PC(USA) camp partners with land trust to conserve nearly 300 acres in Colorado

Nature will be protected in perpetuity so that bull moose and young campers can play

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

Highlands Presbyterian Camp & Retreat Center is part of the Presbytery of Plains and Peaks  in Colorado. (All photos by Cindy Cassen)

At night when the campfire glows inside Highlands Presbyterian Camp & Retreat Center in Allenspark, Colorado, it’s not uncommon to find a familiar bull moose come close to the fire.

Situated five miles from one of the entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park at an elevation of 9,000 feet, the nearly 300 acres of Highlands Camp is an important habitat for wildlife and a place of spectacular beauty. Its wildlife and its beauty are just two of the “conservation values” of the camp property, which made it eligible to partner with Estes Valley Land Trust in obtaining easement status and tax credits for 260 undeveloped acres within its bounds.

The structures on Highlands Camp are under a conservation easement but have fewer restrictions so that these areas can continue to be used as a camp and conference center.

“The Highlands has been a part of the Presbytery of Plains and Peaks for over 75 years,” said Mike Doyle, a member of the administrative commission that governs the camp. Doyle explained how the presbytery was very mindful of the legacy of 75 years in which the camp property had grown from a $20,000 purchase of 20 acres of cabins by the Rev. Andy Hollers into purchases and bequests increasing the total acreage to just under 300 acres.

“We never wanted it to be developed,” said Doyle, who explained the administrative commission’s concern that if it were ever to be sold, it would be divided and developed “with McMansions built on it.” Therefore, the commission explored the possibility of an easement, partnering with Estes Valley Land Trust and Camp Futures.

“We put almost 300 acres into an easement in perpetuity. This will ensure that it will never be developed, never subdivided, and will always be Highlands and available to future generations for use,” Doyle said.

260 acres of Highlands Presbyterian Camp & Retreat Center contain “conservation values” essential to obtaining easement status.

The structures of easements are unique to each property. Highlands continues to own all 283 acres of the property and has the right to retain, repair and rebuild the structures already on the main 40 acres where the central camp activities take place. The rest of the acreage is largely undeveloped, except for trails, a campsite and an archery range. “The conservation easement will keep that area from being developed. It will always be what it is,” Doyle said.

What it is, according to Doyle, is “simply scenic beauty” that sits on Colorado’s Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, so that the public can access its majestic landscape easily, as can animals who follow a tributary of the local river that runs through the property. “And it is a major wildlife byway,” said Doyle. “We have elk, moose, deer, bighorn sheep and a variety of other animals that regularly move through the property.”

A view of Mt. Meeker, one of Colorado’s famed peaks that sits at almost 14,000 feet above sea level.

The process to donate the conservation easement took “a year of pretty steady work,” according to Doyle. It started with a baseline study of the property, which comprised over 200 pages and included pictures and descriptions of what was on the property. According to Debra Pentz of Camp Futures, which assisted Highlands in the work, an appraiser determined the value of the conservation easement by touring the property, researching values of comparable properties, and reviewing this baseline report. “The value of the property without a conservation easement is compared to its value with the conservation easement restrictions and the difference between the two provides the conservation easement value,” said Pentz. The value determined by the appraiser then supports the eventual conservation tax credit that the project will receive from the state.

As a tax-exempt organization, Highlands can sell this tax credit to another organization, an endeavor it’s doing with the help of Camp Futures, who will find a qualified buyer that meets the approval of Highlands Camp. The commission has specified that any buyer must align with the values of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). For instance, Highlands Camp will not sell its tax credits to oil and gas companies. Pentz noted that Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia all have transferable tax credits, but that Colorado is the leader in this arena.

An outdoor worship space at Highlands Presbyterian Camp & Retreat Center.

Highlands filed for its tax credits the first day of 2024 and expects to soon receive word of what they’re worth, which could be around $2.3 million. In the meantime, camp leadership is planning for another busy spring and summer season, which will include new education programs around biology, forestry, and astronomy, as well as popular summer youth programs. Last year, Highlands welcomed more than 4,000 guests, and its kitchen served more than 21,000 meals. Doyle reports that the conference center is on track to exceed that in 2024. Reservations can be made by families and nonprofit organizations online.

Highlands Presbyterian Camp & Retreat Center looks out onto Rocky Mountain National Park.

“I think we all like to see kids connecting with nature. As a species, we’ve gotten away from the connection with nature, and that’s something you can certainly get at Highlands,” said Doyle.

As a governance group, Doyle said the commission spent a lot of time considering how an easement would align with the commission’s vision. “Our vision is pretty simple: ‘Highlands: Where Christ, Creation and Community Connect,’” Doyle said. “That guides our actions in a number of areas, including an easement, because it allows the place where that connection happens to continue to be there.”


Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.