Protected land sign at Stratton open space by Palmer Land Trust.
Photo courtesy Palmer Land Trust

Palmer Land Trust has reached a milestone 40th anniversary, but some worry that many are unaware of its work and relevance.

“Someone can love the access to our landscapes here in Colorado Springs and not know how it happened,” said Darcie Hannigan, communications director for Palmer Land Trust. “They don’t protect or conserve themselves. … There is a lot of work that has gone into maintaining that access.”

Executive Director Rebecca Jewett said the trust works to ensure that quality of life is here in perpetuity.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about why we work to protect this land, and it’s because it’s the foundation of our community,” she said. “We truly are a city nestled in the mountains, and the land unites us as part of our identity as southern Coloradans living in Colorado Springs.”

And the trust works to accomplish this goal with just eight full-time staff.

“We do a lot with a very small staff. We punch above our weight, in terms of the impact we are having, and I’m very proud of that,” said Jewett.

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Nearly half its budget comes from donations from community sources — both individual and corporate giving. Another major stream is the state lottery. Colorado is the only state that devotes lottery dollars to outdoor recreation and conservation. However, this funding needs to be reauthorized in 2018 legislation (see Other Voices, page 21).

“We may lose this incredibly important funding, that not only funds Palmer’s work, but state parks across Colorado,” Jewett said. “Preserving this is a big deal. Your favorite open space likely exists because of this funding.”

The trust accomplishes its work through a conservation easement.

“It’s a legal agreement to maintain land in its natural state. The contracts are binding in perpetuity,” Jewett said. “That’s a really powerful promise. Regardless of circumstances or ownership, the conservation of a piece of land is the priority. An easement is ultimately a promise.”

Hannigan said her family lost ranchland in the Greenhorn Valley once owned by her great grandfather.

“Part of me wonders, if an easement would have been available to him, if we would still have that property in our family,” she said. “I talk to people today who say that they wouldn’t have been able to keep their land without Palmer. A lot of people have memories growing up with a trail or bike ride with their family. Our work ensures that they can do that with their kids or grandchildren. The land that they have a tie to is not going away.”

The trust is responsible for more than 130 properties totaling more than 105,000 acres of land.

“Ballpark range, that’s roughly four Manhattan Islands. Again, we are doing a lot with our small staff,” said Jewett.

According to a return-on-investment study using ecosystem services metrics, Colorado State University determined that for every $1 spent on conservation through easements, as much as $12 is returned to the local economy.

“There are services inherent in the natural landscape that provide value we often pay to create, such as water quality through infrastructure, for example,” said Jewett. “Because we have this undeveloped backdrop, we don’t spend as much to clean our water.”

Hannigan said putting a dollar amount on nature is hard to do.

“We love these spaces for all their beauty, but we also know that they provide valuable services beyond that,” she added.

Population growth and lack of water are two of the trust’s biggest challenges.

“It’s important to stress that we are not anti-development,” Jewett said. “It’s about balancing development as we inevitably grow with ensuring an appropriate amount of open space to go with that growth. Another major challenge is water in our arid region. The existing issue of water is going to grow. How do we maintain vibrant, local agriculture with growing municipalities? They both need water. Palmer approaches it so that there isn’t a winner or loser. We want to ensure both thriving municipalities and thriving agriculture. We want to see benefit on all sides.”

Palmer Land Trust has participated in the Give! Campaign nearly every year since it was established in 2009.

“It’s such a good platform for the community to see who the local nonprofits are,” Jewett said. “Give! helps us reach an audience we would not have reached otherwise. … We need to be proactive. If we lose the landscapes and natural resources, then the reason for people living here will be lost as well.”

Editor’s note: Darcie Hannigan is the spouse of Colorado Publishing House Digital Marketing and IT Manager Ryan Hannigan.