Land will continue to be in public use
for hunting, recreation, cattle grazing
A summer appraisal of the 45,000-plus acres that surround La Jara Reservoir in Conejos County will set the value of the land and allow a process to move forward that would see the public lands move from the Colorado State Land Board to the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“We are looking into opportunities to dispose of that property, yes,” said State Land Board Communication Officer Kristen Kemp. The 45,650 acres that surround the reservoir are part of state trust land holdings that Colorado has managed from the beginning of its statehood.
The Rio Grande National Forest is working jointly with BLM and Colorado Parks & Wildlife to acquire the surrounding acres of public land, said Greg Goodland, public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest.
“The forest service and BLM have a vision of it continuing to be public use and serve in particular our local communities that have grown up using that land to hunt, and graze cattle, and to recreate,” said Conejos District Ranger Andrea Jones.
This map from Western Rivers Conservancy shows the property around La Jara Reservior (inset) in relation to other public lands in the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
THE State Land Board hired Western Rivers Conservancy as consultants to evaluate options for selling the land but only “to a state/federal agency or a conservation-oriented nonprofit organization or a sovereign nation,” Kemp said.
“Furthermore they only approved exploring a transaction with an entity whose mission is directly aligned with supporting public access, community use, and the permanent protection/conservation of natural and cultural resources at La Jara.”
Kemp said the State Land Board “rarely dispose of trust land properties but revenue from ag and recreation leases has not been optimal at the La Jara property.”
Western Rivers Conservancy is getting the property appraised this summer.
“They only approved exploring a transaction with an entity whose mission is directly aligned with supporting public access, community use, and the permanent protection/conservation of natural and cultural resources at La Jara.”
– Kristen Kemp, State Land Board communication officer
“Based on those forthcoming appraisals and pending approval from our Commissioners at a public meeting, likely the transaction(s) would occur in phases due to federal funding availability,” Kemp said.
Income the State Land Board earns through its leasing of public lands is a key funding source for public schools and the Colorado Department of Education’s Building Excellent Schools Day (BEST) grant program.
Through the BEST program, San Luis Valley school districts have been building new public school buildings. Conejos County has received $60 million since 2008 in BEST funding through six different grants, according to State Land Board records.
While acknowledging she’s no expert, Conejos District Ranger Andrea Jones said an appraisal of public land is done similarly to putting a value on a private ranch, taking into consideration water, structures, and other factors that will add or detract to a value of the property.
Completing the transaction for the federal agencies is dependent on the appraisal. “We’ve already acquired some funding but not enough yet,” Jones said. Additional federal funding is available through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund which the U.S. Forest Service is pursuing, she said.
The Rio Grande National Forest and Conejos Ranger District would manage the land similarly to the adjacent public federal lands, possibly requiring additional staff in the Conejos District, Jones said.
“We want to make sure we’re figuring out a plan for managing the lands and that we’re taking into consideration every aspect of the natural resources and the social component,” she said.
TOP PHOTO: A view into the land currently managed by the Colorado State Land Board. The public property is in the process of being transferred to the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. | Ryan Michelle Scavo © Big River Collective