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Research, Education and Advocacy

SLVEC is Collecting Critical Baseline to
help protect a vital reach of the Rio Grande

Fact Sheet

Explains the difference between a
National Conservation Area (NCA)
and a
National Monument designation

Healthy Communities
along the Rio Grande

About 30 members of the public gathered to listen to a powerpoint presentation provided by SLVEC Director Chris Canaly and land acknowledgement by Anna Vargas, to learn more about the economic development opportunities that are being provided by other National Conservation Areas (NCAs) in Colorado


Central to the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council’s (SLVEC) mission is to protect and restore the biological diversity, ecosystems, and natural resources in the Upper Rio Grande. In line with these values, SLVEC is currently working to inform policies that would grant long-term protection to the Rio Grande Corridor in Colorado’s Conejos and Costilla Counties.

The proposed Upper Rio Grande National Conservation Area, (NCA), is an opportunity to provide management continuity, financial stability and education opportunities to a significant area in southern Colorado that has the potential to adjoin Bureau of land Management (BLM) lands in Northern New Mexico, which were designated in 2013 as the Rio Grande/Del Norte National Monument. Colorado (and specifically Conejos and Costilla Counties) are taking a different approach to the process and researching the possibility of an NCA, which must be supported by the local community and carried as legislation by US congress, in order to become an NCA. We encourage you to join us in discussions currently taking place.  Please use the form below to be informed when we bring this information up-to-date.


Map showing the Rio Grande National Forest potential Conservation area

With support from the Conservation Lands Foundation, SLVEC is collecting baseline inventory that conveys the ecological and cultural/historical significance of the Rio Grande in Southern Colorado. Cartographer Alison Gallensky from Rocky Mountain Wild has been using this data to develop maps that visually communicate the rich history, ecology, and culture of this area. These maps will be accompanied by a detailed report written by Rocky Smith. The report will ideally guide future policies that safeguard the project area, ideally leading to long term designation.

The Healthy Rio Grande Corridor Report

A view toward a healthy, living lower rio grande corridor, including its adjacent lands, in Colorado.

The Rio Grande in southern Colorado and the land surrounding it has many outstanding values of considerable interest to the public. These include: riparian (streamside) areas and high-quality wetlands; many species of wildlife; big game wintering areas and habitat for two threatened or endangered species; recreational opportunities, including boating, hiking, and fishing; and cultural and historic properties.

Read the Full Report (10.4Mb PDF download)


SLVEC is currently in the process of finalizing recommendation materials after having organized a series of site visits along the Rio Grande Corridor in early May. In company were archeologists, cartographers, biologists, writers, and BLM personnel who fully comprehend the importance of protecting the Rio Grande. Together, we visited some significant sites that truly speak to the need to understand this sensitive landscape so that future humans, who rely on the flora and fauna, can continue to benefit from its rich history and natural resources. Below is a summary of our findings and some of the fascinating sites that we visited.

Project Overview
Pike's Stockade_strip-bg_1800px.jpg

Cultural and Historical Value:


Over 8,000 years of human history has been recorded along the Rio Grande Corridor in Southern Colorado. The San Luis Valley at large is believed to have supported human occupation for as long as 13,000 years. Ancient petroglyphs, artifacts, and structures dot the region, reminding us of the rich indigenous history that is unique to the Valley.


The region itself is a part of several tribes’ origin story and continues to hold spiritual value for many indigenous peoples today. Forts, ranches, churches, mines, and historic towns along the Rio Grande connect us to a time of Spanish colonization and later Mormon settlement.


Understanding the local indigenous and European history in the Valley adds to residences’ sense of place, identity, and awareness for how the past shapes the present. By supporting the preservation of these historic sites along the Rio Grande, we honor the rich cultural heritage of the San Luis Valley.

Cultural and Historical Value

Cultural Sites Visited:

1) Pike’s Stockade- Pike’s Stockade was established in tribute to the Zebulan Pike expedition of 1806/1807. It is unclear if Pike and his crew actually built a fort, though his journals indicate that he definitely had plans to. The structure on the property is a reconstruction of what historians envisioned the fortress would have looked like. Pike’s Stockade stands in memory to an era of vigorous exploration by non-indigenous leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson, William Lewis and Meriwether Clark.


2) Sierro del Ojito- This hill overlooking the Conejos River contains both Indigenous and European historic artifacts. Remnants of an old rock wall runs along the hillside, built to contain livestock. This style of containment is traditional to Western European countries, such as England and Wales. On the other side of the wall exists an old petroglyph site with an unknown date of origin.


3) Cross Arrow Ranch- Built at the turn of the 20th century, this 7,000 ft. ranch house was originally built as a vacation home for a Denver businessman. The property includes around 3,000 acres of land. Locals from Las Sauces often sought out employment on the estate. This property marks a moment in time where distinct social classes (working and affluent) in the San Luis Valley were taking shape.


4) Las Sauces Church- Founded in the mid to late 1800s, the small church in Las Sauces has been a meeting point for over a century. Spanish Catholicism and culture were further institutionalized in the SLV through the establishment of churches like this one. Across the way is an old trail established by Native Americans, leading to a petroglyph site.


5) King Mine- This prehistoric turquoise mine was once believed to be the largest in Colorado. It is reported that a 9 lb. chunk of turquoise was pulled from this mine during its production period from the late 1800s into the 1900s.


6) De Vargas Crossing- Don Diego de Vargas, the governor-general of New Mexico, crossed the Rio Grande in 1694 with his Spanish troops. The river was reportedly 200 feet wide at the time. The party was escaping an attack by Pueblo tribes who de Vargas had earlier stolen food reserves from and ambushed. This Crossing echoes the rising tensions between Native communities and Spanish colonizers in the late 17th century. Above this area are remnants of an old Native rock structure, as well as various metates (stone tools for grinding grains and seeds). This stretch of the Rio Grande was likely a popular site for indigenous peoples for thousands of years.


