An aging wooden sign marks the entrance to Fort Lewis College’s former campus. Many of the century-old buildings have crumbling stone exteriors, broken windows or slouching roofs.
Besides summertime, the campus lies quiet for much of the year.
Since the college moved to Durango in 1956, the 6,279-acre property near Hesperus, known as the Old Fort, has been put to a mishmash of uses. Sustainable agriculture projects, a landing pad for firefighting helicopters and crew-training sessions for nonprofit land-conservation projects have started up on the land. Until 2010, Colorado State University operated an agricultural experiment station on the property.
But since the university pulled out of its lease two years ago, FLC and the state of Colorado have been looking to turn a new page on use and management of the land. The college’s challenge is to put the land to use in a way that is economically sustainable and aligns with the century-old agreement that created FLC and the Native American tuition waiver.
The roots of the tuition waiver, which grants native students free tuition at FLC, date back to 1911 when the federal government granted Colorado ownership of the land. In return, Colorado promised to maintain the land and buildings, then serving as a Native American boarding school, as an institution of learning that would admit Native American students tuition free.
With CSU’s departure, the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners, which holds the land in trust, is giving the college the most influence in decisions about how the Old Fort property is used.
That arrangement will last until 2017 when two leases on the land, one a grazing lease and the other held by the nonprofit Elk Research Institute, will end. After that, the college and the state land board will collaborate on a new plan for the land.
The college already has received several suggestions for use of the property, from renewable-energy development to fieldwork classes to animal husbandry education through a buffalo herd.
But ambitious, creative proposals for the next five years have so far been pushed aside as the college works to untangle financial and legal issues.
Colorado State University left a complicated property ownership and building maintenance situation when it exited the property.
It is still unclear who has responsibility to fix up the dilapidated infrastructure.
The cost to repair and replace the buildings and water and sewage systems was estimated to cost about $1.5 million, according to a 2011 report by a campus committee tasked with evaluating the financial status of the land.
Though sustainable agriculture, hay and cattle operations generate about $60,000, that money goes into maintaining those operations.
The land that many believe was supposed to generate revenue to support Native American education was, and still is, losing money. In fiscal year 2011, the college had to transfer $96,500 from its general fund to the Old Fort budget in order for classes and agricultural activities on the land to continue operating.
An Old Fort Steering Committee, formed last year, has focused most of its work on creating a memorandum of understanding with the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners.
The group also established a set of requirements that must be met by future proposals for the land. Projects must be revenue-generating or cost-neutral, have long-term sustainability and an educational value. But so far the committee hasn’t considered any major proposals.
With declining state funding, the college doesn’t have extra resources to dedicate to the Old Fort property, said Mitch Davis, the college’s spokesman.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity that came to us at the worst possible time,” he said.
This story originally appeared at DurangoHerald.com, visit that site to view a video that goes with this story. Reprinted with full permissions from The Durango Herald.
Read the first three stories in the series here: