Scope of protections has greatly evolved during the Mesa Land Trust’s 35 years
James and Laura Sanders admit they were naive when they decided to become Palisade peach farmers eight years ago.
James, who grew up in Fruita and worked in the energy business, had no previous experience in agriculture. Neither did Laura, who grew up in Denver and was in banking.
Nevertheless, in their late 20s, the Sanderses opted to shift gears and grow peaches, realizing a dream they had shared.
They bought eight acres just west of Palisade, then another five right behind them. Their expanding farm might have stalled there if it hadn’t been for Mesa Land Trust.
First, through the Land Trust, they arranged for a conservation easement for their 13 acres. The trust connected the easement with funds from Great Outdoors Colorado, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other sources so that the Sanderses received money, which they used to pay down debt on their original purchases.
Landowners like the Sanderses must voluntarily agree to place their property in a conservation easement. In doing so, they also agree to a legally binding stipulation that the land will remain undeveloped and available for agriculture.
With the easement on their property in place, the Sanderses were able to purchase another 20 acres of peaches that were also under a conservation easement and therefore less expensive than it would have been valued otherwise.
“We could never have afforded it if it hadn’t already been under easement,” James Sanders said.
Now the Sanderses own 36 acres of orchards, and they lease more. They are raising two young daughters on their farm, which they call the Palisade Peach Shack. They are among a cadre of young growers who are helping keep the fruit industry here viable.
Mesa Land Trust, which turned 35 years old last year, is assisting these young growers in that effort, as well as much more established farmers.
Keeping prime fruit lands in the east end of the valley available for agriculture was the primary goal of founding members of the Land Trust. Watching a new generation of growers join the industry now is very gratifying, said founding member Ivan Wood of Palisade.
But the Land Trust has more on its plate these days than helping preserve the fruit and wine country. Over the years, the organization has also protected key agricultural lands and open space in many parts of Mesa County, from Glade Park to Collbran, and from Unaweep Canyon to the foot of Douglas Pass.
THREE SISTERS PARK
One of the most noteworthy recent projects is the acquisition of property for the Three Sisters Park, on Monument Road, west of Grand Junction.
It was a change for the Land Trust, conserving land for public recreation and enjoyment rather than primarily for agriculture.
“It’s easy to think of Monument Road as something different, but it really is just embracing a different aspect of land conservation,” said Libby Collins, project manager for Mesa Land Trust. “When we started working on this, people came out of the woodwork, saying, ‘This is our heritage.’”
Many wanted to help protect property on the way to Colorado National Monument that they remembered visiting long ago. But part of it was privately owned and was projected for a housing development.
With a $25,000 donation from the Quimby Family Foundation, the Land Trust began acquiring and conserving property in the Three Sisters area in 2010.
Several generations of Quimbys have worked on other community conservation efforts over decades, including the Greenbelt Project and the Colorado Riverfront Project. Jane Quimby now sits on the Land Trust board of directors.
She remembered visiting the Three Sisters area with her father when she was a child, and said her family has long treasured the landscape. When Jane first moved back to the Grand Valley after her career had taken her elsewhere, “I heard that those lands might be developed for houses. But it seemed like this is a landscape that really needed to be preserved.”
Using the Quimby seed money and donations from numerous individuals and groups, the Land Trust has now purchased or conserved almost 200 acres along Monument Road, including 63 acres at either end of the original Three Sisters property.
Most of that land was given by the Land Trust to the city of Grand Junction for the Three Sisters Park. It provides trails for family hiking and connections to the Lunch Loop series of bike trails managed by the Bureau of Land Management in cooperation with the city.
“It gives me great pleasure” to see the property conserved and so many people using it, Quimby said.
“My lifetime goal is to have that path up Monument Road completed to Colorado National Monument,” she added. The Grand Junction City Council recently approved funding for part of that path. The Land Trust has offered to help raise additional money for the project.
Kevin Bray, a third-generation real estate broker in Grand Junction, said projects such as Monument Road are important for the entire community.
“Aesthetically, there are things about our community that make it unique, and as we grow, it’s important that we protect those things,” he said. “On Monument Road we have great property that’s open to the public. That amenity adds value to the real estate that’s around it.”
“One thing that made me gravitate to the Land Trust is the fact they are a conservation group, but they are very respectful of private property rights,” Bray added. “They don’t just show up and try to oppose the use of private land. I’m glad that we have an organization like them around.”
RANCHLANDS AND SCENIC BYWAYS
Beyond Monument Road and the fruit and wine lands, the Land Trust has continued to work on preserving spectacular ranch properties in western Colorado. It has helped secure conservation easements to more than 40,000 acres on a half-dozen different ranches on Glade Park, beginning with Mountain Island Ranch. Much of it is prime wildlife habitat.
Ranchland in other parts of the county is also being conserved. In 2015, Beeman and Jessie Casto worked through the Land Trust to place 740 acres of their ranch in Unaweep Canyon in conservation easement. The ranch was homesteaded by Beeman Casto’s ancestors in the 1890s. He and Jessie’s grandchildren hope they will be able to take the ranch over one day, in part because of the conservation easement.
“That’s the reason for the easement,” Jessie said in a video prepared for Mesa Land Trust. Her husband has lived on the ranch most of his 80-plus years and “he wants to die knowing it will still be a ranch, not a development property.”
Protecting the Casto ranch is part of the Land Trust’s ongoing efforts to conserve lands along three state-recognized Scenic Byways that pass through Mesa County: the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic Byway that is home to the Casto ranch; Grand Mesa Scenic Byway; and the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway that includes the road over Douglas Pass in the western part of the county.
“Our goal on all of the byways is to conserve the landscapes and views along those roads,” said Rob Bleiberg, executive director of the Land Trust. “We hope to keep lands large enough for commercial agriculture to remain viable and to protect streams and washes that flow to the Colorado River.
“We want to make folks along the scenic byways aware that this is an option,” he added.
Mesa Land Trust moved outside of Mesa County in 2013 at the request of fruit growers in Delta County. Those farmers wanted the Land Trust to help facilitate conservation easements for their orchards.
Like the fruit lands in the east end of the Grand Valley, parts of Delta County are considered prime agricultural lands by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So expanding into the neighboring county was a natural extension of the Land Trust’s mission.
Since 2013, the Land Trust has helped Delta County farmers place approximately 500 acres of productive agricultural land under conservation easement.
JUST SAY ‘NO’
In addition, the Land Trust has helped conserve more than 1,400 acres in the community separator areas — or buffer zones — between Fruita and Grand Junction and between Palisade and Clifton. In total, it has worked with landowners to place roughly 65,000 Mesa County acres under conservation easement, about 12 percent of the private land in the county.
However, contrary to what some may believe, Mesa Land Trust doesn’t approve every request it receives to create conservation easements…read more
From Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.