On February 10, 2021, at its monthly, public meeting, the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners (Board) voted to offer the 86,211-acre Chico Basin Ranch (Ranch) for a 10-year agriculture grazing lease to one operator via a public competitive bid process in 2023.
The Colorado State Land Board has existed since statehood to steward Colorado’s working trust lands on behalf of Colorado public schools. The agency owns 2.8 million acres of trust land -- commonly called school section land -- and has earned $2 billion in recent history for its trust beneficiaries, public schools, by leasing the land for assorted uses. One property owned by the State Land Board is the Chico Basin Ranch that spans 135 miles in El Paso and Pueblo Counties near Colorado Springs.
The Ranch is currently leased to Box T Partners for multiple uses, including cattle grazing. The 25-year lease contract expires in 2024. To prepare for the expiration of the lease, the State Land Board evaluated different leasing scenarios that would achieve the goals of the School Trust to earn revenue and maintain exceptional stewardship. The agency hosted eleven public meetings over 18 months to evaluate those options.
After careful analysis and consideration of public feedback, the Board voted to continue to lease the Ranch to one ranching operator who will graze the entire 86,000-acre ranch as a single, large-scale operation lease beginning in 2025. That rancher will be selected via a public competitive bid process in 2023. The Board will also offer individual leases for other specific uses, such as private sportsmen access or renewable energy development, to increase rental earnings. The February 2021 decision follows the Board’s decision in August 2020 to not sell the property, which is consistent with the Board’s previous decisions in recent decades to infrequently sell trust land.
The Board determined that this leasing scenario at the Ranch will continue to prioritize good stewardship of the land and natural values on the property. Nearly all trust land properties are managed via multiple leases for multiple uses, and all trust land parcels are managed so that the land holds value for future generations of School Trust beneficiaries, Colorado public schools. Leases on trust land properties, including the Chico Basin Ranch, include stewardship requirements that ensure lessees take specific steps to protect natural values, soil health, and long-term agricultural productivity.
The Chico Basin Ranch is one of the agency’s largest properties and it is the largest property leased for grazing. It contains central shortgrass prairie and has statewide significance due its size, location, and natural values. Additionally, nearly half of the Ranch is designated into the Stewardship Trust, which is a management designation that requires an even higher level of scrutiny and management, such as increased site inspections by agency staff and a property-specific management plan. The State Constitution makes clear that properties designated into the Stewardship Trust are expected to generate leasing income.
“The Chico Basin Ranch is an important component of our agency’s land portfolio and I applaud our current partners, Box T, for being stellar land managers at the Ranch for the past two decades,” said Bill Ryan, Staff Director of the State Land Board. “As landowners and as fiduciaries of an intergenerational trust, our agency will continue to ensure good, long-term management of this working ranch for the benefit of today’s Colorado schoolchildren and future generations of schoolchildren. Our Commissioners devoted nearly two years to contemplating the best scenario for this Ranch that maintains the integrity of the landscape while honoring our duty to earn money for school kids intergenerationally.”
Details about the competitive bidding process will be announced and posted publicly on the agency’s website (slb.colorado.gov) in 2023.
“Competitive bidding fosters innovation, and it provides opportunities to all interested and qualified bidders, including the very capable current lessee, Box T,” said Justin Osborne, South Central District Manager for the Colorado State Land Board. “Importantly, it gives our Commissioners confidence that they’ve met their fiduciary duty to the School Trust they manage by selecting the best operator from an open pool of capable land managers.”
In addition to being leased to earn money for public schools, trust land is also accessible at no cost for K-12 activities and scientific research so long as those activities are coordinated with the agency. The Chico Basin Ranch has been a research site for ornithologists for nearly 20 years, and the agency’s Commissioners have directed its staff to coordinate continued research access with those interested parties.
About the Colorado State Land Board: the Colorado State Land Board is a constitutionally-created state agency that owns and stewards 2.8 million acres of land, and the agency leases these assets to help fund Colorado public schools. Ninety-eight percent of trust land is leased for agriculture. These working lands have earned $2 billion for Colorado public schools in the past 15 years. Trust land is not publicly accessible unless it is leased for recreation. The agency is the primary funding for the Colorado Department of Education’s Building Excellent Today Program (BEST), which has provided capital construction grants to 524 schools serving 225,000 students. The agency is overseen by five voluntary, Governor-appointed Commissioners.