Rabbitbrush Rambler: Costilla County's new wildlife area is unique

It’s sometimes said that Costilla County is unique because it has no piece of the Rio Grande National Forest, as the rest of the Valley’s counties do, but this one does have some Colorado State Wildlife Areas, which are associated with reservoirs that store water for irrigation – Sanchez, Mountain Home, and Smith where recreation and fishing have attracted local users while also managing the fish and wildlife.

Costilla County also has other public lands such as the county’s own properties, towns, roads, and special districts such as the Costilla County Conservation District, but nothing until now like the new San Luis Hills State Wildlife Area managed by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife with its 17,019 acres. That’s nearly a whopping 26 sections of land.

I had read that a big ranch with a big price tag had been on the market in the western part of that county in the past few years, and I now am assuming that this was key to the acquisition of the land for the new wildlife refuge. To locate this property on a map, start at the bridge on Colorado State Highway 142 between Romeo and San Luis, and then go up the Rio Grande River for the 4.5 miles that takes in the new wildlife area. It is across the river from La Sauces in Conejos County and spreads upland east of the river.

Quite different south of Highway 142 and east of the river is upland that was platted years ago with lots and roads laid out on a geometrical grid. Private homes have been built on small acreages, and those closest to the river seem to be tidier and more pleasantly located than some others farther from the river.

The riverine area is an important conservation link extending above and below the bridge. North of the new San Luis Hills State Wildlife Area is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s Alamosa National Wildlife Area, and south of the wildlife area is BLM’s Rio Grande Natural Area. Next to the south and the Colorado-New Mexico state line are BLM’s Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and the Wild and Scenic River Corridor. Along this entire stretch of the river, conservation of fish and wildlife has been a major thrust, with recreation and scenery also playing an important role in the public’s interest.

To achieve the protection of natural resources required concerted effort and planning. The announcement in early April of the creation of San Luis Hills State Wildlife Area gives us an inkling of the long-range planning and financing involved.

According to the announcement, there were Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC), USFWS, Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), Colorado Open Lands, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the LOR Foundation. GOCO and the Gates Family Foundation also are listed for collaborating with funding.

The process was more complicated than those simple facts, though, if I understand them correctly. Besides the advocacy in Costilla County, the project was supported by the San Luis Valley Conservation Fund, which was created in 2015 by WRC, the LOR Foundation, Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, and Colorado Open Lands. Each of these deserves several pages of description but space forbids.

Perhaps my most gossipy information is that the LOR Foundation is a project of a billionaire with headquarters at Jackson Hole and with associations in places such as Taos. Her foundation provided the greatest portion of funding for the creation of Rio Grande Healthy Living Park at Alamosa.

Granted, opinions about conservation are diverse and sometimes divisive in the San Luis Valley as well as throughout our state and our nation. But more and more, those of us who live in the Valley’s environmentally and economically fragile region are recognizing how important it is to protect all of the Rio Grande’s natural habitats, from their headwaters on down.