Next 100 Listening Sessions
About this project
This year, members of the Next 100 Colorado traveled around the state in search of the next best lands conservation initiatives. Through generous funding from the Wilderness Society, and in partnership with Protegete, an initiative within Conservation Colorado, our team met with dozens of public lands advocates, recreationists, and community leaders to get the scoop of each community’s priorities, hopes for the future, and opportunities for funders and big green partners to support these local initiatives.
The San Luis Valley, located in the South-central part of the state, is an 8,000 square mile high elevation valley bordered to the west by the Continental Divide and the San Juan mountains, and to the East by the towering, scraggly Crestones. Prior to colonization, the region was defined by the Uto-Aztecs, ancestors to many Great Basin and Great Plains tribes, including the contemporary Ute tribes whose homelands make up much of Colorado and whose tribal reservations now lie just west of the valley.
The valley itself was primarily home to the Kapota or Capote band, now known as the Southern Utes. The region contains some of Colorado’s oldest European settlements and buildings from the days of Spanish colonization, including what is the oldest Catholic parish in the state, one of the numerous buildings protected by the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area.
In addition to the rich cultural history of the area, the San Luis Valley also includes some of Colorado’s most treasured recreation and biodiversity hot spots including the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Monte Vista and Alamosa National Wildlife Refuges, alongside thousands of acres of state wildlife areas, Bureau of Land Management lands and National Forests.
Spending the afternoon in Alamosa, we were joined by several valley residents representing a number of conservation and recreation coalitions, and agriculture, alongside a number of long-time area residents involved in community advocacy and historic preservation. About half of the local participants were fourth-, sixth-, or seventh-generation Coloradoans, and those who grew up in the area were connected to the outdoors, rivers, and the valley from a very young age.
As Jeff Owsley put it: “I grew up mostly in the Conejos Canyon. I would go up there five days out of the week and work the cabin with my grandfather. And I got to know that canyon like the back of my hand.”
As Patrick Ortiz of San Luis Valley Get Outdoors said, “Growing up in the Great Sand Dunes as a little toddler, I was able to swim in Medano Creek and feel the water rush over me like waves.”
Experiences like these motivated participants to work in conservation, environmental, or outdoor recreation spaces. Some are passionate about ensuring that today’s youth and families also have early opportunities to connect to the land, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Participants had several ideas for conservation investment in the community, pointing to opportunities for wilderness designations, such as for 50,000 acres in the Sangres from Poncho Pass to the Great Sand Dunes. Another mentioned attempts to expand the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument into Colorado. One participant noted that “in Colorado, there are acres and acres and acres that have been looked at for wilderness status or some other kind of protected status and have gotten local businesses or local civic groups and so forth all agree on this, but we can't get 60 votes in the Senate to get these things passed. There is a lot of lands that could be considered part of the 30x30 that's just sitting there waiting for some action.”
Participants talked about opportunities related to dark skies research or designations, noting the chance to address light pollution and attract astro tourism. Education is important locally, for installing a conservation ethic and building bridges across groups with different political or cultural identities; many can agree on the importance of nature, clean water, and healthy lands. And like many rural regions, a large geographic area with a relatively small population struggles with a relatively small tax base, so the additional investment is welcome.
Policymakers, funders, and other stakeholders should heed these suggestions and opportunities for investment, along with continuing to collaborate with local leaders across the state to identify and implement locally-driven conservation solutions.
The Lower Arkansas River Valley is a visually and culturally stunning albeit historically disinvested region of Colorado. Starting from headwaters located in the high peaks of the continental divide in Lake County, the snow that comprises the white cap of Colorado’s highest peak, Mt Elbert, flows through a series of artificial lakes, whitewater rapids, and landmarks like Browns Canyon and the Royal Gorge before as it descends the Rockies. Flowing nearly 300 miles to the Kansas border along the southeast corner of the state, the Arkansas river drains a region of nearly 170,000 thousand square miles and supports a population of nearly 80,000 Coloradans.
