How a plan to save southeastern Colorado went off the rails
December 6, 2015
Steve Wooten stands on a low ridge overlooking the Purgatoire River and the yellowed grass and red rock of southeastern Colorado's canyon country. His family, which first settled here in 1929, now runs about 300 cows on 27,000 public and private acres of shortgrass prairie spiked with cholla cactus.
He points to a juniper-covered mesa across the Purgatoire. His neighbor there is not in the ranching business: That's the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, a 238,000-acre training area that the U.S. Army set up in the early 1980s. V-22 Osprey aircraft and helicopters sometimes scatter his cattle.
About a decade ago, the Army proposed a massive $1 billion expansion of the site, up to 7 million acres. It would have involved seizing private lands — through a legal process called eminent domain — across most of the southeastern corner of the state, an area bigger than Maryland, displacing more than 17,000 people.
A feisty group of local ranchers, farmers, businesses and officials sprang up in response. Wooten became vice president of the Piñon Canyon Opposition Coalition, which allied with university scholars and conservation groups. They surveyed the area and identified its rare and impressive natural and historical resources, including neo-tropic bird migration stopovers and centuries-old Native, Hispanic and Anglo artifacts. In late 2013, congressional representatives from Colorado convinced the military to withdraw the waiver allowing the expansion. Somehow, this ragtag group of ranchers, farmers and nature-lovers had defeated the world's largest military.
But even as they celebrated their victory, Wooten saw other challenges looming: a long-lasting drought, an up-and-down livestock market, struggling ranches and dying downtowns.
"We see our young people not coming back from college and opening new businesses here because they don't see an economic chance. We have more attrition than we have growth," he says. "That should be a wake-up call."
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His family sells landscaping stones, raises horses and opens its lands to hunting, art workshops and "guest ranching" to get by. That led him and others to embrace the idea of "heritage tourism" — bringing in visitors who want to experience an area's natural and human history. Perhaps they could preserve the region's resources, avert future Army expansions, bring in money and even attract new residents.
"My thought is, how do you create a community that is economically stronger and more diversified and balanced, and I saw a heritage area as a tool to help us do that," he says.
He had no idea that garnering the necessary support would make defeating the U.S. Army seem almost easy in comparison.
Heritage tourism is not a new idea. Since 1984, the National Park Service has designated 49 national heritage areas across the country, including several in Colorado. Unlike national parks, the government neither owns nor manages all lands within a heritage area. Instead, heritage areas recognize "lived-in landscapes" with a cohesive identity and unique historical and natural resources. Though there is not a lot of data on the designations' long-term impacts, they have opened the door to increased government funding, which helps leverage other private and state grants and money to support historic preservation, conservation, recreation and tourism.
The South Park National Heritage Area in Park County, Colorado, for instance, encompasses a 1,700-square-mile, mountain-ringed basin with a mining history and the headwaters of the South Platte River. Since its 2009 designation, South Park's recreational and heritage tourism has increased, says Linda Balough, the heritage area's executive director, while roughly $900,000 from the Park Service has leveraged $3 million total for historic preservation, tourism and related programs.
That sounded ideal for southeastern Colorado, which, with its sprawling ranches and smattering of small towns, is a region apart: Its fewer than 50,000 people tend to be older, poorer and less educated than those in other parts of the state. The Lower Arkansas Valley, which includes the Purgatoire country, has lost 1,557 residents since 2010 and 698 jobs since 2011, both more than 1 percent declines.
Drought often dries up stretches of the Purgatoire, and wells that once reliably pumped snowpack-fed groundwater have dwindled to a trickle. Wooten's relatives survived the Dust Bowl, but he says the last 15 years have been "way worse" for southeastern Colorado. "Drought" — pronounced "drouth" — "has everybody's herd reduced," he says.
Local farms, which raise corn, melons and beans using Arkansas River water, have also dwindled as water brokers stealthily buy up agricultural water rights to supply the Denver area's fast-growing communities. The process, known as buy-and-dry, has virtually ended farming in nearby Crowley County, which now depends on feedlots and state prisons for jobs and local revenue.
Tourism is sluggish and services are modest, though. The Park Service reported just over 28,000 visitors to the two sites it manages there in 2013 — about a week's worth of visits to Mesa Verde National Park — generating $1.54 million for nearby towns and supporting an estimated 21 jobs. Creating a national heritage area seemed one way to boost those anemic numbers while respecting local culture and land rights.
There has been some new activity in the region, though. Wooten takes me on a 45-minute, dirt-road drive from his ranch to the tiny town of Kim, population 74. It's an hour's ride from the next nearest town in every direction, and "almost lost in time," says R.C. Patterson, who ranches just outside the community. The town's only gas pump is at the general store, but there's no diesel for truckers and no apparent local industry. And yet on the eastern edge of town rises a brand-new, cavernous, 80,000-square-foot covered rodeo arena, with 24 hookups for trailers and RVs and 40 horse stalls. "As far as competition-sized arenas, there's nothing this big under a roof for hundreds of miles around," says Patterson, a former champion bareback bronc rider.