National Park Service
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, seen here from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, are the backbone of a proposed conservation area announced Friday with a billionaire's pledge to protect 90,000 acres from development.
A billionaire hedge-fund manager on Friday pledged to protect 90,000 acres of his Colorado ranch from further development as part of a much larger planned conservation area. The Obama administration said it would be the "largest single conservation easement" ever provided to the federal government.
The easement, which would include tax benefits for New York-based Louis Bacon, provides "the foundation for the proposed new Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area," the Interior Department announced.
Should the conservation area happen, Bacon said Friday, "I will place approximately 90,000 currently unprotected acres of the Blanca portion of Trinchera Ranch into a conservation easement."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who grew up in the area and announced the deal with Bacon at his side, said the ranch "is in one of the most beautiful places in the country" -- and home to three peaks above 14,000 feet that are in the center of the longest U.S. mountain chain.
Conserving the land will protect the region's water and wildlife, Salazar told reporters. The region is used as a corridor by bison, cougars, black bears, bighorn sheep, elk and deer, and borders the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The proposed conservation area -- which would be much larger than Bacon's ranch -- "remains largely unchanged and is a place where wildlife can migrate between the high prairies of eastern New Mexico and the high mountain valleys of central Colorado," an Interior team that scouted the area last year reported.
Department of Interior
The circled area of interest represents the 3,000,000 acres studied by the Interior Department for the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area.
"Maintaining such an open corridor is important for species survival and overall ecosystem health," the team added. "There are few other places in the southwestern United States where such an open and unchanged landscape exists."
Bacon, ranked by Forbes as the 312th richest American with a $1.4 billion estimated net worth, bought the 172,000-acre Trinchera Ranch from the family of billionaire Malcolm Forbes in 2007 for $175 million -- which media reports at the time called the most expensive single property ever sold in the U.S.
The Forbes family had earlier placed more than 80,000 acres of the ranch in a conservation easement.
Easements allow continued ranching and hunting but no construction of significant structures. They also provide tax incentives to property owners.
"The conservation incentives are incredibly efficient ways of conserving land," Greg Yankee, policy director for the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, told msnbc.com.
Colorado grants a maximum $375,000 tax credit for any easement, he added, and a property owner who meets all the criteria could also list the easement as a federal income tax deduction.
The Interior Department did not immediately respond to a request for how much Bacon could expect.
Billionaire Ted Turner, founder of CNN, owns the largest parcel inside the proposed conservation area -- the 600,000-acre Vermejo Ranch.
Salazar told the Denver Post that while he's had conversations with Turner, there were no specific proposals in the works.
"It'll happen over the next several years," Salazar said of the larger conservation area. "It's important that, as the conservation efforts move forward, that it be done with full cognizance of the need to honor water rights and property rights on the valley floor."
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