The communities along this basin include some of Colorado’s most diverse people and industries. Strikingly, the area around Pueblo and to the southeast along the river contains some of the highest density of state-managed conservation lands in Colorado, nearly 200,000 acres. These lands include the most visited, Lake Pueblo State Park, and the second largest, Fishers Peak State Park – totaling 4,687,369 visitors in 2021 and over 19,000 acres, respectively. In addition to the sprawling state lands, Comanche National Grassland, one of only two in Colorado, stretches over nearly 450,000 acres in separate tracts across the southern portion of the area.
To get a more in-depthperspective of the community and conservation priorities, we met with several area residents and leaders at the Nature and Wildlife Discovery Center in Pueblo, located right on the banks of the Arkansas river basin. We were honored to have long-time resident and community leader George Autobee attend our session. “My family came out here to the Arkansas valley in the 1800’s. We were the first family to settle here in Southern Colorado, aspart of a land grant near Avondale, where the Huerfano and Arkansas rivers meet, and so we go way back.” Stories of belonging, place, and history were essential to understanding the culture and disparities that contribute to the vitality and injustice of this community.
Starting off the bat, many Puebloans have a shared narrative of how they have come to love the outdoors and engage in recreation and thus conservation. Javier Quinones recounts “My interest in nature, just like many other folks, began when I was little, with my mother being a master gardener and teaching us the importance and benefits of plant life, definitely boosted my interest in nature.” His reflections on early childhood exposure to the outdoors were a shared experience throughout the group.
Taylor Driver, Executive Director of the Nature and Wildlife Discovery Center, “I've been outside since I was a little one, thanks to my parents. And having lived in a number of places, both in the States and out of the country, I was just so impressed with what Pueblo and this area has to offer in terms of outdoor resources. And so now my job is.. making sure that as an organization and as an individual, I'm doing everything to promote the health of these two spaces. And to get people out and enjoy them, just like I'm able to.”
However, for communities of color, engaging in the outdoors can look different. According to a recent report released by Protegete, high Latino counties, like Pueblo, contain 35% of Colorado’s state population, however, these same counties only contain 18% of the total local park acres in the state. The connection to the land that Puebloans shared with us as well as their concerns for future generations to grow that same bond was unique and profound.
Pueblo is a disinvested community where you must dive deep into the landscape to truly understand the issues and unique community-based solutions to see the future of this Colorado hidden gem. Not unique to a majority-minority county/ incorporation in any state, Pueblo citizens know firsthand what it means to be on the frontlines of environmental racism and the effort it takes to be able to access the outdoors. This is a community with grit and drive, a community that is dedicated to seeing the next generation of Colorado benefit from the outdoor resources that most of our wealthy communities benefit from.
Pueblo is a community that doesn’t need us to analyze where their issues are but needs our funding to drive the change that they have identified years ago, and have solutions for, but cannot get anyone to listen.
For many Black, Brown, and Indigenous Coloradans, access and connection to nature is a defining facet for our communities. From the rushing waters of Pueblo’s historic Arkansas Riverwalk, the shifting terrain at the Great Sand Dunes, the towering peaks of the Crestones, and the calls of sandhill cranes at the annual Monte Vista Crane Festival, some of the earliest memories we make are of time spent outdoors.
Central to all of the stories we heard was the recurring theme that BIPOC Coloradans hold access to the outdoors and natural spaces in high regard, even when our communities aren’t afforded convenient and direct access to these resources. Several community members indicated a history of failed partnerships and misappropriated local insight as a major factor causing reluctance to participate in traditional environmental planning processes.
Often, these experiences have impassioned the members of these communities to lead in work that connects people with the outdoors utilizing tools, resources, and education that assist in making experiences in the outdoors meaningful for whole families and future generations.
As the Next 100 Coalition continues to deepen these relationships and drive resources to people and organizations protecting and engaging with Colorado’s lands, we believe a key driving factor towards equitable access to nature and the outdoors will be the continued efforts of funders and policymakers to invest resources and capacity in community-led groups and regional mutualistic partnerships.
We’re looking forward to what’s in store for the next 100 years and grateful for the opportunity to be a community liaison on the front lines of environmental justice, equitable access, and the amplification of community led-solutions.