Saving The Great Sand Dunes

It seems like most conservation stories these days portray opposing sides battling it out in the public media and in the courts. We hear more about the battles than we do about Nature. While these issues are usually very important, I also like to read happy stories about successes in conservation.

It is hard to measure success in conservation. I was delighted to find some positive things to write about in my recent blog on the holistic conservation methods employed by Holistic Management International HMI. Some of my dear readers questioned the effectiveness of the methods employed by HMI. From the comments I received, it now seems to me that “success” is the wrong word. Rather, I should have said “conservation progress”.

SandDunesNP_6With this blog post, however, I am convinced that I have a story for you that is a “conservation success”. I hope you agree. While this story looks like just another battle between human beings over their individual water rights, this case also involved the health and the future survival of the Great San Dunes National Park ecosystem in the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado just northeast of Alamosa. Commercial water interests in remote locations threatened to pump dry an aquifer that sustained the dunes and their ecosystems. This is a wonderful story of Nature’s stewards who understood the inter-connectivity of the dune system and took action to preserve it. The Nature Conservancy published an article on this effort. The photographs shown in this post are from that article.

What makes this story really great is that an entire community of people and a number of government organizations worked together to stop commercial interests from outside of the area from implementing a huge water export plan that would have drawn down the aquifer in their valley. In addition to community welfare, the ecological issue was the protection of the tallest sand dunes in North America, the dune ecosystems, and eight species of insects found nowhere else in the world. Both the dune ecosystem and close-by wetland ecosystems depend on the aquifer. According to the Nature Conservancy article the draw down of the aquifer by outside interests:

.. would have threatened the valley’s crown jewel, Great Sand Dunes National Monument. The 30-square-mile main field of 700-foot-tall dunes lies a few miles southeast, lapping against the Sangre de Cristos like bright white waves. Over the centuries, westerly winds have blown across the valley and funneled through three mountain passes, dropping sand gathered from an ancient lake that once filled the valley at their base. Creeks that flow out of the Sangre de Cristo mountains feed the sand back to the dune field like a sand conveyor belt, ensuring that the dunes stay put…

If the water table were lowered, in addition to threatening other local ecosystems and creatures, the creeks that recycled sand back to the dune field would dry up. The “conveyor belt” would be lost.

The participants in saving the aquifer were local residents; The Nature Conservancy; the federal Land and Water SandDunesNP_1Conservation Fund; David and Lucile Packard Foundation; Colorado State Land Board; Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund; National Park Service; U.S. Bureau of Land Management; U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and other local, state and federal officials and non-government organizations. It was threats to these ecosystems that galvanized this locally-driven collaborative endeavor. The details of the effort can be read in the magazine article. Success came through the power of a committed community combined with good science offered by the professionals who were involved. In my opinion, this is a dynamite combination.

I live in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico where we are all very concerned about political interests destroying an important estuary  that is an important flyway for migrating birds. Ecological threats caused by political interests have been met by a wonderfully strong consensus within the community coupled with a knowledgeable scientific team and the development of a management plan that will have the force of law.

I have seen ecosystems under great threat in communities with split interests and no strong consensus. When this happens, the pathway to preserving the environment is much more difficult.

As I get older and wiser, I’m beginning to realize that environmental groups and government agencies play an important part in the processes of restoring and preserving ecosystems in our environment. But, I’m also seeing that neither the environmental groups nor the government agencies will ultimately succeed without good teamwork and a strong community consensus. 

What do you think?   

Worth Your Extra Attention :

Thanks for reading this blog post. The purpose for these blogs is to develop a dialog between myself and my readers.

Many of you have much professional and volunteer experience in working with environmental groups, government agencies, and in developing community consensus . Please share your experience and your ideas with the rest of us in the comments section of this post. These posts are being read by a growing number of people. As of this writing, the post is being shared with over 15,000 people.

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

8 Responses to “Saving The Great Sand Dunes”

  1. Heartening. I hope you will be able to relate a similar tale regarding the San Pedro River.

  2. Thanks Bill. I’ve spent weeks camping and working in dune fields. There is a drawer full of data that my students and I collected 33 years ago that awaits a full analysis. I scooped your article. It’s at: if you want to see it.

  3. I just found another great story where community efforts blocked the taking of water from rural areas to supplant Las Vegas’ dwindling water reserve.

  4. Gwen Meyer says:

    Good stuff, Bill.

  5. George says:

    Bill, Good post. I have been fortunate enough to be involved in some successful stakeholder consensus projects and they are wonderful to be a part of. I have also been unfortunate enough to have been involved is some disasters.

    In my experience it is all about good facilitators and openminded stakeholders.

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