Kelsey Kirkwood joined Colorado Open Lands as a GOCO fellow in November 2021. GOCO Fellows gain experience in the fields of conservation, outdoor recreation, and stewardship while growing a professional skill set to apply to future endeavors. Kelsey's fellowship came to a close this year and she transitioned into a full-time role at the organization.  

What did you do and learn during your experience as a fellow? 

As a fellow on the Conservation team at Colorado Open Lands, I worked in Southern Colorado to help landowners protect their property from development through conservation easements. My role was to plan the initial meeting, build a rapport with the landowners, and walk them through the easement process. At first, I was intimidated by the immense amount of work and required knowledge that goes into an easement. Through my mentorship with Ben Lenth, I began to find my voice and could speak to the processes and financial considerations more confidently. I learned to read appraisals, baselines, and title commitments with a discerning eye, and learned that protecting land in perpetuity needs to be thoughtful and intentional. 

COL is a highly professional organization, with knowledgeable people who were willing to help me learn. Working from a remote location, I admire the ongoing communication among our own staff, with landowners, consultants, and partners. One of my biggest takeaways was how special I find the relationship that forms with the landowners. The Southern Colorado area is populated with people who value easements, and highly regard COL’s ability to help get them to that goal. It isn’t the norm for landowners to choose to protect their land from subdivision and maintain open spaces in Colorado, and I’m thankful I get to be a part of this tangible work.

Was there a project or challenge that was most impactful? How did you tackle it?

Kelsey Kirkwood and the Gold Family
Kelsey with the Gold family. 

During my time as a fellow, I was able to shadow other project managers on ongoing projects, to help out and learn. The most impactful were the projects where I was able to start from the beginning, strengthening the relationship with the landowners and shepherding them through the whole process. The Gold Nuggets River Ranch was this project for me. It is a beautiful property along the Tarryall Creek in South Park that I was able to work on from start to finish. It was an amazing accomplishment for me, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.

In a large departure from the main work I do, I was also able to support, and will continue to support in a different and special landscape of the San Luis Valley. Annually, COL and the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association put on an event for the acequias (a community-operated ditch or canal through which water is shared among the community and distributed based on need) called Congreso. I enjoy my supporting role in this event as I continue to learn more about the unique landscapes and communities of Colorado.

What surprised you most as a fellow?

I was most surprised by the time and detailed work to put a property into a conservation easement. I initially believed the process would be similar to a real estate transaction, and was unaware of the legal knowledge, local and state restrictions, and due diligence required of a project manager. Though now, I can’t imagine shortening the process, knowing how intricate and unique each transaction can be!

What does a dream job look like to contribute to that vision?

I’m so happy to report that I will be staying at my dream job as a Conservation Project Associate with Colorado Open Lands! Even after two years, the conservation field is complex, and I know I will continue to learn as long as I stay with this work. Something I enjoy about putting land into conservation easements is the tangibility of the work. After a year or more working on a project, to then touch the land knowing it will stay a working ranch, open space, a fishing preserve, etc. means everything to me.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Colorado Open Lands Staff at Congreso De Acequias
Colorado Open Lands staff at Congreso De Acequias.

I came to this fellowship in my late 30’s. I was new to this aspect of the work, and now realize I could have ended up in any one of a number of places. How lucky I was that GOCO gave me the opportunity to become part of COL! COL fosters a healthy work environment, and their continuing support has set me up for success.

My success to this point is due largely to the efforts of Sarah Parmar and Ben Lenth, and I see them both as inspirational to how I can grow in this field. I thank them for their patience and for their immense knowledge as I learn the ropes and continue to learn the intricacies of protecting land in Colorado.

Thank you again to GOCO for the amazing opportunity that has helped me reset my course into a new career that I enjoy so much!