Another gap in protection filled in the Wild Sky Wilderness

May 4, 2024-

The Wilderness Land Trust recently acquired 128 acres within Washington’s Wild Sky Wilderness, building on a years-long effort to unify protection across the landscape.

Looking at a map of the Silver Creek drainage in Washington’s Wild Sky and Henry M. Jackson Wilderness Areas tells a remarkable story of the cumulative impact we are making together in the wild places we love. It tells the story of a spectacular landscape, lush with old-growth forest, home to threatened steelhead trout spawning grounds, with a rich history of mining boom and bust that has left a patchwork of land ownership and protection across the wilderness areas.

As we revise this map we color new parcels in yellow as relationships with landowners deepen and deals to purchase their properties progress, in orange as the Trust acquires properties, and ultimately in green as they are transferred to public ownership and added to the wilderness area. It’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment as one by one we see the blank properties on the map filled in as the threat of their development is removed.

Recently we completed the purchase of the 128-acre Ramble Lode property. It was the Trust’s ninth acquisition within the drainage, and adjoins several already protected properties. With it we have filled another gap in protection in the Wild Sky Wilderness.

 

 

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Help us protect the Gila!

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Gila Wilderness, America’s first and New Mexico’s largest wilderness area. But this remarkable landscape and critical habitat is still threatened by the development of privately owned properties within it.

The Wilderness Land Trust has been working with the private landowner of one of five remaining inholdings in the Gila to purchase their property for over a decade, and the opportunity has finally come to fruition. This acquisition would be a meaningful step toward completing Aldo Leopold’s vision for America’s first wilderness area, but we need your help to raise $152,000 to make it a reality.

Due to the outstanding recreation access for hunting, if not protected it is likely this property would be developed for commercial use, threatening the integrity of the surrounding wilderness.

Dominated by high mesas, deep canyons, and rolling hills of grassland and piñon-juniper woodlands alongside a spring and creek in the Middle Fork of the Gila River watershed, the property has outstanding wilderness and ecological value. Together we can remove one of the last remaining threats of development within the Gila and protect this critical habitat.

Protecting the Gila watershed

Spring Canyon runs through the heart of the property, feeding into the East Fork of the Gila River, which has been proposed for Wild and Scenic River designation. The Gila is a critical watershed, sustaining abundant wildlife and supplying clean drinking water to Phoenix, AZ before flowing into the Colorado River. This project will help protect the headwaters, benefiting diverse ecosystems and millions of downstream users.

Ecological Value

At over 550,000 acres, the Gila Wilderness provides important uninterrupted habitat to rare and endangered species like the Gila Trout, the Southwest Willow Flycatcher, the northern Mexican garter snake, several packs of reintroduced endangered Mexican wolves, and the world’s largest population of the rare Mexican spotted owl. The upper Gila watershed is a critical refuge for a wide range of wildlife like javelina, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, elk, cougars, and black bears. The area is also renowned for its high-quality bird habitat and populations of unusual species like the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, threatened Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Common Black-Hawk, Montezuma Quail, and Elf Owl, wild turkeys, eagles, and dusky grouse.

To remove one of the last threats of development within the Gila Wilderness, we must raise $152,000. Join us in celebrating 100 years of the Gila by protecting this critical habitat.

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Meet Trust supporter Madeleine Landis

April 5, 2024-

We feel incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful and dedicated community of supporters like Madeleine. Just as wilderness draws people from all walks of life, so does our work to protect it. Enjoy this short video to get to know Madeleine and celebrate your shared love for wild places!

“I pity the world that doesn’t have wilderness, the people that don’t have it to go to. I think our society would be even worse off if we didn’t. You know, not everybody can go, but the people who do go can photograph it and write about it and share it. And I think it helps everybody. That’s my hope and belief.”

The Wilderness Land Trust recently transferred 5 acres on Wheeler Creek to public ownership in Tongass National Forest, adding it to the Kootznoowoo Wilderness. At over 17 million acres, Tongass National Forest is the nation’s largest national forest, with 35% of it designated as wilderness across 19 wilderness areas. 

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More wilderness added to Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

April 5, 2024-

The Wilderness Land Trust recently transferred 5 acres on Wheeler Creek to public ownership in Tongass National Forest, adding it to the Kootznoowoo Wilderness. At over 17 million acres, Tongass National Forest is the nation’s largest national forest, with 35% of it designated as wilderness across 19 wilderness areas.

