seem to balance the shared goals of meeting Colorado’s housing needs with one of the core challenges — land availability — that impacts both the cost and availability of housing.”

A Nature Conservancy analysis recently identified 16 million acres of “climate-resilient” private property in Colorado that is critical for wildlife survival under harsher climate conditions. Keep It Colorado members planned to prioritize land in river valleys that benefits existing human communities as well as wildlife.

Protecting natural terrain depends on landowners who prioritize the ecological health of their property and agree to conservation easements — agreements that block future development. Ownership stays private. Landowners receive compensation for the value of development rights they give up through state-level property tax breaks, which Keep It Colorado leaders propose to increase, along with creating new federal tax incentives and future payments to landowners for “ecosystem services.”

“These lands offer widespread benefits to the public. They put food on our tables and provide places for wildlife to live, eat and migrate through,” Keep It Colorado interim executive director Linda Lidov said. “They create the scenic vistas Colorado is known for and support a thriving agriculture and recreation economy. These lands are also under threat.”

Land trusts long have played key roles in conserving private natural open space. The number of land trusts in Colorado has increased from fewer than ten in the 1980s to more than 30, and the state ranks 4th in land acreage protected against development. The state’s GOCO program, funded by lottery proceeds, has raised more than $1 billion for land conservation.

Meanwhile in Colorado, roughly 40% of the land (26 million acres) is public — managed by government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, that are charged with ensuring ecological health. Congress in the past has ordered the preservation of some public land as “untrammeled” wilderness, but efforts since the 1970s to expand public wilderness and natural areas have slowed.

Keep It Colorado officials said their effort will sync with other large-scale state planning efforts, including refinement of the Colorado Water Plan and the CPW’s Wildlife Statewide Recreation, Conservation and Climate Resilience Plan.

“The pace of change in Colorado has only accelerated in the post-pandemic era. Population growth and development pressures. Changes in our mountain communities,” Petterson said.

“If we don’t make the right choices today about how we want to grow and how we want our communities to evolve, we’re going to be stuck with the genie out of the bottle and we won’t be able to put it back in.”

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