The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) helps to safeguard over 3.1 million acres of public lands and natural resources in the six counties comprising the San Luis Valley, noted for their unchanged landscapes, biological richness, early settlement traditions, and rural lifestyles. This unique region of Colorado contains the mountain watersheds of the Rio Grande, extensive forests and wilderness, rangelands, and scenic panoramas—all of which need SLVEC involvement to guard against inappropriate development and resource management.
The SLVEC was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1998 by citizens inspired to defend the integrity of forest and other public lands. As stated on its website, its mission is “to protect and restore, through research, education, and advocacy, the biological diversity, ecosystems, and natural resources of the Upper Rio Grande bioregion, balancing ecological values with human needs.” This initiative was also sponsored financially by Citizens for San Luis Valley Water, formed in 1989 to defeat a massive, corporate-based water export scheme proposed by American Water Development, Inc. The SLVEC is operated by an executive director and board with part-time staff, 100 volunteers, and more than 400 contributing members. Federal grants, private foundations, donations, and fund-raising campaigns provide financial support, and the organization maintains a close working relationship with other environmental organizations at the local, state, regional, and national level.
The complex and changing nature of the issues facing the SLVEC requires a principled, resourceful approach and a diverse set of skills. To meet information needs, the group collects baseline data for research, such as measuring roadless acreage—the amount of land without roads—or field testing the water quality of household wells. Where evidence of public support is needed, it acts as a community organizer. Where harmful decisions or practices are detected, it recommends appropriate or corrective actions. And where further advocacy is needed, it submits comments on proposed legislation and policy to all levels of government. The SLVEC also conducts public awareness campaigns, organizes events, and coordinates training and workshops to motivate greater support and commitment.
The group takes a proactive role in addressing environmental issues where other organizations hesitate to become involved, lines of responsibility are unclear, or a leadership gap exists. The SLVEC stepped in to challenge low-altitude flyovers when others feared to comment and testified before Congress in support of the controversial Rio Grande Natural Area Act, which designated protection for thirty-three miles of the Rio Grande corridor. As a last resort, the SLVEC may also pursue legal action through its relationships with attorneys doing pro bono work or join in other court proceedings.
Mountain landscapes that have not been compromised by recreational development are becoming rare in Colorado, and the SLVEC and its allies are committed to keeping the remote mountain areas of the San Luis Valley intact. Most significant among these challenges is the Village at Wolf Creek project, proposed by billionaire investors and enabled by land exchanges with the US Forest Service. Located at the 10,550-foot summit of Wolf Creek Pass, adjacent to Wolf Creek Ski Area, the resort plans increased from a few hundred condo units to several thousand, with the capacity to support a population of 6,000–8,000. Development on this scale would likely incur significant and irreversible environmental impacts.
Beyond the obvious visual disturbance of such a development, Wolf Creek Pass represents a strategic landmark on the Continental Divide that captures the greatest snow accumulations in the Southern Rockies and protects some of the nation’s purest and most productive watersheds, which are critical to agriculture, outdoor recreation, and forest ecosystems. Its location also comprises an essential wildlife corridor, providing forest connectivity between the South San Juan and Weminuche Wilderness Areas. These forests provide essential habitat for creatures such as the endangered Canada lynx.
After many years of delays due to forest regulations and reviews, decisions regarding the development rest on the outcome of a lawsuit by the SLVEC and other environmental groups citing inadequacies and lack of oversight in the Forest Service review. Pending further actions, the SLVEC and its allies are conducting a public outreach campaign via its Art for the Endangered Landscape initiative, designed to gain broader support for a no-development option or a drastically scaled-back version of the project. Appeals for an investor-sponsored conservation area are also being explored.
Oil and Gas Development
While past analysis of the valley’s geology has not indicated commercially viable oil and gas deposits, the SLVEC monitors periodic exploration efforts to protect water resources. Beginning in 2006, the SLVEC helped prevent unregulated exploratory drilling on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. Courts upheld the group’s legal challenge that developers failed to comply with the review process of the National Environmental Policy Act. In 2016 SLVEC settled another lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regarding exploratory drilling along San Francisco Creek, near Del Norte. In the agreement, the BLM agreed to withdraw its 2014 approval of a drilling plan, as it neglected the findings of an independent study that concluded the well would threaten the valley’s aquifers, which are vital for community water supplies and agriculture. There are currently no oil and gas wells in the San Luis Valley, exploratory or otherwise.