The Tongass is often called “America’s climate forest” for the carbon it traps and stores. It role in mitigating climate change impacts is unparalleled. The Tongass is also sometimes called “America’s salmon forest’ as its waterways produce a quarter of the West Coast salmon catch, supporting both commercial fishing communities and native subsistence fishing. The Wheeler Creek property has abundant pink salmon and is also important king salmon spawning ground. Kootznoowoo, which means ‘fortress of the bears” in the native Lingít, is on Admiralty Island southwest of Juneau. Aptly named, it has the world’s highest concentration of brown bears in the world – an estimated 1,600 bears, with more than 1 bear per square mile on the island.

At only 5 acres, the Wheeler Creek property is only a drop in the vast landscape of the Tongass National Forest. But with direct boat access to the property, the wilderness inholding was likely to be developed with cabins or even a commercial lodge if not protected. Thanks to our partnership with Southeast Alaska Land Trust, there is one fewer such threat in the heart of this critical habitat.

Interestingly, land on and around the Wheeler Creek property is accreting, or accumulating. As glaciers continue to shrink, the land is rising in response to the reduced weight of the glaciers in a process known as isostatic rebound. As it rises, more land is exposed above the high-water line. When our Wheeler Creek property was recently surveyed it had actually grown (by less than an acre) since its last survey. Across the region this is creating new habitat and exciting conservation opportunities.

The Wilderness Land Trust recently transferred 5 acres on Wheeler Creek to public ownership in Tongass National Forest, adding it to the Kootznoowoo Wilderness. At over 17 million acres, Tongass National Forest is the nation’s largest national forest, with 35% of it designated as wilderness across 19 wilderness areas. 

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Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness grows near Crested Butte!

March 22, 2024-

Just 8 miles northeast of the town of Crested Butte, the Queen Basin rises to meet the ridgelines and summit of White Rock Mountain. The basin has a rich mining history, and remnants can still be found scattered throughout it. In 2022 the Trust acquired the 10-acre Copper Glance Lode property, the last private inholding remaining in the basin. Recently we transferred it to public ownership to be added to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Throughout much of Colorado’s high country, including deep in what today is designated wilderness, traces of mining history can be found, from mine shafts still framed in timbers to bits of rusted machinery and bean cans. The majority of these silver, gold, and copper mines were small-scale, and the landscapes around them have recovered quickly, wiping away most traces of their camps and wagon trails. These small operations were certainly much different than the kinds of mega-mines we see today, removing entire mountain tops and reshaping vast landscapes to access ore. But they still serve as a reminder of what could have been. Had the boom not turned to bust so quickly, or had the lasting protections of designated wilderness not been established 60 years ago, the basins and ridges of Colorado’s high country might have looked much different today, including those surrounding the Copper Glance Lode property.

Data from the Resilient Landscapes Mapping Tool

Our thinking on what these landscapes provide has also evolved. No longer are they valued primarily for the profit lying beneath their surface, but for their beauty, their recreational opportunities, and the role their ecosystems play in sustaining life. The 10-acre Copper Glance Lode property rates high for climate resilience, habitat connectivity, and landscape diversity, which means that not only does it play an important role in maintaining biodiversity and clean air and water today, but it will continue to as the climate changes.

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The Trust goes to Washington DC!

March 8, 2024-

Members of our staff spent this week in Washington DC speaking with congressional and agency representatives about the importance of protecting wilderness.

Given that the Trust isn’t an advocacy organization, this isn’t a part of our day-to-day work. But the happenings in DC certainly affect our work, so once a year we take the opportunity to meet with decision-makers to discuss the role that protecting private lands in and around wilderness plays in the larger conservation effort.

One of the highlights of the trip was meeting with staffers of Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper, both of Colorado, to discuss our work to protect the 650-acre Snowmass Falls Ranch property in partnership with Pitkin County, CO. For this kind of large-scale project, valued at $34 million, building a broad base of support for the project is critical for the eventual successful transfer to public ownership. We enjoyed the opportunity to share about this incredible landscape with both Senate offices representing it.

Another topic of our meetings was the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This year marks the 60th anniversary of the acts establishing both our national wilderness system, as well as this closely tied funding source. Funded by revenue from offshore oil and gas leases, LWCF supports everything from large conservation projects to new playgrounds and tennis courts in local parks across the country. Within the fund is an account specifically earmarked to acquire private wilderness inholdings, so we enjoyed meeting with members of the appropriation committees to share stories of the places these dollars help protect, and ask that the Critical Inholdings Account be fully funded. The trip was also an opportunity to catch up with some of our close partners, like the USFS National Land Acquisition Program Manager, who play a critical role in the success of our work every day.

