Finding common ground between Colorado’s private and public lands

Author: Lesli Allison - September 13, 2018 - Updated: September 12, 2018

Lesli Allison

It’s hard to think of a time in recent history when we focused more on division than we do now. It’s often said there are two Colorados — one in the metro areas clustered along the Front Range, the other in Colorado’s vast rural expanses.

While most of these conversations center on traffic, affordable housing, education and often on politics — red vs. blue (or even purple) —there’s an equally important set of issues that urgently need our attention, too. Among them: the growing urban/rural divide and the steady disappearance of working lands.

As Colorado is projected to add another 3 million residents by 2050, we must remember the important role privately owned working ranches and farms play in the West. Working lands are a vitally important cornerstone of our economy and our ecosystems. Collectively, working lands feed, water and fuel the nation while providing recreational opportunities and sustaining up to 80 percent of the region’s wildlife species.

The 420,000 square miles of the American West is almost evenly divided between public and private ownership. Whether it is a park, forest, refuge, ranch, farm, Native American reservation or military base, economically and ecologically, public and private lands both serve critical roles. For example, we need the tourism and recreational opportunities that nearly one billion user-days in our parks and forests generate annually, but we also need the continuous wildlife corridors, water storage and other ecological buffers that healthy, connected working lands provide.

These private lands, their wildlife and those who make their living from them face increasing pressures, among them residential development and other economically competitive land uses. And they’re disappearing. According to the Center for American Progress, Colorado is losing natural areas nearly 38 percent faster than the average rate in the West. More than 336,000 acres in the state were developed between 2001 and 2011. Ensuring the economic viability of rural communities is essential to keeping our remaining lands intact, in family ownership and available to meet the many needs of people and wildlife.

In the past, public and private lands have been largely treated as separate and sometimes conflicting entities. Many conservation efforts focus on protecting wilderness areas from human impacts. On working landscapes, however, conservation simply cannot be an either/or scenario; we must design policies and economic opportunities that integrate land use and conservation.

The good news is collaborative efforts to do just this are springing up all over the West. When we work together, we can achieve innovative models of farm and ranch management, regenerative agriculture, collaborative conservation partnerships and deeper levels of ecological understanding that often bring the two halves together and erase divides. At a time when increasing and competing demands on our land and natural resources pose significant challenges, cooperation is more essential than ever.

In this spirit, landowners from around the West have formed the Western Landowners Alliance, a growing network of landowners, managers and partners committed to a future in which publicly leased and private lands in the West are resilient to stressors, healthy and biologically diverse, and provide for prosperous rural businesses and critical ecological services. Together, we provide a collective voice, a peer network and a shared knowledge base for landowners and managers striving to keep the land whole and healthy. We are all interconnected, after all.

While people will always find differences, it is our innate ability to work together that enables us to survive. The prosperity of rural communities depends on the health and productivity of both the public and private working lands. Only if we work together from this essential common ground can we hope to remain a united and prosperous nation and to endow our children with a viable future.

Lesli Allison

Lesli Allison

Lesli Allison is the executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, a landowner-led network dedicated to the health and prosperity of the American West by working to advance policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species.