Collegiate Peaks Scenic & Historic Byway: Conservation roadmap will drive our Land Protection efforts along the Valley’s best roads
by Kim Marquis
Many of us drive the Collegiate Peaks Scenic & Historic Byway on a daily basis. Highways 285, 291, 24 and 50 get us to work, to friend’s homes for potlucks, out for shopping, and to the trailheads of thousands of acres of backcountry, where we refresh and rejuvenate.
Along the way, stunning vistas open to towering mountain peaks. Herds of cattle graze in fields edged with gently blowing grass, and we occasionally see a fox, coyote or hawk. How lucky we are, that our daily commutes take us along routes designated as among the most beautiful in our country.
Central Colorado Conservancy recognizes the importance of the experience for everyone — locals who travel the byway every single day and visitors who come to experience life in a high mountain valley. But how do we look around, appreciate everything within sight, and begin our conservation efforts.
This summer, Central Colorado Conservancy is completing the Collegiate Peaks Scenic & Historic Byway Conservation Plan, which will guide us on our mission to forever protect significant natural, agricultural, scenic and historic lands, as well as water resources and riparian areas along the Valley’s most frequented travel routes.
The Collegiate Peaks Scenic & Historic Byway runs fifty-seven miles on the main highways between Salida, Poncha Springs, Buena Vista, and Granite. Designated in 2005 through work by the Chaffee County Heritage Area Advisory Board and the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association (GARNA), the Conservancy is partnering with these organizations to protect the values that led to its original designation.
The conservation plan gives us geographical areas of focus through a systematic process of measuring the conservation value of lands along the byway. Using a weighed analysis, or a points system, we applied multiple factors such as wildlife habitat and migration corridors, view sheds, riparian areas, historical sites, working agricultural lands, proximity to public lands and existing conservation easements, and many others to assign priority conservation levels on lands within a 2.5-mile-wide buffer along the entire route.
Yvonne Barnes, a cartographer and GIS specialist, and owner of Mountain Mapping in Salida, layered the information into an interactive web map, which is searchable by multiple criteria and presents a visual display of lands by their priority level. The specific criteria and detailed map are designed for the internal use of the Land Trust to help our decision-making processes. Criteria to create priority levels were derived from the original management plan that led to the Collegiate Peaks byway designation in 2005.
Another map is being prepared for the public that will highlight general areas. The map will be available on our website (www.ltua.org) later this summer or early fall. The conservation map was made possible by a scenic byways grant from the Federal Highway Administration, awarded to Central Colorado Conservancy and GARNA in 2011.
“We realize that we can’t focus on everything along the byway, so this defines our priorities, and makes sure our work is geared towards the other plans and initiatives going on in the area,” said Central Colorado Conservancy Executive Director Andrew Mackie.
The conservation plan marks a key example of the way the Land Trust is working with local partners in its mission, and we also are working on a similar effort in Lake County, for the 115-mile Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway that travels through Leadville.
Central Colorado Conservancy has already begun implementing the Collegiate Peaks conservation plan, by garnering federal grant funds and additional financial resources to place the Boxcar Ranch near Stone Bridge north of Salida under a conservation easement last year.
At the same time, the Chaffee County Heritage Area Advisory Board has been working to preserve historical sites along the Collegiate Peaks byway, by completing a comprehensive inventory of potential sites that resulted in 65 sites deemed important for their historical significance.
This year, seven historical sites from the list located on or close to the byway were named to the National Historic Register, and an additional six sites will be studied and nominated for consideration. Sites already designated include Buena Vista’s Comanche Drive-In, Salida’s livestock sale barn, and the stage stop and commercial hotel in Granite.
“Designations are a distinctive honor and signify that a property is important to the nation’s collective history,” said Chaffee County Heritage Area Advisory Board Committee Chair Melanie Roth. “They are a way to promote the rich history that is present in Chaffee County, and hopefully in the long-term will help people recognize the wonderful resources we have and appreciate them so they will be preserved.”
We do appreciate the views on a daily basis, and on some level, they will always be there. But the Collegiate Peaks Scenic & Historic Byway is layered with important additional elements that make it special. Preserving working agricultural lands along the byway, for example, will help ranchers continue their traditional way of life.
Taken together, all the elements of the Conservation Plan attempt to preserve something that is special to everyone — our sense of place. We can already feel change coming to the Arkansas River Valley, on the roads with increased traffic, in the pace of home sales, and in our downtowns, as the growing Front Range populations discover new places to visit that are located away from Colorado’s I-70 corridor.
There can be an excitement in that but also a sense of worry and concern: What will the Arkansas River Valley look like in ten or twenty years? How will development impact our enjoyment of the place where we live? Central Colorado Conservancy’s work is never done. Yet with the Collegiate Peaks Scenic & Historic Byway Conservation Plan in place, we have a roadmap to direct our efforts along the Valley’s most visible and important thoroughfare.
Elk Bench Corridor – Central Colorado Conservancy is working on protecting critical winter habitat for elk in the Buena Vista area. To date the Land Trust has 18 conservation easements in this region. These conservation easements help connect the Heckendorf State Wildlife Area with elk migration routes and winter feeding areas.