Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park Acquires Nearly 1,000 New Acres Through Landmark Deal

by Jon D. B.
GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, CO - JULY 14: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve contains the tallest sand dunes in North America on July 14, 2016. (Photo by Michael Reaves/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Made possible by funding from LWCF, Great Sand Dunes National Park (GRSA) today celebrates a great enhancement to their legacy.

On October 7, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and National Park Service (NPS) Director Chuck Sams celebrated the transfer of approximately 9,362 acres to Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. This land comes from the Medano Ranch (owned by the The Nature Conservancy (TNC)). And such an acquisition was possible via funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

“This enhancement of the national park will allow for more holistic management as a connected landscape and provides long-term protection areas that contribute to the formation of the dune field,” the Department of the Interior (DOI) states in their press release.

“Great Sand Dunes and The Nature Conservancy have built a model for collaboration that will help guarantee that future generations have access to this special place,” adds Secretary Haaland. “This acquisition underscores the central role that locally led conservation efforts play in the Biden-Harris administration’s America the Beautiful initiative and our ongoing efforts to conserve, connect and restore public lands and waters.”

A Bit of Great Sand Dunes National Park History

As the DOI cites, Great Sand Dunes National Park was first established as a national monument in 1932. It wouldn’t be until the year 2000 that the DOI would re-designate GRSA as a national park and preserve. This move came to conserve the tallest dunes in North America for current and future generations.

As part of the vast Colorado Desert, the national park’s dunes are truly a centerpiece in a diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, forests, alpine lakes and tundra. The public shows great support for GRSA, too, as more than 603,000 visitors came to experience the singular dunes in 2021. As a result, an estimated $41.3 million was spent by visitors in local gateway regions while visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park, supporting more than 530 jobs.

This latest acquisition continues a long-standing partnership between NPS and TNC to expand Great Sand Dunes National Park. In 1999, TNC purchased the Medano-Zapata Ranch, then began developing their plan to transfer some of the acquired land for the creation of Great Sand Dunes National Park. In November of the following year, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act passed. This landmark deal would more than quadruple the size of GRSA.

And today’s deal is not the end of GRSA’s expansion, either. Around 12,498 acres of the Medano Ranch currently lie within the boundaries of GRSA. But TNC plans to transfer the remaining 3,192 acres in the future.

The Fate of Colorado Bison in GRSA Acquisition

There is one large, bison-sized matter to attend to through all this, however. The Nature Conservancy operates a bison herd on the ranch property through a permit from NPS. Now that this land is under NPS control, the bison operation will “continue for up to seven years following the current acquisition while TNC determines future plans for their conservation herd,” DOI states.

Regardless, TNC will continue to own and manage the GRSA-adjacent 20,000-acre Zapata property.

“The lands being transferred to the Park contain important springs and wetlands that support a rich diversity of life,” adds GRSA Superintendent Pamela Rice for the DOI. “This acquisition marks an important step toward completing the plan for Great Sand Dunes National Park that was established in 2004.”

In addition, Nancy Fishbein, director of resilient lands for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, says “We are excited to complete this project and add to the spectacular Great Sand Dunes National Park. Protecting the Medano-Zapata Ranch and contributing to the creation of the national park are among the most significant successes in the history of TNC in Colorado.”