Maurice Strong’s big ideas

San Luis Valley, northern part
The northern end of Colorado’s San Luis Valley has a raw, lonely beauty that rivals almost any place in the North American West. Photo/Allen Best

Maurice Strong’s big ideas for the planet and pipe dream for Denver

by Allen Best/Dec. 13, 2015

CRESTONE, Colo. – Maurice Strong, a Canadian who made a fortune in oil and then went on to organize the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992—a direct forerunner of the climate change negotiations held in Paris this month—died just before Thanksgiving. He was 86.

At least initially, his passing got little attention in the national and international press. Somewhat belatedly, the UK’s The Telegraph had this observation:

“A very odd thing happened last weekend. The death was announced of the man who, in the past 40 years, has arguably been more influential on global politics than any other single individual. Yet the world scarcely noticed.”

The column, “Farewell to the man who created ‘climate change,’” by Christopher Booker, described Strong as “the man who created ‘climate change’ and drew a direct link to news of today: “And all along it has been Strong’s ideology, enshrined at Rio in “Agenda 21,” which has continued to shape the entire process, centered on the principle that the richer developed countries must pay for a problem they created, to the financial benefit of all those ‘developing countries’ that have been its main victims.”

Maurice and Hanne Strong with Graca Marcel and Nelson Mandela
Maurice and Hanne Strong with Graca Marcel and Nelson Mandela

The Telegraph writer wasn’t fond of Strong, and others in conservative websites similarly reported no sorrow. “Maurice Strong, father of the global eco-control movement,” reported LifeSite USA.

Dig a little deeper, and you can find Strong linked to the Aspen Institute and, of course, Al Gore and then other nefarious people, ideas, and schemes.

People in the San Luis Valley might not have marked his passing with regrets, either—if they even took note. “Maurice who?” asked a waitress at Bliss, an organic restaurant in Crestone, a town at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Range.

She was perhaps 25, so still a baby when Strong’s plan for exporting water from an aquifer underlying the San Luis Valley to Denver’s rapidly expanding suburbs, located about four hours away, was in the news. That was in the early 1990s.

The idea, if now significantly downsized, hasn’t entirely died.

Born into poverty

Strong was born into poverty in Manitoba during the Great Depression and graduated from high school at age 14. He then hopped a train for Vancouver, B.C., working for a year in the merchant marine but soon learned geology. By age 25, he was vice president of a petroleum company in Calgary, Alberta, and by 31 was president of the Power Corporation of Canada. See this short biography from his website.

Early on, he also developed an interest in environmental issues, and by 1972 was involved in putting on a major conference in Stockholm under the auspices of the United Nations. Later that year he was appointed by the UN to launch the Environmental Programme, and he moved to Kenya for several years, as it was based in Kenyatta.

In 1978, by then a billionaire, Strong bought the 200,000-acre Baca Ranch in the San Luis Valley. The ranch was part of an old Spanish land grant (Luis Maria Baca Grant No. 4) located between the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the old mining town of Crestone.

Stupa, Baca Ranch, Sangres reduced
A Buddhist stupa is located on the Baca Ranch, about two miles from Crestone, with the Sangre de Cristo peaks in the background. Photo/Allen Best

On the ranch, Strong’s Denmark-born wife, Hanne, created a multi-faith spiritual center. To this day, it has two Buddhist stupas amid the pinyon and juniper, along with houses of worships for other religions, plus scores of houses. The ranch is also a real estate development, but the houses tend toward the unusual, many emphasizing environmental-friendly features. It should be noted that many are also for sale. It’s a better place to go once you’ve made money than a place to make money.

The backdrop is so dramatic, though, that you just might be willing to forego a few paychecks. These are mountains that grip your eyes. They rise from the valley floor, at about 8,000 feet in elevation, with a string of 14,000-foot peaks immediately behind Crestone and the Baca Ranch, with only slight hesitation in their ascension. In the Rocky Mountains, only Wyoming’s Teton Range has greater visual drama.

