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    A Times Editorial

    Conservancy shows how to save


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 10, 2002

    How does one create a new national park when the people running the U.S. Department of Interior are timid, at best, on preservation? You do it yourself, which is how the Nature Conservancy created Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.

    The Nature Conservancy, a private, nonprofit group that buys environmentally important land for safekeeping, spent 10 years and more than $31-million to create the newest national park. Actually, it is not officially a park until 2005, after some legal matters are resolved. Then, half of a 151-square-mile ranch the Conservancy purchased will be turned over to the federal government and added to the adjacent Great Sand Dunes National Monument to form the park.

    The Conservancy's achievement is significant in several ways, not least of which in what is actually being saved: unspoiled mountains, forests, rare and threatened plants and animals and one of the most unusual deserts in the country, where sand dunes reach a height of 700 feet. Americans will be able to take in all of the beauty and, better yet, claim it as their own. The remaining ranchland will be kept by the Conservancy as a wildlife refuge.

    While the Conservancy was the spark, it got cooperation from a variety of groups. Almost a third of the purchase price came from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, a third from low-interest loans from charitable organizations, which will be repaid out of state and local government funds. Yale University, which was part owner of the ranch, will return $4-million of its profit. The Conservancy will pay legal fees and interest on the loans of about $500,000.

    Under Secretary Gale Norton, the Interior Department has come under the sway of interests hostile to preservation, particularly loggers, miners and drillers. Rather than moving forward with protection of national monuments and wilderness areas in national forests, Norton has undermined such efforts. She did praise the Conservancy's accomplishment. Of course, it did the legally and politically difficult spadework for her department.

    The Conservancy earned support from local government in Colorado and even from local ranchers and farmers. Prior owners of the land wanted to sell their water rights to outside interests, which would have hurt the local environment and economy. Soon, a variety of special interests were working together for the same cause, which will pay dividends to future generations.

    "The Conservancy sees this as a model for the way things will have to be financed in the future," said Jordan Peavey, the group's spokesperson.

    It's too bad the Interior Department isn't as enthusiastic about saving the nation's few remaining natural treasures. But at least the Nature Conservancy has shown the rest of the nation the way to proceed.

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