 

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New protections for Washington and California’s wild places

February 23, 2024-

Lands added to Henry M. Jackson Wilderness & Lassen National Forest

This week we are celebrating successful transfers of properties in California and Washington to public ownership! Both projects protect habitat important for maintaining biodiversity and improve connectivity across the landscape.

In northern California’s Lassen National Forest, 35 acres have been protected in an area proposed for future wilderness designation. The property provides an important connection between the proposed wilderness and Hat Creek, a trout fishery that Cal Trout and the Pit River Tribes have been working to restore. With good road access, the property was at high risk of development in the popular area for cabins and second homes just outside Lassen National Park. With the property’s addition to public lands, the road can be closed, adding to the roadless area eligible for wilderness designation.

 

 

 

The 15-acre West Seattle Lode property has been added to Washington’s Henry M. Jackson Wilderness. The property was our first acquisition in the wilderness area in 2022, which adjoins the Wild Sky Wilderness. This rugged, glaciated landscape is home to the endangered Northern Spotted Owl, Cascade red fox, pika, wolverines, and Marbled Murrelet, a seabird that nests in old-growth forests and alpine slopes. The property is on a steep slope that overlooks the Monte Cristo ghost town, the site of a gold and silver mining boom lasting from 1895-1912, and a popular hiking destination.

The Hat Creek and West Seattle Lode projects are great examples of how protecting small properties can have positive impacts that reach well beyond their boundaries.

 

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650-acre Snowmass Falls Ranch protected in landmark conservation deal

February 9, 2024-

The Wilderness Land Trust is partnering with Pitkin County in a landmark conservation deal to protect the 650-acre Snowmass Falls Ranch just outside of Snowmass Village conserving two miles of valley floor filled with aspen meadows, beaver ponds, trout streams, and public trails.

Located at the foot of the Elk Range, the majority of the property lies within the boundaries of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The ranch is home to diverse wilderness values: open meadows, aspen groves, spruce forest, wetlands, and riparian shrublands create a mosaic of habitat types that support a wide range of flora and fauna. It provides summer range for elk, bear, moose, mule deer, and mountain lion and hosts an active beaver complex and many bird species. A popular public trail runs through the ranch, serving as an important access point for hikers to the wilderness area. In addition to its ecological and recreation value, the ranch also holds the most senior water rights to Snowmass Creek, a significant source of water for the valley below.

This week Pitkin County purchased the property for $34 M using Open Space Program funds. The ultimate goal is to transfer the majority of the property to public ownership as National Forest to be added to the Maroon-Bells Snowmass Wilderness. This will also allow Pitkin County to recoup most of the purchase price to reinvest in other conservation and community projects. In the interest of future management and stewardship, it is possible that a small portion including existing cabins will end up in private ownership, ideally with a conservation easement. As a project partner, the Trust’s primary roles are to help determine these boundaries with the goal of maximizing the portion to become Wilderness, and to help secure LWCF funding for the ultimate transfer to public ownership.

Within the high-end real estate market of Aspen and surrounding Pitkin County communities, properties of this size are rare and highly sought after. Currently the property is largely undeveloped, with a small cluster of primitive cabins and a public trailhead on its east side, leaving the majority of it intact and connected habitat. This conservation project is only possible today because of the caring stewardship of the property by the private owners over the last 80 years—they are a wonderful example of how conservation values can be protected under private ownership. But the likelihood of another conservation-minded buyer stepping forward when the property was listed for sale was slim, and if not protected it could have been subdivided into up to six lots and developed.

Both The Wilderness Land Trust and Pitkin County have been pursuing a conservation solution for the property for many years, and the once in a generation opportunity to protect it has finally come to fruition.

Last threat of development removed from the sacred Blanca Peak

January 26, 2024-

The Wilderness Land Trust recently accepted a donation of 45 acres on the slopes of Blanca Peak, removing the last private property from the peak.

Blanca Peak stands at over 14,300 feet just outside of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness in southern Colorado. But the peak is also known by another name, one that predates the Spanish descriptor of its near-vertical white slopes by centuries.

For the Dinè, or Navajo, the peak is Sisnaajiní. It is one of the four corners marking the boundary of the Dinetah, the traditional Dinè homeland, along with three other sacred mountains— Dibé Nitsaa in the north (Hesperus Mountain in the La Plata Mountain range of Colorado), Doko’o’osliid in the west (Humphrey Peak in the San Francisco Peaks of Northern Arizona), and Tsoodzil in the south (Mt. Taylor Peak, west of Albuquerque, New Mexico).