Lying underfoot

With his geological training, Strong saw opportunity to make money from what lay under his ranch.

In an October 1998 article in Colorado Central, the late Ed Quillen explained the geology. The San Luis Valley is drained by the Rio Grande, but the northern half is geologically separate, with no drainage. Instead, water in this 3,000-square-mile Closed Basin percolates into what is called the Confined Aquifer, with bedrock as much as 30,000 feet below the surface.

By some estimates this aquifer has 50 times the volume of water as the combined capacities of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, or about 200 times the annual flow of the Colorado River.

“The Confined Aquifer is a magnificent water supply that seems to make people go crazy,” Alex Prud’homme observed in his 2011 book, “The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century.”

Strong, with others, including former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, formed AWDI, with the intent of exporting up to 200,000 acre-feet a year to cities along Colorado’s Front Range.

Baca Ranch eyebrow house reduced
Houses on the Baca Ranch tend toward environmental principles and eccentric designs. A great many are also available for sale. Photo/Allen Best

How much is 200,000 acre-feet? By way of comparison, the total of all of the 25 transmountain diversions in Colorado—including those from near Aspen, Vail, Summit County, Winter Park, and Grand Lake—ranges from 400,000 to 650,000 acre-feet in any given year. In other words, a vast amount.

In the San Luis Valley, though, the plan was hated. The pumping plan was rejected by water courts and in 1991 Colorado Water Court upheld the rejection. In time, The Baca Ranch became protected as the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and with it the water underneath

Strong moved onto other global save-the-environment advocacies, including the Rio conference, but the idea was taken on by Gary Boyce, a native son of the San Luis Valley.

In the late 1990s, Boyce failed in his water-export proposal and The Nature Conservancy stepped in and gained title to the ranch, ceding a portion to the National Park Service for an enlarged (and new) Great Sand Dunes National Park. It had previously been a national monument. That meant water under the Baca Ranch was off limits—but not the even more northerly part of the valley, from around Villa Grove.

It’s back…

Boyce has now returned with another, down-sized proposal. He now proposes to develop 35,000 acre-feet of water. His new business, Sustainable Water Resources, owns 25,000 acres of deeded ranch lands with senior water rights and will purchase remaining water rights from other sources, explains The Crestone Eagle, in a November 2015 story.

In addition, Boyce and his backers have sweetened the pot for locals: $50 million to be donated over the course of 25 years in Saguache County, one of the nation’s most sparsely populated and most impoverished counties.

The same story said that Boyce had approached the Rio Grande Water Conservation District last year in seek of support, offering $150 million “to buy their cooperation,” in the words of David Robbins, the district’s attorney. The board said no.

In October, Boyce’s group went before the Saguache County commissioners seeking assurances the commissioners would not oppose the water export. They took no position.

Does this new idea have any legs whatsoever? I asked that of a prominent farmer from the San Luis Valley that I sat next to at a water meeting in Denver.

“No,” he said, but did not elaborate.

As for Strong, he may be remembered as a great figure who helped alert us to unsustainable environmental follies. He did a great many things with the United Nations and, for a time, was thought to be a possible candidate for the secretary-general.

In an article several decades ago, The New Yorker almost deified him. “The survival of civilization in something like its present form might depend significantly on the efforts of a single man,” it said.

The National Review saw Strong far less favorably. A 1997 article, “Who is Maurice Strong,” described him as somebody who would advance a world government meddling in local affairs, as with “World Heritage Site” at Yellowstone National Park. A 2013 article about environmentalism, “Our Climate Change Cathedral,” unfavorably discussed his influence on global warming activism.

In Colorado, though, he’ll likely be remembered for the big pipeline that didn’t happen—at least not yet.

This story is from the Dec. 10, 2015, issue of Mountain Town News. Subscriptions are $45 a year.


Allen Best

1 thought on “Maurice Strong’s big ideas”

Comments are closed.