Ranching partnerships are key to a thriving valley
By Kendra Walker
“When you’re out on the land day in and day out, you build a really close relationship with the place, in all seasons. It creates a deep-rooted connection to a place that you want to care for.”
It’s a sentiment, explained by Crested Butte Land Trust executive director Noel Durant, that most members of this community can relate to. Whether working, playing or just taking a breath of fresh air in the natural landscape this corner of the world provides, there’s a personal experience from spending time out on the land that draws us in and yearns to protect this way of life. “We want to make sure what makes this place special is around for the next generation to enjoy,” says Durant.
As our community makes up a majority of recreational users, we often forget about the ranching community deeply rooted in the Gunnison Valley. The multigenerational ranching families here work hard to preserve the area’s ranching heritage—by keeping their working ranch operations economically viable while conserving the open spaces that make Crested Butte’s trail access so unique.
The Crested Butte Land Trust works to protect and steward open lands for recreation, wildlife and scenic views, and works with family ranching operations in the valley to help ensure a balance between ranching, land conservation and recreation.
One such ranching partnership is with the Allen family, who has been in the Gunnison Valley since the late 1800s, over five generations. According to family member Sandy Leinsdorf, the Allens own more than 5,000 acres in the valley, which includes areas in Washington Gulch, the Slate River Valley and Ohio Creek.
The Allen family was one of the Crested Butte Land Trust’s earliest conservation partners, having put a conservation easement and public land grazing allotments on their ranching property. “The land is important not just to the Allen family’s business, but they are also staunch conservationists who want to protect this place for wildlife,” said Durant. “They want to be proactive members of this community and give back.”
According to Durant, the Allens graze their cattle over approximately 500 acres of Crested Butte Land Trust property, and collaborate with the organization to allow public access to the recreational trails that run through their property. “The Allen family has provided such amazing community amenities by allowing recreational access across their private property,” he said.
Among the trails on Allen property are the Snodgrass trail to Washington Gulch, which closes seasonally to allow for cattle grazing, and the hiking-only trail that leads up to the west side of Long Lake.
“It’s pretty unusual to have a ranching family share their land with the public in any shape or form,” said Leinsdorf, who has also served as president of the Crested Butte Land Trust in the past. “It’s been helpful to have the Land Trust manage that and the community. We share common goals; the Land Trust supports ranching and we all support the protection of the natural environment. It’s very symbiotic.”
The Long Lake trail, however, has experienced major impacts and misuse from Long Lake’s increasing popularity over the years. Leinsdorf says this is one of the biggest challenges her family faces with owning property next to such a robust recreational economy. They often deal with trespassing, illegal camping, trash and general lack of trail awareness.
“We encounter this situation a lot—where there’s a lot of people that love to recreate in the Gunnison Valley but they have no idea they’re recreating on private property that’s been generously allowed for us,” said Durant. “We’re trying to maintain a balance where recreational use can still occur but not come at a cost to the ranchers’ operations. We don’t want to put anyone in a position where they have to choose.”
In order to help restore the eroded Long Lake trail on the Allen property, the Land Trust partnered with the Allens over the past six months to design and create a rerouted trail. They looped in other community partners including the Crested Butte Mountain Biking Association, Vail Resorts, CB Devo and Western Colorado University to build the new sustainable reroute and begin reclamation of the area.
The rehabilitated trail was completed in September and the Land Trust will continue managing the reclamation areas moving forward. They also plan to install educational signage at the Allen trailhead next summer.
“It’s hard to manage open space,” says Leinsdorf, especially as recreation in the area continues to grow. “But when managed properly, it reflects a community’s soul.”
And Crested Butte’s soul for land conservation is very much community-driven, says Durant. Trusting one another, he says, is the key to maintaining those sustainable partnerships between the ranching community, the Land Trust and the public. “We’re in a community where ranching and recreation can coexist. That doesn’t happen in every ski community. That is uniquely Crested Butte and the Gunnison Valley.”
To learn more about the Crested Butte Land Trust, their work with Gunnison Valley ranching families and opportunities to help with land conservation, visit cblandtrust.org.