All my childhood memories take me back to my family's 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. It's 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 that's saying a lot, because to my mind, nothing's 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.
What's left behind when the ranch sells? In the West, it's 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 I'm 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, I've learned that conservation easements aren't for everyone. Delicate negotiations go into making these deals. After countless cups of coffee in kitchen meetings, sometimes it just doesn't work out. But I've seen a lot of conservation agreements that do happen -- sometimes against enormous odds -- and it gives me hope.
One project in eastern Colorado's grasslands reveals that ranching families don't have to give up what they love, and that strength in numbers counts when it comes to conservation. Here's 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 Harold's neighbors were interested in the Winship, too, but nobody on his own could swing the asking price. That's when they all sat down with The Nature Conservancy and asked, "Can we do this together?"
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, Harold's son, Sid Yoder, returned with his young family after the complex project took shape.
"It's been a pleasure and a joy to come home," says Sid. "It's where I grew up, it's a place that I love, and I was glad to have an opportunity to bring my kids back here."
While I will never get the chance to return to my own family's 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 is creative manager for The Nature Conservancy's Marketing Resource Center West and currently lives in Idaho with her husband and young son.