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TMCNet:  Protecting land reaps honors [The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo. :: ]

[March 15, 2014]

Protecting land reaps honors [The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo. :: ]

(Pueblo Chieftain (CO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 15--It would be a daunting task to manage any large ranch to the best advantage for wildlife.

But it might seem nearly impossible when that ranch is bounded by an Army training range, urban areas and two major highways, as well as being criss-crossed by 13 major utility easements -- power lines, gas lines, water lines and cell towers.


Oh yeah, and don't forget 14 years of drought and 20-foot high piles of tumbleweeds.

But in the last few months three conservation groups have given Gary and Georgia Walker extraordinary recognition for improving wildlife habitat.

"I'm very interested in saving the wildlife of the world, but I am more interested in my own backyard," Walker said. "Everybody's an environmentalist until it hurts them." Colorado Parks and Wildlife named them landowners of the year, and they were similarly honored by the Colorado Chapter of the Wildlife Society.

Most recently, the Walkers were named finalists for the Leopold Award for voluntary conservation, which is jointly presented by the Sand County Foundation, the Colorado Cattlemen's Association and other groups. The winner will be named in April.

"Few, if any, ranches of such size and natural condition remain so close to a major Colorado metropolitan area, a testament to landowners who value their home and the land surrounding it for far more than development value. On this island of native prairie lives a significant portion of the remaining global populations of three rare plants, found only in the Arkansas River Valley," Tom Warren wrote in nominating the Walkers.

The nomination was endorsed by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The Walkers also have gotten support from U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., along with local and state political figures from both parties.

"Environmental conservation is not a political issue, but a scientific one," Walker said.

The Walkers were in the spotlight last fall when they became the first landowners in the nation to accept the release of black-footed ferrets -- which help control prairie dogs -- onto their property under the federal Safe Harbor Act, which assures landowners they won't face penalties for incidental harm to endangered species released on their land.

But the improvement and protection of the ranch goes back decades.

"I've owned a lot of ranches, but this one was the neediest," Walker said.

Over the years, he has used 25 shares of Twin Lakes water -- with a value of $1 million -- to support ponds and wetlands on the ranches.

Walker has improved drainages to alleviate the worst effects of flooding. Walker Ranches has a combined area equal to Pueblo and Pueblo West, and the same need to prevent water from affecting downstream communities, in this case Pueblo West.

He's also used millions of dollars from conservation easements to buffer Fort Carson to purchase and protect even more ranch land.

"We are trying to be stewards of the land," Walker said. "Honestly, it's not about the money, but when we die, we'll give it back in better shape than it was." cwoodka@chieftain.com ___ (c)2014 The Pueblo Chieftain (Pueblo, Colo.) Visit The Pueblo Chieftain (Pueblo, Colo.) at www.chieftain.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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