The Great Sand Dunes: A Story of Large-scale Land Conservation and Wildlife Connectivity

This blog post originally appeared on our Rockies Expeditions blog on July 17th. Our 2013 Spine of the Rockies Expedition is investigating Large Landscape Conservation through methods of visual and social media while connecting to the Rocky Mountain Region’s strong ties to outdoor recreation and wild spaces. For more on the expedition, visit:

Embarking from the northern end of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, we began the second leg of our journey through the Sangre de Cristo expedition. Having left the alpine environments in the mountains, we hiked through pinon, juniper and prickly pear cactus. The sand dunes loomed in the distance, trekked through increasingly sandy soil. Passing through dense riparian vegetation near meandering creek beds and then emerging again onto treeless plains, it became clear that the park’s terrain would be far less homogeneous than simply the fields of sand we had expected. Storm clouds rolled in as we approached camp on Medano creek just north of the dune fields, and rain battered us as we sought shelter under a narrow line of Cottonwood trees tracing the creek. The short-lived rain shower would feel like a dream the following day as we continued our trek south along the western edge of the dunes in the blazing sun. Stopping to watch a horny toad slowly move across the sand, the feelings of desolation conveyed by the dunes melted away as we began to experience the unlikely vibrancy of the ecosystems thriving in the sandy grasslands.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve encompasses almost 90,000 acres of land and lies in the central region of the San Luis Valley just west of the Sangre de Cristo Range. The park and preserve contains the largest sand dunes in North America rising up to 750 feet above the valley floor. The dunes were created over 12,000 years ago by retreating glaciers and the Rio Grande river, which left behind large sand deposits. In the intervening centuries, the wind has transported the sand eastward towards a low point in the Sangres.  Unable to carry the the grains over the range, however, the sands are dropped near the cleft in the mountains where the winds continue to shape and reshape the dunes. Water has played a crucial role in the geology of the sand dunes, as underlying aquifers help to anchor sand sheets and support a wide range of rare wildlife habitats. The park and preserve is home to eight species of insects not found anywhere else in the world, six peaks over 13,000 feet, fragile groundwater systems, and ecosystems that range from sandy desert grasslands to expansive subalpine forests to high alpine lakes and wetlands.

A Brief History:

Although the dunes have been protected from development for some time, management of the area has fallen to diverse parties over the years. And it was only in the past decade that the area began to see a more coherent management plan focused on connectivity. Originally, Herbert Hoover declared the Sand Dunes a National Monument in 1932 due to the danger posed on the land by escalating gold mining and resource intensive interests. The National Monument remained unchanged until 2004 when the dunes were declared a National Park as a result of long-standing disagreements between local residents and ranchers largely over water use in the valley.

The Baca Ranch, an old Spanish land grant,  lies northwest of the sand dunes and contains the northwest corner of the dune field, nesting and migratory bird habitats, archaeological sites, and portions of the sand sheet (flat sandy areas anchored by underlying aquifers). The area encompasses land that is crucial to the conservation of wildlife in the sand dunes region and lies on top of some of the San Luis Valley’s most important aquifers. Historically, American Water Development Inc. (AWDI) and the Cabeza de Vaca Land and Cattle Company, both of which were keen on exporting water out of the San Luis Valley, owned the ranch. Proposals by both AWDI and Cabeza de Vaca for transbasin diversion projects  were met with serious disagreement by local residents and continued to stir up concerns regarding the management of local aquifers and ecosystems in the sand dunes region. Valley residents for a long time urged The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to acquire the Baca Ranch, which was finally made possible in 2000 with the creation of the Great Sand Dunes and National Park and Preserve Act. The threat of diverting water out of the San Luis Valley proved to be fundamental in uniting various stakeholders in the region and culminated in the protection of a vast land area that serves as a crucial piece of the larger Sangre de Cristo wildlife corridor. Pursing a large-scale land conservation initiative in order to protect the valley’s water resources has benefited wildlife in the region immensely and caused local residents to recognize the importance of conserving land that is crucial to the ecological integrity of the region. Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and a key player in the creation of the Great Sand Dunes conservation area, reports:

It was a culmination of about a decade of different groups coming together and that included not just the public land managers here but also the water users and the agricultural community working to protect this community of interest. People really realized that water was precious and although we do have deep aquifers here, we could not afford to see the water table dropping.

The Great Sand Dunes and National Park and Preserve Act allowed for the acquisition of the Baca Ranch and expanded the Great Sand Dunes National Monument into a National Park almost four times its original size. TNC purchased the 97,000 acre ranch in 2002 and transferred management responsibility to the federal government. 53,135 acres were added to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, 13,000 acres to the Rio Grande National Forest and 31,000 acres to the Baca National Wildlife Refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). TNC continues to manage the 103,000 acre Medano Zapata Ranch, which borders Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The real estate transactions were completed in 2004 and the park was officially created on September 13, 2004. TNC has played a fundamental role in conserving these vast land areas and subduing development projects that would have otherwise had damaging effects on the region’s health. Peter Ericson of the Colorado Nature Conservancy said:

“The Conservancy was drawn to that part of the world and that part of the state of Colorado in large part because of water development schemes that we and the local community felt were going to be impactful and damaging to either the economy or the ecology of the San Luis Valley. In looking at that issue we landed upon purchases and land ownership as the best way to abate that particular threat. TNC ended up owning an incredible jewel within Colorado for biodiversity and being a very central part of this bigger Great Sand Dunes protected landscape, which also ties into the larger Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area.”

The land that surrounds the National Park and Preserve includes the Medano Zapata ranch owned by TNC, the Baca Wildlife Refuge managed by the FWS, and the Blanca wetlands managed by the BLM.

“It’s a checkerboard of intermixed land ownership,” says Ericson. “We have worked with all these public agencies over time to try to manage and steward all this property that is contributory to the greater whole, which is a functioning landscape from the 14,000 foot peaks of the Sangres down to the wetlands and flatlands of the San Luis Valley where we have everything from Bison to migratory birds up into the high country where you have all the big game — elk, bear and everything else that occupies that land.”

Why it all matters:

The Great Sand Dunes conservation area has served as a  fundamental piece in protecting a functioning landscape that spans a variety of ecosystems. The area has been conserved and connected by an intermix of public and private land ownership that ties together the backbone of the Sangre de Cristo conservation area, which stretches from central Colorado down to northern New Mexico. This type of land management has been crucial in supporting a wide range of wildlife and improving wildlife migration corridors, which has resulted in other benefits such as climate change resiliency. Conserved lands that span varying elevations and longitudinal distances will be critical in sustaining wildlife populations as the climate continues to change causing wildlife to seek new regions of land suitable for life. Managing large landscapes to improve wildlife habitats and migration corridors will continue to be critical as the planet warms. Dave Montgomery of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council stated, “My hope is that managing land for wildlife will continue and that there will be interpersonal and interagency cooperation to bolster an expanding tree ring of protection that I hope continues into the future.”

Over the past decade federal agencies, private organizations and landowners have successfully worked together to achieve the greater goals of land large-scale land conservation and have the ability to continue expanding the protected area. Collaboration between various stakeholders has resulted in a forward thinking framework for land management that breaks the tradition of management based on  jurisdictional boundaries. Ericson thinks that this model could be used to protect even more land in the San Luis Valley in the future.

The public-private management framework that has been developed in the Great Sand Dunes Conservation Area serves as an example of a more creative approach to conservation that can continue to be successfully implemented within the state of Colorado and also elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain West. Fostering a middle ground with conservation easements, protected lands, and private and public lands will continue to bring attention and new resources to important conservation areas.

Written by Halsey Landon. 

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