OURAY COUNTY: Funding granted for Sawtooth Ranch reservation

By Sheridan Block

Preservation of Sawtooth Mountain Ranch was secured last week with $3 million in funding through the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program.

On Wednesday, Aug. 6, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet announced the award, which will protect the property from future development. The ranch owner and the Trust for Public Lands have been working together for several years to secure legacy funds to conserve the ranch, and last year Bennet and Sen. Mark Udall wrote a letter on behalf of the property, requesting the allocation of FLP dollars for the project.
“The Sawtooth Mountain Ranch is a beautiful piece of property. It’s a state and national treasure,” said Bennet in a released statement. “Colorado has a legacy of preserving these. It took a team effort from the county, the Trust for Public Lands and the owner of the ranch itself. After years of work, we are grateful to know this landscape will be protected for future generations.”
According to a press release from the USFS, Sawtooth Ranch is one of seven projects funded by the FLP, altogether totaling over $14 million in funding. Funding for the projects will come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program that supports state efforts to protect “environmentally sensitive” forest lands, particularly privately owned lands. These projects were included in the president’s 2014 budget.
The FLP uses LWCF money to fund conservation easements for the projects, which are legally binding and transfer a negotiated set of property rights without removing the property from private ownership. The Colorado State Forest Service will hold the conservation easement for Sawtooth Mountain Ranch.
The property and community will both benefit from the project, said Philip Clelland, Bennet’s deputy press secretary.
He noted that the easement will prevent development in areas of critical wildlife habitat for species like the Canada lynx, elk, turkey, mule deer and black bear. It will also protect the scenic view of the San Juan Skyway as seen from US 550 and SH 62 and conserve 11 miles of tributaries of the Uncompahgre River, which provides drinking water to over 76,000 people. The property is also a working cattle ranch and preserving the purpose of the property will help support the county’s agricultural economy, Clelland said.
“This is a fantastic opportunity to conserve a spectacular working ranch while also protecting pristine wildlife habitat and big game hunting grounds,” said County Commissioner Lynn Padgett. “I’m grateful to everyone who has worked on this Forest Legacy Project since 2011 and especially the landowner and Sen. Bennet for their vision, leadership and perseverance. It is an exemplary Forest Legacy Project.”
Sawtooth Mountain Ranch totals 2,448 acres on Owl Creek Pass and is the largest FLP project in the state. The conservation easement will cover the entire property.
The FLP has conserved over 2.3 million acres of forest lands since it was founded by Congress in 1964. The program is set to expire next year; however, President Obama has proposed to fully and permanently fund the program.