More than just a location marker, Sisnaajiní is known as an internal compass, orienting one’s mind and physical presence on earth. Like the sun rising in the east, Sisnaajiní represents thought, the place where each day, and each action, begins. It was a gift from the Holy People to the Dinè: “When the Holy People had assembled the things with which to dress the East mountain, they traveled by way of a sunbeam and rainbow beam to decorate Sisnaajiní. The Holy People dressed Sisnaajiní with a perfect white shell for positive thoughts and thinking. Then the Holy People ran a bolt of lighting through a sacred mountain to fasten the East mountain to our Mother Earth.” (Navajopeople.org)

Beginning in the 1890s the slopes of Blanca Peak were mined for silver and gold, the mining claims eventually leading to a number of private inholdings surrounded by National Forest, some with a road leading to them. When the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness was designated in 1993, a strip of land along the Huerfano River where the access road runs, was excluded from the wilderness area, cutting it in two.

While hiking into the nearby Lily Lake for a fishing trip in the early 2000s, David Carrick of Boulder, CO fell in love with the area, and after discovering how many private properties were still spread throughout it, he began buying them. Inspired by his love for public lands, David had a company helping to facilitate land transfers, and through one was able to transfer all but six of the private properties on Blanca Peak to public ownership. With a road leading to them, the remaining properties had a high risk of development, and David was approached with interest to buy them and develop them with cabins. But David, and his wife Pamela, chose a different path. Instead they donated the remaining six Blanca Peak properties to The Wilderness Land Trust. “I wasn’t familiar with the Trust previously, but as I started looking into them and understanding how they work, we felt confident that if we handed the properties over to them, they would be able to hold them until they could become public lands, which is what we wanted to see,” says David.

Thanks to the generosity of David and Pamela, and their commitment to seeing the landscape around Blanca Peak unified as public lands, the Trust has now begun the work of transferring the properties to the National Forest. With it no longer providing access to the private properties, the hope is that the road running along the Huerfano River can be converted to a trail, and someday the fracture through the wilderness area can be closed. With the last private properties removed, this sacred mountain is protected, ensuring it is open for future generations of Dinè for cultural and spiritual practices, as well as future generations of mountaineers inspired by its challenging climb.

 

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Priest Wilderness connection protected in the Trust’s first East Coast Project

January 12, 2024-

Priest Wilderness connection protected in the Trust’s first East Coast project

The Wilderness Land Trust has acquired 10 acres of valley forest directly connecting the Tye River and Priest Wilderness of Virginia, ensuring that habitat connectivity, watershed protection, and the wilderness experience of thousands of visitors a year is not interrupted by the threat of development.

This week we are celebrating a new acquisition adjoining Virginia’s Priest Wilderness, not just for the habitat it will directly protect, but as a major milestone for our organization. In 2022 the Trust set a strategic goal to expand our work east of the Rockies in response to a growing need to protect lands in and around the often smaller wilderness areas of the East. With little buffer of public lands surrounding them, they are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of private development at their borders. The Tye River acquisition marks a first step in pursuing this goal, and is also a prime example of its importance.

Only a few hours’ drive away, the 6,000-acre Priest Wilderness provides access to life-changing wilderness experiences for the millions of residents of Richmond, Virginia, and the Washington DC metro area. The Tye River, a tributary of the James River, is one of the most scenic and popular recreational waterways in Virginia, and provides critical habitat to dozens of species of fish and aquatic wildlife. The famed Appalachian Trail also runs through the Priest Wilderness, only a few miles from the Tye River project. The George Washington National Forest, where the Priest Wilderness is located, provides drinking water for over 4 million people, and is part of the imperiled Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Protecting intact ecosystems in the watershed is critical to its health and the supply of clean, safe drinking water.

The Priest Wilderness and Tye River connect over the span of only a mile, creating an important link in habitat connectivity for species like black bears, peregrine falcons, and lady’s slipper orchids. The Tye River property sits in the middle of this connection, and its protection ensures this important link will remain intact.

As with almost all of our projects, local community partnerships played an important role in the success of the project. The property was first brought to the Trust’s attention by the Virginia Wilderness Committee, which helped to secure wilderness designation for the Priest Wilderness in 2000. “The acquisition of this small parcel of land along the Tye River, closes an important gap in land adjacent to The Priest and will protect The Priest Wilderness from the sights and sounds of future development” says Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens, Executive Director of Virginia Wilderness Committee.

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