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A group of landowners on the Colorado-New Mexico border aim to conserve a contested landscape 

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click to enlarge August 2014, the Alliance and The Nature Conservancy hosted a demonstration project for the San Juan – Chama Watershed Partnership and the Rio Grande Water Fund. - COURTESY THE CHAMA PEAK LAND ALLIANCE
  • Courtesy the Chama Peak Land Alliance
  • August 2014, the Alliance and The Nature Conservancy hosted a demonstration project for the San Juan – Chama Watershed Partnership and the Rio Grande Water Fund.

Straddling the Colorado-New Mexico border, where the broken peaks of the San Juan Mountains give way to the high desert's windswept buttes and mesas, a 1.4 million acre expanse harbors some of the wildest land in the Southwest. The last grizzly in the Southern Rockies lurked unnoticed here for decades. Extirpated wolves and wolverines are still rumored to roam the backcountry. Re-introduced Canadian lynx prowl the deep snow beneath conifers.

But this unnamed region, stretching between Colorado's Wolf Creek Pass and Abiquiú, New Mexico, isn't pure wilderness. Right in the middle are 500,000 acres of privately owned land, surrounded by three national forests and the Jicarilla Apache reservation.

Betty Shahan's great-grandfather, who arrived by wagon from Arkansas in the late 19th century, was among the settlers that kept it out of public domain. Shahan is now 79. She still rides her horse, Dusty, and the Honda four-wheeler she calls her "Japanese horse" around her family's 3,177-acre ranch in Chromo, Colorado (population 57), repairing fences and putting up hay and moving the 120 or so head of cattle she raises each year. The only job she hires out is irrigation, a task she relinquished reluctantly after falling into ditches one too many times. She is both practical and sentimental. When she sits at her kitchen table, her feet barely touch the floor.

Although Shahan raises cattle — admittedly not the most environmentally friendly use of the West's arid environment — she prides herself on responsible stewardship. She rotates her cows religiously, restores riparian corridors and has put her entire ranch in a conservation easement. "I love the land," she told me from her cozy home one day this winter. Her voice broke, and she paused, looking up at the old farm tools and family photos on the wall. "It's just such a part of me. I'm part dirt, I guess."

Part of the reason Shahan feels emotional is because the land has changed so dramatically in her lifetime. Her great-grandfather's 18,000 acres were divided up among his children, and with each generation, the holdings got smaller. In the early '90s, a number of these smaller ranches were sold off and subdivided. From the picture window in Shahan's living room, she can look out and see the gaudy red roofs of trophy homes rising from what was once "beautiful open space."

Nationwide, 1.6 million acres of private farms, ranches and forests are sold each year for development. Some go to well-off individuals, like those around Shahan's ranch. Others are scooped up by mega-developers, like the 12,446-acre ranch southeast of Tucson that may soon become a 28,000-home planned community. And though some buyers are conservation-minded, this development often leads to fragmented wildlife habitat, over-stressed rivers and unnaturally dense vegetation from fire suppression.

Yet it's increasingly tough for ranchers like Shahan to hang onto land that's been in their families for generations. And it's even harder if they want to be environmentally friendly: In Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states, private land managed for conservation purposes might be taxed at a higher rate than agricultural or residential land, explains Lesli Allison, director of the nonprofit Western Landowners Alliance. Plus, individual landowners often struggle to communicate their needs to land managers and policymakers.

In 2010, a group of landowners on the Colorado-New Mexico border came together over those very problems. They disagreed with the way migratory elk were being managed across borders, but didn't have much say in the matter. Being organized would give them a stronger collective voice, but even that was controversial: Some ranchers were suspicious of the Western Environmental Law Center, which had offered to help.

Eventually, with the help of a young woman named Monique DiGiorgio — one of the few environmentalists who seemed to understand them — they formed the Chama Peak Land Alliance. DiGiorgio, now the executive director, is helping the landowners preserve and protect open spaces and ensure that the Colorado-New Mexico borderlands are managed not as a hodgepodge of private, state, federal and tribal interests, but as a whole, intact ecosystem. Together, Chama Peak's members own a whopping 250,000 acres — roughly half the private land in the area.

