A Priority Landscape & Community along the Continental Divide
The San Luis Valley, often considered one of Colorado’s hidden treasures, is more than meets the eye. Audrey Moreng, a graduate student from Colorado State University, has undertaken a capstone project in collaboration with CDTC to delve into what makes the SLV a priority landscape. In August and September 2023, she conducted a series of interviews with local organizations and residents, uncovering how the area’s rich history shapes its strong connection to the land, emphasizing the inseparable bond between people and nature. Her research has been both meaningful and adventurous, involving activities such as trail maintenance, touring ranches and farms, exploring museum exhibits, and participating in community conservation forums. Audrey hopes her work can help to strengthen the CDTC’s relationships in and understanding of the valley for future work.
Audrey’s Reflections on her time in the SLV – November 2023
When I partnered with the Continental Divide Trail Coalition for my Master’s capstone project, I was eager to delve into the world of coalition work. My goal was to make a meaningful contribution to CDTC while also allowing myself the space for personal growth and learning. As CDTC staff introduced the San Luis Valley as a priority landscape that they were keen to explore, my project began to take shape. The opportunity to gain insight into a region within my home state that I had little knowledge of was truly exciting. Little did I know how deeply I would delve into its history and the profound connections people had with the land.
Initially, explaining my project, its relevance, and its connection to a trails organization was challenging. I found my anchor in CDTC’s website description: “More than a line on a map or a thin stripe of tread, the CDT is a living connector of communities along the spine of North America, a thriving landscape of unique and precious ecosystems, and a meeting ground where people of all walks of life may unite to live, work, play, worship, and learn.” This description perfectly encapsulated how my work was not about a physical trail but rather about the community that has cared for this land for generations. I was excited to be a part of the community engagement and stewardship aspect of the organization.
My research on the San Luis Valley started with extensive reading of academic papers and historical websites. I consumed the information, hungry for more as the more I read, the more interested I became. Finally, when it came time for me to move to Alamosa, I convinced my sister to come along and stay for my first weekend in the SLV. We hiked and camped in the iconic Sand Dunes National Park before settling into Alamosa.
From the beginning, the Valley left me in awe. Its scenery, people, and culture were all unique and inspiring. What started as cold emails soon transformed into genuine, meaningful relationships. My host, CDT adopter, roommate, and now friend, Jeff Owsley, became a valuable mentor both personally and professionally. My living situation couldn’t have been more ideal. Jeff is a well-connected and well-liked individual in the community. Attending community events with him meant meeting new faces, all of whom greeted Jeff with smiles. My month with Jeff was never boring, from drag brunches to Broncos watch parties and even a casual 19-mile day hike.
Valley residents like Anna Lee Vargas and Chris Canaly at the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council played pivotal roles in the success of my research. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to establish the connections that were so crucial. The on-the-ground research was the heart of my project, where I gained the most profound insights. The interviews provided me with a wealth of knowledge, far more than I can encapsulate in this brief article. However, I’d like to share a few highlights.
In the San Luis Valley, you can’t separate the land from its history, and learning about one naturally leads to the other. This became evident through my interactions with the Valley’s inhabitants. Multiple interviewees emphasized their deep connection to the land, a connection passed down through generations. These connections revolved around tradition, foraging, and survival. Nature wasn’t something to conquer; it was an integral part of their lives, a place to deepen connections.
The San Luis Valley faces its share of challenges, and CDTC’s recognition of it as a priority landscape is a significant first step towards greater involvement in the region. As recreational activities in the area increase, it’s imperative not to forget the residents of this place; they should be at the center of its growth. This is why organizations like SLV GO! are so crucial. Rooted in the SLV, such organizations create jobs, offer more opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors, and much more. It is my hope to see more collaboration between CDTC and SLV GO!.
My time in the SLV was marked by substantial personal growth. I am eternally grateful both for the opportunity, and to the people involved in this capstone. I am incredibly lucky to have gained such important insights on balancing people, conservation, and outdoor recreation . Though I am nowhere near an expert on the area, I do know that this region is special, mystical, and definitely worth preserving. I am proud to have played a small part in CDTCs increased interest to add capacity in the area.
Background and Information about the San Luis Valley, a presentation by Audrey Moreng.