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Know the West

Rancher's new cash crop will be scenery


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Saving the ranch.

Private conservation efforts in places such as the Elk River Valley may be able to preserve the look of the land. But if ranchers become tenants on property owned by wealthy people from somewhere else, what happens to the culture?

"There's going to be a shift in the cultural profile, no question," says Reeves Brown, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. "The fabric of those cultures is the county fair, the Fourth of July rodeo. It's the 4-H auction. That's being replaced in many areas. I don't know how you stop that, outside of manipulating the culture."

"The family ranch - there's going to be fewer and fewer of those," echoes C.J. Mucklow, extension agent for Routt County. Indeed, since 1978, an aging and cash-strapped ranching community in Colorado has sold off an average of 90,000 agricultural acres a year to developers. Much of the land is now divided into 35-acre ranchettes.

Though the numbers are depressing, Mucklow says, "There will be those people who buy ranches and decide to keep them as ranches. The downside of that: We don't have the ownership and the family commitment to the same place. The good side is, it's better than cutting it up. The really good side is those people who decide to keep (their land in) ranching will hire people to be ranchers, and that's the only way young people will be involved in ranching in these high mountain valleys."

Despite his optimism about ranching - which in Routt County produces more income than in any neighboring county - Mucklow concedes that now his half-dozen extension office staffers serve small-subdivision landowners. In July 1994, his office coordinated the publication of a how-to book for newcomers called A Guide To Rural Living and Small-Scale Agriculture.

"That's what I do now," says Mucklow, "and I think that's important. The more educated these little guys are next to the big landowners, the better they can get along."

Brown, who is organizing the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust, thinks ranchers might move into a completely different business in valleys around resort areas, without really changing what they do.

"At the turn of the century," says Brown, "the public value was that we want you ranchers around Steamboat to produce food. Now, they could care less about food. They want ranchers to produce scenery."

In Brown's opinion, ranchers aren't really ranchers, they're grass farmers. "They've been charged with making a sustainable living on the land. Up to now that has been with beef. Maybe we can find another way to fill another public demand here."

The question, says Brown, is whether the public will step up to the plate and pay to preserve the aesthetic values of ranching.

"We are interested in preserving the ability of ranching to exist in Colorado," says Brown. "How it exists is not of as much concern to us as assuring the ability of it to exist. That means open space."