State Land Board plans to keep La Jara Land Trust open to public

LA JARA — Speculation that the 45,650-acre La Jara State Public Trust Land is on the auction block was confirmed recently by the Colorado State Land Board.

However, concerns that the largest parcel of state trust lands in Southwest Colorado would end up in the hands of a private developer appear to be unwarranted.

Kristin Kemp, outreach and communications officer for the State Land Board, said commissioners approved hiring Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC) to explore the sale of the La Jara trust land at their April 2021 public meeting. The action authorized WRC to seek out “an entity whose mission is directly aligned with supporting public access, community use, and the permanent protection-conservation of natural and cultural resources, such as a state or federal agency, conservation-oriented, nonprofit organization, or sovereign nation.”

The La Jara Public Trust Land, including La Jara Reservoir State Wildlife Area, is on the southwestern edge of the San Luis Valley in the San Juan Mountains range and comprises about 5.5 percent of the total land area in Conejos County. The property is surrounded by public land managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as well as numerous private landholdings.

According to Kemp, the State Land Board’s asset management plan for the La Jara property suggests that school trust beneficiaries “might be best served if the State Land Board considers disposing of the property and reinvesting the proceeds.”

Most of the La Jara property was acquired at statehood in 1876, and several strategic acquisitions and land-exchanges occurred over the past 10 years to bring the property to its current size of 45,650 acres. There are 11 grazing leases, one private recreation lease, and one sportsmen’s access lease with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Public Access Program) on the property. 

In an email response to Valley Publishing she said, “There are three main reasons. 1) The annual financial return on leases on La Jara badly lag the performance of other similar assets in the Board’s portfolio. We do not believe that annual income from grazing and hunting uses will ever exceed 1% of the underlying asset value. 2) Appreciation in land value lag behind similar state trust lands. 3) The property’s geographic location, lack of year-round access, and short summer season limit potential leasing opportunities.

“Furthermore, we understand that the local community cares deeply about preserving public uses on the property, though those uses don’t best align with the constitutional mission of the State Land Board to earn income for schoolchildren from trust land. We believe that the ideal owner would be a public agency or agencies whose mission is more directly aligned with permanent conservation and public use.” 

For more information, interested persons may contact Dieter Erdmann, WRC Interior West Program Director at 303-638-9465.

About the Land Board: the Colorado State Land Boardowns and stewards 2.8 million acres of land and lease these assets to help fund Colorado public schools. The agency has earned $2 billion for Colorado public schools since 2008.

“We are very proud to be the primary funding for the Colorado Department of Education’s Building Excellent Today Program (BEST). BEST has provided capital construction grants to 524 schools serving 225,000 students since the program’s inception in 2008. Conejos County has been awarded multiple BEST grants totaling $59,978,297, including grants to build new schools for South Conejos RE-10, Sanford 6J pre/K-12, and most recently North Conejos RE-1J’s Centauri high school.

Numerous other schools have also been built across the San Luis Valley in the past 10 years with BEST grants.