The Region: Introduction
The Baca National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is situated in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, the largest contained sub-alpine desert valley in the world. Spanning 92,500 acres upon completion, its one of the largest and newest additions to the National Wildlife Refuge System in the conterminous forty-eight states and Colorado’s largest wildlife refuge.
The Baca NWR is a place where extraordinary waters, wetlands, wildlife and cultures converge. Pristine snowmelt-fed waters flow off the surrounding Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains and feed a complex network of wetlands considered to be among the most concentrated, pristine and biologically diverse in the Southwest. Collectively, these waters continually recharge the vast surface and confined Closed Basin aquifer system1 -- the lifeblood to wildlife, agriculture and rural communities of the San Luis Valley extending into the Rio Grande, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico.
The Baca National Wildlife Refuge supports an astonishing diversity of life. More than 70 species of rare plants and animals are found here, including several species found nowhere else in the world. The landscape provides vital habitat for a wealth of wildlife species, including a large residential elk herd, numerous migratory bird species and a plethora of aquatic (water-loving) plants and animals.
Humans have lived sustainably within the lands of the Baca NWR for more than 400 generations (over 11,500 years). According to Smithsonian archeologists, thousands of archeological sites and millions of artifacts - including important burial sites - lie beneath the sands of the Baca NWR3. The Ute, Hopi, and Pueblo are just a few of the indigenous peoples with historical ties to the Baca NWR.
Sadly, the Baca NWR is threatened by one of our nation’s most poorly justified predilections: the exploitation and degradation of our most special public lands for relatively miniscule reserves of oil and gas.
Some of the most pristine waters remaining in the continental US flow into the Baca NWR. The convergence point for eight drainages, the snowmelt-fed waters flow off the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains into the 2,940 square mile watershed that drains into the upper San Luis Valley. A natural topographic barrier contains these waters in a vast, interconnected regional aquifer system, called the Closed Basin. The waters flowing into the Baca NWR are critical to the seasonal recharge of the Closed Basin Aquifer system -- the lifeblood of wetlands, wildlife, agriculture and communities of the San Luis Valley extending into the Rio Grande, New Mexico, Texas and eventually Mexico.
Following a series of attempts to export groundwater from the Closed Basin in the 1980’s and 90’s, a coalition of Valley farmers, ranchers, business owners, community organizations and environmentalists mounted a successful grass-roots campaign to protect the land and waters of the Luis Maria de Baca Land Grant. In an unprecedented 18-months, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000 was signed into law authorizing creation of a 500,000-acre complex of protected lands composed of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Rio Grande National Forest Mountain Tract and extensions to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
Significant language was included to ensure protection of the vital waters of the Baca NWR. In approving this act, Congress determined that these lands offered, “unique hydrological, biological, educational and recreational values deserving of preservation into perpetuity.” Section 6 of the Act mandated that Refuge Management and the Secretary of Interior shall “protect and maintain water rights necessary for protection of [the] monument, park, preserve, and refuge resources and uses; and minimize …adverse impacts on other water users.” Furthermore, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), the federal managing agency, the purpose of the Baca NWR is to:
“Restore, enhance and maintain wetland, upland, riparian and other habitats for wildlife, plants and fish species that are native to the San Luis Valley, Colorado. Management of the Refuge will emphasize migratory bird conservation and will consider the Refuge’s role in broader landscape conservation efforts.”
Wetlands & Wildlife
The extraordinary gathering of waters in the Baca NWR feeds over 15,000 acres of irrigated wetlands and another 10,000 acres of natural wetlands and playas -- considered among the most concentrated, pristine and biologically diverse wetlands in the southwestern United States. These ever shifting, dynamic wetlands provide critical habitat for numerous migratory birds that come to the San Luis Valley to forage, breed and rear their young each year.
For nearly 200 years the Baca NWR was a privately owned cattle ranch. For this and other reasons, the refuge ecosystems are exceptionally intact, diverse and pristine. Since scientists have not had access to the Refuge lands, no comprehensive studies or inventories have been conducted. Biological assessments conducted in adjacent areas by the prestigious Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP), have identified these lands as the largest, most concentrated area of Outstanding Biodiversity Significance in the San Luis Valley. At least 4 CNHP Potential Conservation Areas extend naturally into the Refuge. The Great Sand Dunes National Park supports species, landscapes and habitats found nowhere else on earth. These unique systems depend upon the intact wetland and groundwater systems of the adjacent Baca NWR.
These, and other studies suggest that the Baca NWR could support more than 70 rare plants and animals3 including a recently discovered population of the endangered Rio Grande sucker, the rare Brazilian free-tailed bat, mountain plover, northern goshawk, Wilson's phalarope, burrowing owls and the largest known population of the globally imperiled slender spider flower. The Refuge also provides important habitat for the Valley’s large resident elk herd that depends upon the secluded calving grounds and critical winter habitat available on the remote refuge lands.
Culture & Community
People have been drawn to the land now designated as the Baca NWR since the dawn of civilization in North America. Evidence of human’s date more than 11,5000 years back to the early Clovis hunters who foraged, fished and hunted among Pleistocene animals who roamed the vast grasslands of the San Luis Valley. A continuous flow of people and cultures followed including the Folsom and more recent Ute, Pueblo and Hopi Tewa Peoples. According to Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History archeologist’s who have studied prehistoric land use in the eastern Closed Basin of the San Luis Valley since 1979, “400 generations of humans lived in the area now contained within the Baca NWR. They left behind thousands of archeological sites and millions of artifacts”, “Archeological evidence and expertise indicates that burials of Paleoindian and/or later indigenous peoples are expected [to be buried] on the Baca NWR” (Jodry and Stanford, 2007).
The region’s rich Spanish and Mexican heritages are also reflected in the Baca NWR. Ranching and agriculture have long been important in the Baca NWR and remain a foundational part of the economy and lifestyles in the San Luis Valley to this day. Because of its many extraordinary features, the Baca NWR has been chosen for inclusion in the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area currently being considered by Congress. Only the third National Heritage Area to be proposed for designation west of the Mississippi, the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area has been nationally recognized for its important historical, ecological, geographic, geological and cultural resources that make a unique contribution to the Nations history.
Perhaps not surprising is the advent of a modern culture of sustainability that is emerging in the communities surrounding the Baca NWR. The Crestone/Baca is home to the largest concentration of retreat centers in North America. Drawn here by the extraordinary beauty, solitude and splendor of the unique high-elevation rural setting, more than 20 spiritual centers, representing traditions as far ranging as the Catholic Carmelites to the ancient Bon religion of Tibet, reside here in an effort of harmony. The Japanese Shumei International Institute has its headquarters in the mountains overlooking the Baca NWR. The Crestone Baca community is home to the famous Lindisfarne Chapel and Padmasambhava and Tashi Gomang Stupas, among other important spiritual monuments.