Colorado Springs military installations and leading conservation groups are set to embark on a multi-year mission intended to achieve operational buffers for those installations and simultaneously realize a new vision of open space on the city’s peripheries.
The unique arrangement was recently cleared by the State Land Board, Colorado’s second-largest landowner with a historic mandate to generate money for schools via grazing, mining and recreation leases. Under the board’s approval, the U.S. Department of Defense, The Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy could take 10 years to leverage each other’s funds to acquire six state trust parcels totaling more than 75,000 acres.
Referring to the partnership with The Nature Conservancy that resulted in Fishers Peak State Park, the arrangement is “bringing the band back together,” said The Trust for Public Land’s Wade Shelton.
In 2020, Fishers Peak became Colorado’s second-biggest state park at 19,200 acres. Shelton said he figured that might be his career’s biggest deal.
“Now we’re talking about quadrupling that,” he said.
The 48,670-acre Bohart Ranch is the largest by far of the six parcels being sought. That’s on the prairie southeast of Fountain, north of Chico Basin Ranch, better known for its public access and birding opportunities. In outlining the proposal, State Land Board staff described the Air Force Academy’s interest in permanently preserving “training areas associated with the Bohart Ranch.”
Schriever Air Force Base also wants to preserve flyover land amounting to 3,847 acres on its perimeter. The same goes for Fort Carson when it comes to the 1,080-acre Aiken Canyon Preserve and the 8,833 acres of rock-studded foothills south of there off Colorado 115, referred to as Table Mountain.
The State Land Board report traced talks back to 2019 between the Department of Defense, The Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy. Talks centered on the government’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program (REPI) — by its own description, “a key tool for combating encroachment that can limit or restrict military training, testing and operations.”
Also involving the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC, the conversation came amid El Paso County’s soaring population projections and what the military saw as ongoing development pressures beyond the urban core.
“They wanted to see some of these important flight areas remain undeveloped,” said Matt Moorhead with The Nature Conservancy. “It just so happens that one of the largest landowners under some of those key flight areas is the State Land Board.”
As REPI funds become available — a proposed timeline shows prospective acquisitions running to 2030 — the State Land Board has agreed to sell the properties through its mandated bid process. In this case, the properties would require a Department of Defense-approved conservation easement or set of deed restrictions.
Moorhead granted the possibility of “some unknown party” emerging in the public process. “That’s not a bad thing,” he said. “The Nature Conservancy and (Trust for Public Land) would like to have more partners.”
If bought directly through the conservation partnership, the parties have stated the plan would be to resell the lands “into long-term public or private ownership” under the same easement or restrictions.
Exact “end games” for each property — their ownerships and future uses, not to mention their price tags — have yet to be determined, Moorhead said.
“But the end game that we do know is that they will be permanently protected,” he said. “The open space that the military values, that’ll be permanently protected.”
There promises to be particular public interest regarding Aiken Canyon, beloved by hikers and birders in the know. That includes Linda Hodges with the local Aiken Audubon Society. She wondered about the potential of the canyon as a city-owned open space. She worried about development if it were a state park.
“I would want to be assured a time for the public to comment on what happens with Aiken Canyon when that time comes,” Hodges said.
That time would come for the properties, Shelton said. He foresaw interest reaching beyond local communities — to others around Colorado.
The arrangement “will hopefully be a good demonstration project of how the Land Board can achieve their financial goals and do great conservation at the same time,” he said. “This could be the tip of an iceberg.”
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