- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

Congress' efforts to convert the tallest sand dunes in North America into a Colorado national park and wildlife refuge took a big step forward yesterday with a private conservation group buying a huge ranch next to it.
The Nature Conservancy said it is spending $31.28 million to purchase the 97,000-acre Baca Ranch and two 14,000-foot peaks in southern Colorado, next to Great Sand Dunes National Monument and Preserve. The ranch's plentiful aquifer keeps the 750-foot-high dunes intact and nourishes the San Luis Valley's farmers and ranchers.
The conservation group's purchase prevents the land from being sold to someone else. Once the deed is turned over to the federal government, the 38,700-acre monument and the ranch, including Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point, will become Great Sand Dunes National Park.
An adjacent preserve will become Baca National Wildlife Refuge, where hunting will continue to be allowed.
"This project represents conservation and partnership at a truly heroic scale," said Steve McCormick, the group's president.
The last time Congress created a national park was in 1999 with the conversion of another Colorado national monument into Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Great Sand Dunes would be the nation's 56th national park.
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said yesterday she strongly supports its creation in her home state, where she was Colorado's attorney general before joining the Bush administration.
"This is public-private partnership at its best," she said.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said the ranch purchase is the largest land preservation effort in the state's history and would protect "the history, culture and way of life of the entire San Luis Valley."
Once the park is created, Colorado's Taylor Peak would be the only remaining 14,000-footer left in private hands in North America.
Spurred by Colorado lawmakers, Congress and the Clinton administration in 2000 authorized creation of the national park and purchase of the ranch. They also created Great Sand Dunes National Preserve from 42,000 acres of the Rio Grande National Forest.
Spread between sagebrush grasslands and the snowy Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the wind-shaped dunes rise from a valley floor at more than 7,000 feet above sea level. The area is abundant with elk, coyotes and bighorn sheep that pass among the aspen, spruce and pine trees.
Congress already has appropriated $10.2 million for the park.

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