Couple protects land by reservoir with ties to family ancestors

The Daily Sentinel, December 7, 2022— A family’s decision to permanently protect 310 acres south of Crawford not only benefits wildlife and preserves a landscape, but adds another chapter to the family’s long and colorful history in that area.

The Colorado West Land Trust has partnered with Larry and Lorell Cotten to conserve the acreage along Gould Reservoir, where Larry Cotten’s ancestors had a hand in building the reservoir dam more than a century ago.

The conservation project is one of two recently announced by the trust involving Montrose County properties. In the second, the Stephens family agreed to conserve 138 acres of irrigated wetlands and wetland habitat south and slightly west of Montrose.

Ilana Moir, director of conservation for the trust, said this year has been probably the trust’s biggest year in five or six years when it comes to conservation projects.

“This has been a really great year for us. We’ve actually conserved five different projects over the course of the year,” she said.

Conservation easements permanently protect properties from being developed. The Cotten property includes part of the agricultural irrigation reservoir, and also is bounded to two other private parcels that were previously conserved in partnership with the land trust and are adjacent to Bureau of Land Management land. The newly conserved property adds to the amount of connected, protected habitat that wildlife can move through.

“Anything we can do to buffer existing conserved or protected or public lands just adds to the value of the wildlife habitat for both pieces — the already conserved property and the new property,” Moir said.

The Crawford-area property’s woodlands and sagebrush shrublands provide habitat to a variety of birds, big game, small mammals and other wildlife, including the Gunnison sage-grouse, which is federally listed as a threatened species. The property also is home to rare plants like the juniper tumblemustard and adobe hills thistle.

Lorell Cotten said Tuesday, “We have deer and elk and bear, we’ve got turkeys. We really wanted that kept pristine so we didn’t really want anybody to subdivide it and build a bunch of houses and a bunch of fences so that animals couldn’t get around to the water and use that area.

“That was basically our reasoning when we started and then we realized how important it was to keep the history there,” she said.

She said her husband’s great-grandfather, John Cotten, homesteaded in the Crawford area in 1881. His grandfather, Roy, homesteaded close to the area now home to Gould Reservoir, and both John and Roy were hired to help build the dam. Their work included rolling rocks down onto the dam site at one point as their employers faced a deadline to show due diligence on moving forward on its construction.

Roy Cotten also would take a team of horses to Delta to pick up materials for the dam. And Juritta Cotten, John’s wife, worked as a cook for the crew building the reservoir.

Roy Cotten’s property was about a mile from the property now being conserved. Part of Roy Cotten’s land ended up in the hands of Larry Cotten, who had grown up on the property his dad had bought from his grandfather. Larry and Lorell Cotten traded their property for the newly conserved property, where Larry can enjoy the view of the reservoir and mountains and think of his family’s historical ties to the reservoir and area. The couple lives in Monte Vista now but still spends time at a cabin on the property. A big Cotten family reunion in August included a visit to the dam.

“It’s interesting to have our grandkids come back over there and just be able to tell them about the reservoir,” Lorell Cotten said.

The couple was thinking partly about future generations of the family and preserving a piece of the family’s heritage when they conserved the property.

“We’re certainly happy to have gotten that done,” Larry Cotten said.

The Stephens property offers views of the San Juan mountain range, lies in an area that’s home to many rare plants, and is home to eight fish-stocked ponds built by landowner Gary Stephens. The ponds attract fish-feeding birds and provide water for wildlife. The property also supports crucial winter habitat for deer and elk.

Stephens said in a news release, “When we first bought our property with our family, we looked out on what has become the conservation easement and everyone in our family said let’s conserve this forever. We wanted to preserve part of western Colorado’s beauty for everybody to enjoy. To us, it just made sense.”

Said Moir, “From my perspective, when it’s coming to the end of the year and you’re thinking about holidays and gathering with family, I’m just so grateful for landowners like the Cottens and like Gary Stephens who are thinking about future generations and thinking about what this landscape is going to look like in two, three, four generations from now, and making sure that their property will always be available for farming, for ranching and for habitat, so that part of western Colorado is going to remain just the way we all love it.

The nonprofit land trust has conserved more than 126,000 acres in Mesa, Delta, Gunnison, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties.

By Dennis Webb

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