Saying goodbye to the ranch

All my childhood memories take me back to my familyís guest ranch in a remote area of northwest Colorado. Without this place, what would I have to remember?

There are the good memories of riding through uncut hay meadows and racing toy boats down our backyard stream, all set beneath the looming peaks of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness near Steamboat Springs. Then there are the hard-knock memories that every ranch kid shares, like catching the school bus at 6 a.m. for the long ride into town, the mud seasons that left our truck stuck for days, the fact that we could never take a family vacation because relentless work weighed us down.

But memories are all I have left; my family sold our ranch when I was in high school. And this is not just my experience. Every day, other kids in the West have to say good-bye to the family ranch. Itís a separation much like losing a loved one or having the roots that once grounded you yanked up.

These days, keeping a ranch going is a lot more difficult than working one, and thatís saying a lot, because to my mind, nothingís harder than ranch work. Eventually, many cash-strapped landowners struggling to make ends meet have little choice but to sell. Faced with daunting property taxes, escalating debt and the prospect of never getting out with your boots still on, the decision almost becomes easy. A ranch sale means retirement money, send-your-kids-to college money.

Whatís left behind when the ranch sells? In the West, itís often residential subdivisions split into 10-, 20- or 40-acre parcels. Gone forever is the family ranch, along with a lot of the wildlife habitat and open space that benefit all of us.

In my case, I think Iím lucky. The buyers of our ranch not only kept it as a working guest and agricultural operation, they also safeguarded it from future development by securing a conservation easement, one of the most powerful tools in the West for ranchers who want to stay put without selling off their land in parcels.

That said, Iíve learned that conservation easements arenít for everyone. Delicate negotiations go into making these deals. After countless cups of coffee in kitchen meetings, sometimes it just doesnít work out. But Iíve seen a lot of conservation agreements that do happen -- sometimes against enormous odds -- and it gives me hope.

One project in eastern Coloradoís grasslands reveals that ranching families donít have to give up what they love, and that strength in numbers counts when it comes to conservation. Hereís the example: A rancher named Harold Yoder got to thinking that one way to lure back his older son, who had moved to Oklahoma, was to acquire the nearby Winship Ranch, a 37,000-acre spread that had been for sale since 2008. The place, he thought, was solid country for someone like his son to ranch.

A few of Haroldís neighbors were interested in the Winship, too, but nobody on his own could swing the asking price. Thatís when they all sat down with The Nature Conservancy and asked, ďCan we do this together?Ē

That first discussion led to a new model for private-lands conservation in Colorado, one in which four families placed easements on their home ranches and then used the associated out-of-pocket savings to purchase portions of the Winship Ranch, enabling each family to expand their operations. The Nature Conservancy negotiated the easements and facilitated the transaction.

The resulting deal safeguards 48,500 acres of shortgrass prairie, land essential for providing habitat for pronghorn, swift fox and the lesser prairie chicken. It also catches and purifies water, while simultaneously protecting several historic ranching operations. Sure enough, Haroldís son, Sid Yoder, returned with his young family after the complex project took shape.

ďItís been a pleasure and a joy to come home,Ē says Sid. ďItís where I grew up, itís a place that I love, and I was glad to have an opportunity to bring my kids back here.Ē

While I will never get the chance to return to my own familyís ranch, there is comfort in knowing that, given new tools, people who want to do so can keep their ranches alive. And though the ranch of my childhood is no longer mine, the last time I visited, I saw my little blue tricycle was still stashed in a corner of the old barn. It looked just the way I remembered it.

Kerry Brophy-Lloyd is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Idaho with her husband and young son.

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