Solar Energy Development
To reduce development based on hydrocarbons, the SLVEC assists in the advancement of the valley’s solar energy production to ensure that operations are developed with minimal environmental impacts. The group created a Map of Sensitive SLV Resources advocating for solar as the preferred direction for future energy development. The need to upgrade the valley’s infrastructure transmission line for large-scale export of solar electricity to the nation’s energy grid presented a major concern that SLVEC addressed early on with a series of educational forums. Fortunately, it was determined that line upgrades over Poncha Pass could meet this demand without the expense and environmental impacts of cutting new corridors across undisturbed landscapes.
As part of their shared activities on the environment, the SLVEC and Conejos Clean Water (CCW) provide input to the BLM on setting site-sensitive parameters for 22,000 acres of land parcels designated by the BLM as Solar Energy Zones. They are also recommending appropriate mitigation to compensate for loss of habitat, such as wildlife corridors, and potential zone impacts on traditional land uses by nearby communities.
While the valley’s contributions to the nation’s renewable energy reserves are laudable, assistance from the SLVEC and its partners in developing small-scale solar applications,, such as CCW’s solar energy garden in Antonito, are of more practical value to local residents. These sources allow residents to break their dependence on the grid.
Sustainable Forest Management
Comprising 1.8 million acres, the Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF) represents the largest public landholding in the region, and the SLVEC encourages the Forest Service to protect its core ecosystems and intrinsic natural qualities. The RGNF has remained in a relatively wild state but faces considerable challenges to handle the increasing influx of motorists and off-road enthusiasts. Recreational space for low-impact users who value the peace, quiet, and unspoiled beauty of a natural forest is becoming increasingly scarce.
In addition to human impacts, the forest has lost over 90 percent of its spruce-fir timber stands to drought, beetle infestations, and forest fires. Other issues include overgrazing and the destruction of riparian habitat, road and trail maintenance and decommissioning, loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitat, invasive species, erosion and stream sedimentation, landscape fragmentation, and the unpredictable consequences of climate change.
To assist the Forest Service in addressing these issues, the SLVEC participates in the RGNF’s twenty-year planning process and joined with the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Rocky Mountain Wild, San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Quiet Use Coalition, and other environmental community members in submitting science-based observations and comments aimed at correcting past mistakes and promoting sustainable management alternatives. In response to the 2012 Planning Rule, which mandated higher priority for ecosystem integrity in forest management decisions, the SLVEC is describing the RGNF’s economic benefits to neighboring communities and has also begun to quantify the basic ecosystem processes sustaining the health of the forest.
As of 2016, SLVEC is also preparing an alternative conservation strategy to encourage higher levels of protection for the parts of the forest with exceptional environmental value. This would include recommendations and campaigns for building public support to expand landscape connectivity and to designate lands with wilderness characteristics, wildlife protection areas, special use areas, and Research Natural Areas, many of which have not been adequately identified or researched.
Water and Air Quality Health Concerns
The SLVEC’s work on behalf of human health provides another dimension of its service. Its grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided free well testing for 800 households and enabled health assessments throughout the valley. Support from the EPA and National Jewish Health enabled 2,500 families to be educated on the importance of maintaining indoor air quality and the need to reduce exposure to asthma triggers such as dust, mold, secondhand tobacco smoke, and smoke from wood-burning fires.
Solid Waste and Recycling
The eyesores and environmental health concerns posed by illegal dumpsites prompted the SLVEC to conduct a program combining dump cleanups with US Department of Agriculture (USDA) grants, in partnership with CCW and with EPA funds, to focus on recycling awareness and education. Communities in Conejos and Costilla Counties located furthest from the landfill were targeted first, resulting in more than thirty sites being evaluated; a portion of these were cleaned up under staff guidance. Additional USDA grants were awarded to expand program services to Alamosa and Saguache Counties.
Education and outreach efforts engaged hundreds of residents in the cleanups, including local officials and staff, commercial waste haulers, public school students and youth groups, and the general public. Several communities have also been empowered to conduct cleanups under local initiatives and resources. Efforts to activate waste transfer stations and enlist the law enforcement community to control illegal dumping have generally been slower or more difficult to implement.
Recycling on a consistent basis is generally limited to facilities in Alamosa, which handle most recyclables except glass. SLVEC and other partners envision the eventual establishment of a solid waste management and recycling regime serving the entire San Luis Valley, but such a system depends on a region of fewer than 50,000 residents being able to generate the volumes of recyclables needed to support an operation that breaks even or makes a profit.
The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council fills an important niche in the valley’s organizational fabric, having the flexibility to address environmental and related issues that may seem controversial or outside the standard operating procedures of official agencies. By doing so, it can effectively confront threats to natural areas, ecosystems, and watersheds that other agencies may be slow or reluctant to confront. These efforts also significantly benefit the valley’s extensive agricultural and tourism economy and protect the vital interplay between the natural world and human well-being for current and future generations.