Interview with Sarah Sauter of Western Slope Conservation Center

Feb 11, 2013

The Conservation Center held an annual meeting yesterday, and chose a new name: Western Slope Conservation Center. The nonprofit was created by the marriage of two deep-rooted local organizations, the North Fork River Improvement Association, known as NFRIA, and the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council, known as WSERC.

Sarah Sauter in her Paonia Office

Sarah Sauter is in her third year as the director of the Conservation Center. With degrees in environmental science and environmental biology, Sauter also has experience in facilitating collaborative projects. Before joining the conservation center, she consulted with community groups, including NFRIA, to develop watershed plans.

It’s been a challenging and productive year for the Conservation Center’s small staff, who work with a board of nine. On the eve of the Annual Meeting, Sauter paused to reflect on the center’s accomplishments. Many were undertaken in partnership with other organizations and governments, and all were fueled by volunteer labor.

There were river restoration projects in Paonia, where the conservation center teamed with Minnesota Canal and Reservoir Company, and outside of Hotchkiss on the Curry Conservation Easement. There were recycling projects at Cherry Days, with Pickup America, and with Delta County at the recycling station in Hotchkiss. There was the Wild and Scenic Film Fest, and the annual river trip.

Sarah recalled, "We were able to take the first trip down the Gunnison River through the redesigned Hartland Diversion. When they redesigned that diversion they created safe boat passage down and safe fish passage up. And that dam has been in place for gosh, decades. So that’s a pretty phenomenal thing to happen. And now you can officially put your boat in at Paonia Reservoir and float all the way down to Grand Junction." 

There was also the work they did with a local mine. "We’re proud to see that the Oxbow Mine has partnered with Aspen Ski Company and Holy Cross to open their coal mine methane capture facility," said Sauter. "That’s something that WSERC has been advocating for, for a long time, is to figure out a way for the coal mines to be able to capture the methane they’re required to vent. So it’s a great thing to have such an innovative really great project in our Valley locally."

Then there was the lease sale battle with the BLM, which resulted in the deferral of all 30,000 acres of parcels in the North Fork Valley. Sauter commented, "The most powerful thing I’ve learned, is how amazing this community is, and how inspiring it is to see a group of people to get together speaking with such a powerful unified voice that they can actually convince the government to change, and to listen. That doesn’t happen very often but when it does – for me, it gives me goosebumps."

"We have a stakeholder group that’s been meeting for about six months now in partnership with Citizens for a Healthy Community and lots of folks in town. And we’re working on our North Fork Alternative, which is a set of management recommendations we hope the BLM will consider when adopting the final Resource Management Plan. In the horizon, many of the existing leases in the area are going to expire within the next year or two, so that’s something we need to keep an eye on. The other thing is -- there’s a lot of private land in Delta County. And do we have the right rules and regulations and infrastructure in place if people do try to start developing on the private lands? We can’t be caught on our heels on that issue. So I think there’s a number of ways that we can keep moving forward and try to stay as proactive as possible with energy development in the North Fork."

The conservation center just received a grant from the Union Pacific Railroad Foundation to continue its improvements at the Paonia River Park. Regarding this project, Sauter says, "We hope to do a lot of xeriscaping, maybe some demonstration plots for irrigation or gardening, get the weeds under control, do a lot of native planting, just turn it into a beautiful community park."

"In early May, we’ll be doing two Conservation Days, where local fourth through sixth graders will come out and go to a series of different stations and learn about water and wildlife, and do some creative journaling, and observing nature and that sort of thing. So we’re excited to really start integrating the community and the schools into the River Park."

It’s a lot for one organization, and one executive director, to take on. But Sarah Sauter is in her element. "Six years ago if you’d asked me what I wanted to do, it would be leading an environmental group in a small rural town in the West," she said. "I couldn’t be luckier."