Surrounded by dogs, bikers, developers

  RIFLE, Colo. - Jim Snyder wants to give a piece of his mind to every driver hurtling down Interstate 70 past his ranch seven miles east of this town. He wants to tell them that they are driving over what was some of his best pasture until the summer of 1970. That's when workers steamrolled 60-some acres of the ranch and opened the highway. The government paid him for the land, but it was no compensation. The highway so upset Snyder's mother that she suffered a stroke days after it opened.





"The land, that's our insurance, our retirement," says Snyder, a former high school physical education teacher who once served on the Garfield County Planning Commission. His parents, now deceased, started the 1,100-acre ranch in the 1920s, but when I-70 came, they sold their 300 mother cows and turned the ranch into a small feedlot, a cheaper way to stay in business. Snyder ran cows on another 2,000 acres of private leases, but in the last five years he lost them as the owners sold to developers. As for his land, "We've had big money offers, but I can't do it."


The Colorado Department of Agriculture says the state loses 10 acres of agricultural land an hour. That's 90,000 acres a year, according to a 1996 report that cites "a steady drip-drip of farmland and ranchland converted to housing, shopping malls, roads and other uses." Rifle's population, now 6,300, has doubled since 1982 and the town adds 45 new homes a year, a rate planners believe will begin picking up very soon.


At the ranch, statistics make noise. Diesel trucks and sport utility vehicles rumble over four lanes of concrete. On a Friday afternoon, standing beside a tractor as two bald eagles float over his pasture along the Colorado River, Snyder is a little angry. "The joggers and the dogs and the bicyclers and the bird-watchers drive us nuts," he says. "They don't respect private property and everyone has a dang dog that spooks my cows. It's one heck of a mess."


Mike Walk, a state brand inspector, just ended 12 years in the Eagle District, home of Vail ski resort 84 miles east of Rifle up I-70. When he started in 1985, he counted 12,000 cattle. In his last year, in 1987, he counted 3,000. "They buy ranches and cut "em up into golf courses or home sites," he says. "It's like a damned cancer."


Rifle officials talk about diversifying the economy; Snyder is two steps ahead. After the highway took his best land, he started the feedlot and took the high-school teaching job. Now, he and one of his two sons cater to hunters, taking them into the backcountry on horseback. The ranch is solvent, and Snyder, who is 52, doesn't want to sell it. Still, his sons don't want to ranch, and each offer he gets for his land is higher than the one before. Snyder shakes his head. "Nothing makes people more crazy than land."