With outsized land ownership comes outsized influence. So far, the group has successfully deferred Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases near community drinking water sources, restored miles of riparian habitat, implemented water-quality monitoring and mapped the forests most at risk for high-intensity fires. Its members have also been vocal opponents of a controversial ski development on Wolf Creek Pass.

In the process, they're showing that private-land conservation can be at least as effective as public-land management, and requires a lot less red tape. "When we think about wild, we think about public lands," DiGiorgio says. "But these private landowners are managing some of the most intact, wild spaces we have left."

click to enlarge June 2015 Chama Peak Land Alliance field tour in the San Antonio watershed. - COURTESY THE CHAMA PEAK LAND ALLIANCE
  • Courtesy the Chama Peak Land Alliance
  • June 2015 Chama Peak Land Alliance field tour in the San Antonio watershed.

The group's work has had impacts that echo for hundreds of miles. Thanks to a series of diversions, one-third of New Mexico's drinking water comes from rivers that begin in Chama Peak Land Alliance territory. If an unnaturally intense fire erupted in the beetle-killed forests surrounding these headwaters, ash in the Rio Grande's tributaries could end up impacting the water supply as far downstream as Albuquerque and Santa Fe. That's what happened in 2011, with the Las Conchas fire in the Santa Fe National Forest.

But it doesn't have to happen again, says Mary Stuever, the Chama District Forester for the state of New Mexico. After the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire Stuever was working for the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Her colleagues found a map showing where sustainable timber harvest, thinning or prescribed burns had been carried out, and then carefully overlaid it with the fire-severity map. "All the places that still had vegetation lined up perfectly were where there had been forest treatments," Stuever says. "And all the places that were just nuked were places that no management had happened."

Stuever was struck by this; the last massive fire in the Chama Peak area was in the 1870s, she realized, and the region is due for a big burn. But the deliberate suppression of smaller fires over the last 150 years had robbed the landscape of its ability to bounce back.

Plus, federal forest policy hasn't kept pace with scientific understanding of fire ecology. State and federal foresters are trying to play catch-up in the Chama Peak region, but even small forest treatments on public lands take an ungodly amount of environmental review and paperwork. Two years isn't an uncommon time frame. And as a botched 2.4 million acre forest restoration in Arizona has shown, even innovative Forest Service treatments may turn out to be grossly inefficient uses of taxpayer money.

Decades of fire suppression can be reversed, however. Thinning or prescribed burns can help forests recover their resiliency, and private landowners can conduct those treatments at a rate that federal managers can only dream of. I asked Chama Peak Land Alliance chairman Frank Simms, who manages a 36,000-acre hunting and elk-breeding ranch for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, how long it would take him to implement a forestry project recommended by a consultant. "Right now," he replied. "I could start today and be done tomorrow."

Recognizing this, The Nature Conservancy has enlisted the Chama Peak Land Alliance as a partner in its Rio Grande Water Fund. The idea is to provide money for land managers (both public and private) to conduct prescribed burns and tree thinning to reduce the intensity of future fires, thus protecting water quality downstream. The project began in 2013 with 3,000 acres of treatments, and director Laura McCarthy says she's on track to complete 20,000 acres in 2016 alone. After that, the goal is 30,000 acres a year for 20 years straight.

"Members of the Chama Peak Land Alliance together own about 250,000 acres on the Colorado - New Mexico border. 'When we think about wild, we think about public lands,' says director Monique DiGiorgio. 'But these private landowners are managing some of the most intact, wild spaces we have left."

Members of the Chama Peak Land Alliance have played an integral role, McCarthy adds, providing a model for how large-scale private landowners across the West can help federal land managers protect water quality and improve forest health. But private-land conservation has drawbacks of its own. There is the looming question of large predators, for example: If the land alliance decides to support an intermountain wildlife corridor, will large carnivores like wolves be permitted? Some members say yes; others are vehemently opposed to the introduction of a predator that could threaten their already-thin profits.

Until now, the group has simply "agreed to disagree," DiGiorgio says. "One of the goals is to have a respectful balanced dialogue where everyone can be heard."

