Officials gather in Valley on Public Lands Day

Photos by Lyndsie Ferrell Colorado federal, state and local leaders as well as several San Luis Valley conservation champions gathered at the Rio Grande Natural Area located between San Luis and Manassa on Saturday for a celebration and ribbon cutting in observance of the newly installed interpretive signs which highlight the historical and cultural significance and natural resources of the area. Keynote speakers included Former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Senator John Hickenlooper, Governor Jared Polis, Conejos County Commissioner Mitchel Jarvies, Costilla County Commissioner Steven Romero, Adams State University President Cheryl Lovell, State Senator Cleave Simpson, State Representative Donald Valdez and many more.

Gov. Polis and former Secretary of Interior attend ceremony

SAN LUIS VALLEY — Colorado blue skies stretched out over the Rio Grande River near Manassa on Saturday, May 15 as local, state and federal leaders, including Gov. Jared Polis, and conservation organizations gathered to celebrate Public Lands Day and in observance of the newly installed interpretive signs located at the Rio Grande Natural Area. 

Native American dancers performing the Danza Azteca de Anahuac started the event in the morning inviting the crowd to join them in a moment of peace to honor those who were suffering or had lost their lives and to give thanks for the great water of the Rio Grande. Those who participated spread rose pedals along the banks of the Rio and shared a moment of silence before the rest of the festivities began.

According to the event coordinator and Director for the Salazar Rio Grande Del Norte Center, Rio de la Vista, this preservation area has been a work in progress for many years and now that it has a natural designation, the interpretive signs will help to educate the public about the cultural and natural resources contained in the natural area and bring visitors from all walks of life to that area of the San Luis Valley.

This event was part of a long-term effort that started with the designation of the Rio Grande Natural Area by Congress — thanks to the work of then-Sen. Ken Salazar, who later became the 50thU.S. Secretary of the Interior — in 2006, supported by many local San Luis Valley conservation organizations and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. The designation encompasses a quarter-mile on both sides of the Rio Grande, from the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge for 32 miles south to the Colorado-New Mexico State Land. Subsequently, the RGNA Commission was appointed by then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior Salazar.

Over the course of six years, the Commission developed the 2016 RGNA Management Plan with recommendations for the private lands within the designated areas, in collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management, which manages a large portion of the land on the west side of the Rio Grande. A restoration assessment of the entire RGNA was also performed by the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project during that time and provided guidance for the ecological and functional needs of the entire reach. 

In 2018, the Salazar Rio Grande Del Norte Center at Adams State University provided the capacity to revisit that plan and is facilitating a Steering Committee of all the various agencies, organizations, counties and partners to work toward implementing the recommendations of the plan and pursue future opportunities. 

The installation of the new interpretive signs being celebrated is an outgrowth of that effort. Many complementary efforts are underway for conservation, ecological restoration, additional education and interpretive efforts, recreational planning, that are in various stages of development, planning, fundraising and implementation.

Former Secretary Salazar started the event by introducing many of the key players that helped make the natural area possible.

“This is a very beautiful and wonderful area. Many of us have worked at it for a very long time,” Salazar said. “The Salazar Rio Grande Del Norte Center which my family, Cleave Simpson and Adams State University have been involved with to spearhead the collaboration among the agencies and most importantly the people on both sides of the river to make this happen.”

Salazar introduced Colorado Gov. Polis who spoke of the importance of celebrating Public Lands Day in the San Luis Valley.

“I cannot think of a better place to be on Public Lands Day than the San Luis Valley,” Polis said. “This is the beating heart of Colorado; this is the soul of Colorado. We celebrate our state and federal lands today through Colorado Parks and Wildlife and our partners federally including the Bureau of Lands Management, the Forest Service and major landowners in our state. It is really at the center of how we build a public lands strategy that meets all of our goals, that meet the needs of farmers and our agricultural, that meets the conservation goals and our recreation goals and economic development. Public Lands are part of our identity and are also the key economic driver.”

Through the remaining speeches one main point stood out above all others, it took the work and dedication of several different entities throughout the entire state to make the Rio Grande Natural Area a reality. 

Several speakers pointed out that people from all walks of life and political beliefs worked together to achieve this common goal. Speakers included Sen. John Hickenlooper, Conejos County Commissioner Mitchel Jarvies, Costilla County Commissioner Steven Romero, Adams State University President Cheryl Lovell, State Sen. Cleave Simpson, and State Rep. Donald Valdez.

After the small ribbon cutting of the new interpretive signs, those in attendance enjoyed food and beverages and live entertainment for the rest of the afternoon.