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Treasure Hunt

Five Conservancy preserves at our fingertips



Treasure HuntSometimes preservation happens one plant at a time. Years ago I spent uncounted hours tramping around spots in South Park looking for an endangered plant, Sisyrinchium pallidum, aka Pale Blue-eyed Grass. We found a few specimens, struggling amidst the cattle that grazed all around them.

Since 1991 Sisyrinchium and 13 other rare plants, most small and delicate, all beautiful, have had an easier time. That was the year The Nature Conservancy (TNC) began acquiring land that now comprises High Creek Fen Preserve, a 2,400-acre wetlands area south of Fairplay. The Fen and four other Conservancy preserves in southern Colorado offer unique opportunities to visitors interested in the plants, animals, birds and bugs with whom we share our state.

High Creek Fen

High Creek Fen is one of the largest and most intact wetlands left in South Park. Peat mining and water diversion have irrevocably changed other wetlands. Occasional development of "vacation homes" encroaches upon cattle ranching, long the principal land use of South Park. The Nature Conservancy hopes to restore and maintain the High Creek wetland and to promote our understanding and appreciation of wetlands in general, and High Creek in particular. Visitors may take field trips led by volunteers who can lead you right to those plant gems -- like a primrose usually found only in Greenland -- or explain the mysteries of peat -- its formation, its purpose, its preservation. Birders should look for shorebirds like the spotted sandpiper and Wilson's phalarope. Mountain plovers can be spotted in the prairie uplands surrounding the fen.

High Creek Fen, located on the east side of Highway 285 near milepost 175, is open for day use only, from sunrise to sunset. Turn east on a private gravel road, cross a cattle guard, and drive about one mile. Park in the lot near the visitor display and walk wherever you like. But step lightly. For further information, contact Matt Moorehead at The Nature Conservancy, 303/444-2985 Ext. 1042.

Mishak Lakes

Wetlands and fens are subtly different in their source of water. Fens are created primarily by ground water constantly reaching the surface; wetlands are a bit more complex in their reliance on ground water, surface water and precipitation. You can observe the difference by visiting Mishak Lakes Preserve in San Luis Valley, off Highway 17, approximately 15 miles northwest of Mosca.

The 3,500-acre Mishak Lakes Preserve is a shallow wetlands many of its ponds are seasonal, dependent upon spring run-off and late summer showers. The plants and wildlife that abound here are well adapted to such environmental changes. Sandhill cranes, American avocet, white-faced ibis, peregrine falcons and a variety of songbirds can be seen here. The San Luis Valley, a high-elevation basin flanked by the San Juan Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is an important breeding and migratory habitat for wetlands birds. The Valley supports some rare plant life as well, like the spider flower, found presently in only 10 percent of its former historic range, and some rare insects, like the sand hills skipper, a butterfly that feeds on spiderflowers and thus is known only in the San Luis Valley.

Such fragility makes the present fuss over the Baca Ranch and water rights to the San Luis Valley aquifer all the more poignant. While the courts hash out the legalities, TNC has been working in cooperation with the San Luis Valley community, with federal, state and private land managers, to develop conservation strategies that incorporate local economic and cultural interests. Take a day to explore Mishak Lakes. There are easy, gentle walks through the uplands surrounding the lakes and guided field trips offered throughout the spring and summer. For further information, contact the Boulder office of The Nature Conservancy, 303/444-2950.

Medano-Zapata Ranch

The jewel in the crown of Nature Conservancy acquisitions in southern Colorado is the Medano-Zapata Ranch, purchased in 1999 with funding provided by the El Pomar Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and GOCO (Greater Outdoors Colorado). At 100,000 acres of wetlands, wildlife, pasture and plains, it is the largest Nature Conservancy preserve in Colorado. Located near the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, the ranch is considered the most biologically significant landscape of its size in our state.

