PROMO 660 x 440 Across Colorado

Preserving cultural, environmental legacy in southern Colorado

Eric Galatas

(Colorado News Connection) Ruybal Fox Creek Ranch sits in a dramatic canyon in the foothills of southern Colorado's San Juan Mountains, right next to the Rio Grande National Forest, and federal and state lands near the Conejos River. Purchased in 1962 on a school bus driver's salary, Josie Ruybal Abeyta's parents left the 821-acre parcel to their six daughters in 2005. 

Abeyta remains determined to keep the land the way her father had kept it, but four of her sisters wanted to sell the property considered extremely valuable to area developers.

"And two of us did not," she said. "And I had heard about a conservation easement where you could still keep the property, the owners would get paid to keep it the way it was, and I thought that was a win-win situation for everyone."

But year after year, Abeyta's application for an easement was rejected by the state, with one official telling her outright that it would never happen and to give up. But Abeyta found the right formula working with the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, and the easement was finally completed last year.

More than 50 percent of the population in Conejos County is Hispanic, and many families settled in the area before the United States existed. Abeyta added families with large pieces of property were forced to sell, and she believes it is culturally important for those who still hold parcels to maintain their deep ties to the land.

"You know I've got beautiful memories of us spending summers in the mountains, and of extended families going up there, like for the Fourth of July," she said. "To me, it was just heaven on earth. It's been in our family. I could not bear to let it go."

The easement also helps protect Ruybal Ojito Spring, which has been pumping about a gallon of water per minute since 1962. More than 40 species of animals call the ranch home, from big game such as elk, black bear and bobcat to endangered species including Mexican spotted owl and yellow-billed cuckoo.

"My children and my grandchildren love to go up there," she added. "For me also, that was part of it. God's not making any more land; we've got to hold it and protect it and treasure it, keep it safe for future generations."