DiGiorgio is equally diplomatic when it comes to the divisive history of landownership in the area where she works. Much of the Chama Peak region was once part of the Tierra Amarilla land grant, which shared large parcels of land among the Hispano community in the 1700s. When Anglo settlers arrived in the 1800s, those grants were chopped up and portions sold off, while other sections fell under federal management. Local Hispano families who felt their ancestral land was being ripped out from under them launched the Tierra o Muerte — Land or Death — movement, which climaxed in 1967, when activist Reies López Tijerina attempted an armed takeover of the Rio Arriba County courthouse in Tierra Amarilla.

Today, there's still a quietly smoldering resentment of the region's vast income disparity: Many Hispanos live in trailer parks within full view of the million-dollar homes that have sprung up on land once belonging to their community. It's the latest chapter in a centuries-long saga of displacement: The Spanish colonists drove out the Ute, Navajo and Apache before they, too, were pushed aside.

Walking the quiet main street of Chama, New Mexico, on a windy November Saturday, I asked a few residents what they thought of the Chama Peak Land Alliance. Some had never heard of it ("the Chama Peak Dandelions?" one woman asked). But others were clearly uncomfortable with the subject. No one was willing to speak on record, but one young woman, working behind the counter of a gift shop, said there's still resentment that rich white people control so much of the land.

To be fair, the Alliance includes old-time Hispano families as well as the Jicarilla Apache Nation (which owns a hunting ranch outside their reservation), and humble ranchers like Betty Shahan. But it also includes incredibly wealthy outsiders, like a family that owns 50,000 acres in the Navajo River headwaters and refuses to divulge its identity. ("These are people who pay good money to have their name scrubbed from the Internet," said Tim Haarmann, who manages that family's ranch, when I pressed him.) Still, even the girl at the store conceded that it's better to have wealthy conservationists managing the land than see it get chopped up into cookie-cutter ranchettes and second homes.

Plus, given current reality, landowners who can afford huge parcels can do the most good. Dan Perry, for instance, who's secretary of the Chama Peak Land Alliance, considers Ted Turner a personal hero. One day in 2011, a friend in Santa Fe told him about a brown trout he had caught up north, a big one, slippery and wild and made of muscle. You'd love this place, the friend said — the river winding down from the mountains, the sandstone buttes sharp against the blue sky, the open ranchland scattered with cows.

Perry wanted to visit immediately, but his friend explained that it was too late: The ranch had just been foreclosed. It was being sold the next week, subdivided into 10-acre parcels with a tidy ranchette to be built on each one.

So Perry called the bank and within a month came up with enough cash to buy the 300 acres outright. He's not outrageously wealthy, but he's the kind of guy who can do that. His wife, Ashlyn, is retired from pharmaceutical sales, and Perry still works as a lawyer, representing Texas landowners who want to lease their mineral rights to oil and gas companies.

Today, the Perrys — who call themselves "accidental ranchers" — have bought an additional thousand acres and halted the tide of subdivisions flowing down from the buttes. They've spent thousands of dollars of their own money to restore fish populations in the Rio Chama. Most significantly, they negotiated with the state of New Mexico to shut down a wastewater treatment plant that was spewing e. coli and nasty chemicals into the Chamanita Chamita and Chama rivers, and donated nine acres for a new, cleaner wastewater facility. But because they're newcomers with money — and perhaps because they blocked housing meant for ordinary people — their neighbors still eye them with suspicion and hostility.

Yet when Perry talks about his land, his tone is the same as that of Frank Simms, a lifelong rancher who grew up on a 246,000-acre Colorado ranch and says the saddest day of his life was the day it was subdivided at $20 an acre. While it may sound cheesy, nearly everyone I spoke to about the Chama Peak Land Alliance agrees that's what makes it work: The diversity of members bound by an abiding love for this place.

Mary Stuever, the forester, says that diversity is essential. "Any time any one group gets too focused — when we only look myopically at, say, an endangered species, instead of considering the ecosystem as a whole — we make mistakes," she explains. "But the beauty of having a diversity of approaches is that if we're messing up in one place, someone somewhere else is doing it differently. If everyone agreed on a single land ethos and we managed all lands the same way, it would be a disaster.

"Multiple groups with multiple strategies — the Park Service managing for preservation, the Forest Service managing for multiple use, private landowners managing for all sorts of things — that's what keeps the whole system working," she concludes. "And that's what it's all about: The whole system."

Krista Langlois is Durango, Colorado-based correspondent for High Country News, where this article first appeared.

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