Brice and Kate Lewis became the first Community Conservation Connection program participants to permanently preserve their land when they closed on a traditional conservation easement with the Central Colorado Conservancy in late 2023.
An innovative program funded by Common Ground, Conservation Connection helps more rural lands stay in agricultural operation while Chaffee County experiences a period of fast-paced growth and changes. Started in 2019, the program provides annual payments on a per-acre basis in exchange for continuing agricultural production, limiting new development and protecting scenic views, water resources and wildlife habitat.
About a dozen landowners are protecting nearly 3,500 acres under these agreements. The Lewises are among those and now have decided to permanently protect their land located on Highway 50 about three miles northwest of Poncha Springs.
“The ranch is incredibly scenic with panoramic views of the Collegiate Peaks, the Mosquito Range, and the Arkansas River Valley,” said Wendy McDermott, executive director for Central Colorado Conservancy. “Conservation easements are one of our main tools for protecting wide open vistas and wildlife habitat and for keeping working lands working.”
The Lewis Ranch is a cattle ranch with irrigated meadows and native woodlands across a rolling terrain. The land provides habitat for several species from songbirds to raptors, small mammals to big game, and reptiles to fish, all of which are significant contributors to the biodiversity of the region. The ranch provides critical range for mule deer, elk and moose. It also provides winter forage range for bald eagles, migratory habitat for greater sandhill crane, and breeding habitat for a state species of concern, the northern leopard frog.
The Lewises raise and sell calves and also produce direct-market grass fed beef. They participate in multiple programs that allow them to implement management tools like rotational grazing using virtual fence and other practices that improve the health of the soils on their ranch. Healthy soils improve water infiltration, reduce erosion, and increase species diversity and habitat.
“Our goal from the start was to use the purchase of this property to build our business, and if we can also preserve the beauty of the property and the open space, it’s a win for everyone,” the Lewises said. “Ownership allowed us to add a base property to our forest permit, to have a home base for calving and wintering our replacement females, something we never had before. With the addition of the direct market beef business, we are expanding and becoming more sustainable. Without the support and encouragement of entities like Central Colorado Conservancy and Chaffee Common Ground, working agricultural lands will continue to disappear in our beautiful county.”