Numerous migratory birds like sandhill cranes stop to forage during their spring and fall journeys. Elk and bison call the ranch home; bald and golden eagles and antelope are often seen. Formerly open for lodging, the Inn at Zapata Ranch, beginning in 2002, will be used exclusively for multi-day Conservancy workshops on such topics as nature photography, birding, geology, archaeology and wildlife watching. These will be offered from March through October. Until then, tours of the ranch are available. For more information, call the ranch at 719/378-2503 or the Nature Conservancy at 303/444-2985 Ext. 1605.

Aiken Canyon

Closest to home is the 1,621-acre Aiken Canyon, south of Colorado Springs on Highway 115. The Canyon, named after ornithologist Charles Aiken who first surveyed it in the 1870s, contains a rich diversity of geological formations and plant communities. The lower elevations of the Preserve have the prominent red spires and outcrops characteristic of the Fountain Formation. Higher elevations offer prime examples of Silver Plume quartz monzonite, a form of granite.

If plant life intrigues you more than geology, you can wander about in two distinct and globally rare plant communities: the pinon pine one-seeded juniper/Scribner needlegrass woodland, and the Gambel oak-mountain mahogany shrubland. Pinon-juniper woodland is unique to southern Colorado and New Mexico and provides critical food for some of the 100 species of birds that have been sighted in Aiken Canyon. Gambel oak-mountain mahogany shrubland provides habitat and forage for some of the wildlife in the Canyon.

Birders should be on the lookout for Townsend's solitaires, several species of jays and nuthatches, western bluebirds, hairy and downy woodpeckers, and wild turkeys. You might spot some of the larger raptors that hunt in the Canyon: golden eagles, prairie falcons, northern harriers, Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks.

Because the Preserve is open only for daytime use (and only Saturday through Monday), it's unlikely you'll see some of the more elusive animal species that live here: black bear, bobcat, mountain lion. You might catch a glimpse of a gray fox or a badger, an elk or some mule deer. If you'd prefer to attend a program, birding, ecology and butterfly trips are scheduled throughout the summer.

The Nature Conservancy is working to develop complete inventories of Aiken Canyon's plants, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals, and to monitor their populations over time. Interested volunteers are always welcome. Additionally, monthly volunteer workdays are held through the summer months (June 9, July 21, Aug. 18, Sept. 15). For more information, call the Field Station at 576-4336, or the Conservancy's Colorado Springs office at 632-0534. And while you're thinking about volunteering your time at Aiken Canyon, consider joining The Nature Conservancy. But do it soon; there's a Members Only 10th Anniversary Celebration Day at Aiken Canyon coming up in mid-June with guided hikes, programs and presentations.

Aiken Canyon is approximately 15.8 miles south on Highway 115. Look for a sign for Turkey Canyon Ranches and turn right. You'll see the Preserve's parking lot ahead.

Bohart Ranch

South of Ellicott, about 20 miles east of Colorado Springs, is the Bohart Ranch, a 41,000-acre working cattle ranch leased by The Nature Conservancy in 1998. Bohart Ranch is located within the Chico Basin, a 500,000-acre site that contains numerous prairie habitats. (Admit it: You thought a prairie is a prairie is a prairie.) Sandsage prairie (of which Bohart Ranch is a fine example), shortgrass prairie, greasewood shrublands, riparian shrublands, and wetland seep are all found in the Chico Basin.

As urban and suburban sprawl and conversion to cropland continue, the importance of the Chico Basin becomes more evident. Declining grassland birds have a foothold in this area: burrowing owls, mountain plovers (a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act), several species of sparrows and lark bunting, our state bird. Coyote, pronghorn antelope, swift fox and prairie dogs (some trying to keep out of sight of the golden eagles and prairie falcons) call Chico Basin home. The Nature Conservancy has developed an education and outreach program at the Bohart Ranch to build appreciation for the Chico Basin's unique ecological, agricultural and historical values. Guided field trips are offered in the spring and summer; a volunteer workday will be held Sept. 22. For more information, call Tracy at 303/444-2985 Ext.1043.

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