Colorado officials took the first steps Wednesday in changing how they manage a delicate 135-square-mile patch of state-owned prairie southeast of Colorado Springs that has become an oasis for 346 species of birds and almost as many bird watchers each year.
State land commissioners voted 5-0 not to break up Chico Basin Ranch and were leaning in favor of a competitive bidding process to determine access after 2024 — with increased leasing separately for multiple uses, including public recreation and solar energy development.
The commissioners have backed off an initial option of selling the land. State Land Board staffers set a target of at least doubling state revenue from leasing to $600,000 a year. The money helps fund schools.
This wrangling reflects clashing priorities along Colorado’s high-growth Front Range, where saving nature can rival state interests in exploiting remaining open land.
For 22 years, cattle rancher Duke Phillips and his family have managed Chico Basin and restored over-grazed prairie to a healthy condition while allowing access for members of bird-watching groups such as the Denver Field Ornithologists and the Audubon Society. Phillips and crew also support scientific research by the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies to help track bird migration as species decline due to habitat loss from climate warming impacts and development.
Phillips expressed disappointment Wednesday, saying he expected that after his family’s success improving prairie health “we would be rewarded for that by having the ability to negotiate directly with the state” for a lease renewal. Colorado Parks and Wildlife in 2019 recognized Phillips for exemplary stewardship.
Phillips told commissioners “multi-layering the leases” will reduce coordination and change the experiences of schoolchildren and other visitors.
State officials expressed empathy, and commissioner Josie Heath proposed that future leasing decisions should factor in benefits of keeping multiple generations of ranchers on the land.
Bird-watchers “are delighted that the ranch will be leased as one parcel, which will prevent habitat fragmentation,” said Linda Hodges, conservation committee chair for the Audubon Society’s chapter in Colorado Springs.
But access after 2024 for bird watchers under the new approach to leasing is uncertain, Hodges said, forcing bird-watcher groups and researchers to consider forging a separate lease contract with the State Land Board specifying how many people would visit and on how many days a year.
“We have a very small budget and, as we don’t know what the fee is, we don’t know if we can afford it. This would also mean finding a way to manage reservations for people across the state who want to visit the property,” she said. “We are a small, volunteer-run nonprofit, and it could prove to be too cumbersome for us.”
The Chico Basin prairie stands out as one of the biggest unbroken parcels in the 2.8 million-acre inventory controlled by the State Land Board, Colorado’s second-largest landowner after the federal government. Leasing state land since 2006 has raised $2 billion for schools, the agency’s mission, and staffers point to construction of 524 buildings used by 225,000 students.
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