Countywide land preservation has roots in last oil shale boom

By Rob Bleiberg

Ron Arnett raised cattle his entire life. For the last 44 years, he and his wife Kathleen ranched along the Colorado River near Clifton. They loved the hard work, the lifestyle, the satisfaction of putting food on the tables of others. They also felt strongly that kids do best when they spend time outside, close to nature.

Ron and Kathleen found a partner in the Mesa Land Trust, which worked with the Arnetts to permanently conserve their farm. The Land Trust also bought a trail easement across the property to add to the Colorado Riverfront Trail.

Ron died last November, but in August, with Ron’s sister looking on, Kathleen cut the ribbon to dedicate a new trail section extending east from Corn Lake.

Jim Temple is passionate about wildlife. By removing invasive vegetation and restoring ponds and wetlands, he has transformed his property along the Colorado River into a showplace for wildlife. Jim introduces youngsters to hunting and fishing on his land and welcomes disabled- veteran sportsmen onto his place.

Jim, too, worked with Mesa Land Trust to complete a conservation agreement. He knows that long after he is gone, his land will continue to provide a home for wildlife. Better still, his is one of five contiguous conserved parcels that create a block of protected habitat along the river.

Temple and the Arnetts demonstrate an important truth, particularly during this latest boom and bust: Western Colorado’s outstanding, privately owned natural lands represent an enduring value for our community.

Decades earlier, others also recognized this. In the midst of an energy boom, a group of Palisade-area farmers came together and did something unusual. Faced with the threat of housing for oil shale workers covering the east end of the Grand Valley with pavement and rooftops, they created one of the nation’s first organizations dedicated to agricultural land conservation.

Now, 167 perpetual conservation agreements and 59,742 acres later, Mesa Land Trust celebrates its 30th anniversary.  The Land Trust’s portfolio of protected land includes the best of our community: wildlife-rich ranches in Plateau Valley and Glade Park, Palisade orchards and vineyards, cottonwood galleries along the Colorado River, jaw-dropping scenic properties in Unaweep Canyon and working farms on the Grand Valley floor.

These lands remain in private ownership, in production and on property tax rolls.

The Land Trust’s founders knew that Palisade’s orchards were a unique agricultural resource, that our community’s farms produced fruit that was as good as anything grown anywhere. They also understood that poorly planned, unbridled growth is an indiscriminate force. It would pave over prime farmland as readily as a weed-infested desert lot.

Rather than look to government regulation, the Land Trust’s founders sought a more enduring approach. They settled on one that both matched the spirit of independence seen in Mesa County farmers and ranchers and reflected the tradition of cooperation that made settlement here possible.

They envisioned an organization that would work with landowners on a collaborative, voluntary basis, enabling them to exercise their private property rights in the pursuit of land conservation. They saw that farmland, natural habitat and scenic lands all warranted protection for the future.

The Land Trust has enjoyed its remarkable success because its work embodies a deeply held community value that cuts across political, economic and cultural divides that figure so largely in our civic life today — our incredible natural landscapes define our community and underpin our wonderful quality of life.

You don’t have to grow fruit trees in order to enjoy a fresh, local, juicy peach on a hot August afternoon. You don’t have to be a third-generation Glade Park rancher to appreciate our agricultural heritage. You don’t have to own a wildlife refuge to watch in wonder as 200 elk emerge from the oak brush to graze in the late afternoon light.

My daughter turned 3 in July. I often think about the future we are leaving her. By the time she graduates from high school, the state demographer projects that we will have added the equivalent of another current-day city of Grand Juntion to Colorado’s population.

By the time she reaches 30, the same age as the Land Trust is now, some planners anticipate that Whitewater will be the size of the present city of Montrose.

In 1980, a group of farmers came together to conserve the place they loved. Founding board members preserved their own properties. Now a new generation farms these lands. They have left a legacy that benefits us all. Today we have the opportunity to build on this foundation. I invite you to join us.

Rob Bleiberg is the executive director of Mesa Land Trust. Learn more about the organization at http://www.mesalandtrust.org.


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