7) Costilla Crossing Bridge (AKA Lobatos Bridge)- In 1892, this bridge was brought by train to Antonito, and hauled by wagon to its current location. It once was a very popular bridge used by many travelers. Local historian Loretta Mitson called it the “Interstate 25” of its time! At the time it was built, it was the largest crossing bridge west of the Mississippi. Below the bridge are various petroglyphs with dates unknown and an ancient fire pit.


8) Los Rincones- The historic community of Los Rincones is one of the oldest Hispano settlements in Colorado, having been founded in the mid 1800s. It was originally part of the Conejos Land Grant, awarded by the Country of Mexico. At its peak, 35 families lived in Los Rincones, living simply with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Pottery shards from Native tribes have been found in this community, reflecting the trade relationships established between Hispano residents and local indigenous populations.

Cultural Sites Visited
Slideshow of sites visited

Ecological Values:


The Rio Grande supports wildlife, plant, and human communities along its nearly 1,900-mile reach. In many regions, the Rio Grande is the most significant and depended upon water source in an otherwise arid region. Birds rely on the river to guide, nourish, and protect them during their arduous migrations. Wildlife come to the river to rest, hydrate, and find shelter from predators and the elements. Native grasses, trees, and vegetation rely on constant water input from the river, and in turn support thriving and lush riparian habitats. The Rio Grande also feeds riparian and wetland ecosystems, which are some of our continent’s most threatened and vital habitats. Stretches of the Rio Grande also support several endangered bird species, including the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, and species of concern, including the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. From its beginnings in the San Juan Mountains to its termination in the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande is an essential asset to all life that follows its course. It deserves to be protected!


*Among the cultural sites listed above, all areas were also ecologically significant. An abundance of wild plants, reptiles, birds, and mammals were seen during the site visit, speaking to the Rio Grande’s importance as a biological hotspot.

Ecoogical Values

Check out the video below for a
summary of our project!

Video Summary

Conejos Clean Water Launches Efforts to Expand the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument into the San Luis Valley with this new Video (1-07-16)

RGDN Monument Op-Ed


 “Proposed Monument Upgrade Honors Unique Landscapes and Opportunities for Business Support”

By John Stump and Christine Canaly

September 17, 2016


The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) appreciates the opportunity to comment on the potential benefits of expanding the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument into Colorado on BLM lands just across the state border in Conejos County.  We acknowledge and have reviewed the research studies that have been conducted by the National Park Service, Headwaters Economics, BBC Research, and others to document the increased business activity and job growth in host communities which accompany an upgrade to higher protection and status of their surrounding public lands, including National Monuments.


In every case, these studies indicate that these prestigious upgrades give greater identity and attraction to the area, leading to increased visitor spending and opportunities for business expansion.


For example, the 2012 study by BBC Research & Consulting, gives a current-and-projected perspective of the monument benefits in neighboring Taos and Rio Arriba counties in New Mexico. The estimated total economic impact was projected to increase from $17.2 million to $32.2 million after designation --- a change of 86 percent --- and would add over 270 jobs to support the monument activities.


Impact studies typically include both direct spending from visitors outside the area, and the secondary or “ripple effect” of additional spending by local businesses and employees as they receive new sources of income.  A portion of this spending could also be captured to increase local government tax revenue.


SLVEC plans on doing additional work to bring these projections down to a county and valley scale, but whatever gains we find that the monument will bring would be an improvement to the present economic base.  Monument protection also keeps the BLM lands out of the hands of fossil fuel developers, and SLVEC does not expect the BLM stewards of the land to make extensive changes to traditional uses and sustainable grazing practices.  It’s fair to expect that existing businesses that currently exist in all aspects of the tourism industry such as the Cumbres & Toltec, resorts, restaurants, services, and real estate will do exceptionally well with the new wave of monument-attracted visitors.


Besides a much-needed boost to the economy and greater opportunity for a wider spectrum of the public to share in the benefits, the monument identity also brings attention to environmental treasures in the valley such as the Rio Grande Natural Area (RGNA).  Hidden from view and neglected from its deserved status as a unique riparian area for decades, the monument designation will give the RGNA its rightful place for funding among the family of San Luis Valley protected lands and the National Conservation Lands system. The addition of the Expansion proposal to America’s newest collection of protected public lands and waterways will stand alongside our national parks and wildlife refuges as guardians of America’s heritage and drivers of the nation’s $646 billion outdoor recreation economy.


Support for the notion that the ecosystems of the proposed monument landscapes may themselves offer extreme value to the county, region, state, and nation was recently brought to SLVEC’s attention, and lends credence to this concept.  Based on research conducted in North Carolina forests, a system was developed to assign monetary values to various ecosystem services such as food, water supply and regulation, carbon sequestration and climate stability, soil retention, recreation, and other life-enhancing services supplied by the land itself.


Researchers in this case discovered that the value of the region’s natural systems ranged from 40-50 percent of total personal income for the region.  The study also mentions work by Costanza in 1997 who estimated that the world’s ecosystems produce about three times as much each year as do the world’s economies.

Anyone interested in discussing any of the studies further that are mentioned in this article in more depth may contact us at 719-589-1518, or email inquiries to

Other info:

Rio Grande Natural Area Act

Rio Grande Natural Area Land Management Plan


The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument_12-20-16.pdf


National Monument FAQ.pdf


NM To Get Rio Grande Del Norte National Mounment_ABQJournal_03-22-13.pdf

RGDN Monument Op-Ed

Keep me posted!

Project Updates Email

Rio Grande Natural Area Project 

Resource Documents

Project Documents
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