On the range: A look at ranching in the Gunnison Valley, Part II

Maintaining water rights, ecosystems and recreation

By Katherine Nettles

Go to any mountain valley in Colorado with a nearby ski area and chances are you will see thousands of condominiums and hundreds of big second homes dotted everywhere within 10 or 15 miles of the resort.

But Crested Butte is different. If you stand on Brush Creek Road and look across the century-old ranch located basically below the Teocalli and East River ski lifts, the view in all directions is relatively unencumbered.

It’s not that there aren’t any impacts on the land that still looks pristine—booming recreation is encroaching and makes ranching more difficult, but the local ranching community has deliberately chosen to keep making a go of an agricultural way of life.

Ranches like this serve the Gunnison River Valley in many ways that are not visible to the casual eye, maintaining what many consider an important cultural and environmental balance beyond the economic aspect of producing beef. There is an element of the landscape that you see, the product of maintaining senior water rights and judicious irrigation to support native vegetation and ecosystems. There is noxious weed control, and managing cattle carefully to prevent resource damage.

There is also what you don’t see: the barren landscapes of other places that have opted to sell their water rights, or of commercial developments or residential subdivisions where ranches once operated and are now part of an unknown or forgotten history to future generations.

The rancher who owns this land on Brush Creek has ensured it will stay this way indefinitely by placing a conservation easement on the land to restrict future development. This type of easement has become common among ranchers in the Gunnison River Valley with more than 150 individual conservation easements having been placed across properties in the county on more than 80,000 acres. It is quite a legacy for an area that cherishes its open spaces and its cultural history.

Land owners maintain the deed to their property under the easement, as well as the right to make a living on it, but the easement prevents it from being subdivided and developed for commercial, residential or extractive (oil and gas) purposes, no matter who owns it in the future.

The Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy (GRCL) helps support these conservation transactions, and its executive director Stacy McPhail speaks of the effort to maintain balance between development and ranching because of the resort presence and the area’s appeal to so many other interests. “Because people want to be here,” she says, “it puts extra pressure on these types of rangelands to continue to be used like this.”

Maintaining water rights and ecosystems

Beyond just growing hay, irrigation and water rights make a difference. Agricultural users hold the majority of water rights in the Gunnison River basin, and they are first in line when drought calls for curtailments to other entities. Coming off an extremely dry year in 2018, there was very little ground cover, says McPhail.

“It has tremendous impact on soil and soil health, and at the highest altitude rangelands we were concerned about permanent damage. If we had had another dry winter with very little snowpack, there were thoughts of not only how much grass will be available, but what does the waterway look like, the riparian zone, and the whole landscape,” McPhail says.

Fortunately, the winter and spring of 2019 were well above average in snowpack, but the near miss brings up the question of what role ranching can play in protecting the valley floors against consecutive years of drought.

McPhail argues that historic water rights benefit the general public in many ways, not just for irrigating grasslands and providing food but for helping recharge aquifers for municipal and domestic use, and providing resources for native and migratory wildlife. The native grasses provide good nutrition and calories to the wildlife moving through our corridors, such as elk, moose, deer and the smaller game animals.

While property owners can sell their water rights to any number of eager buyers downstream or even across the Continental Divide on the Front Range, ranchers in the Gunnison Valley have held strong against that temptation even in tough economic times. GRCL has helped with the financial burden, working with the 1% for Open Space initiative and Gunnison County, and helping to attain federal farm bill funding through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to assist ranchers with other options, such as conservation easements.

While some ranchers have recently chosen to donate their conservation easement, they can also receive grant funding for the conservation easement or at least enough to cover the legal expenses. McPhail refers to the South Park area in central Colorado as an example of where ranchers did sell off their water rights and the landscape aesthetics and wildlife habitat there have suffered as a result.

“A unique group of ranchers have made these decisions in a very deliberate way,” says McPhail. She describes ranchers in this area as likely to shy away from media attention and avoid public meetings. “They tend to conduct business at the kitchen table,” she says, and that is where many of them first deliberated about conservation easements 25 years ago.

“When this started, ‘conservation easement’ was a bad word,” says McPhail. Sixty-five different ranching families were approached, and all but one indicated that they would consider conservation easements.

Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum outreach coordinator Glo Cunningham says while ranchers may not want credit for these efforts, or to see their names in the newspaper, “It’s an amazing thing that [the ranchers] did.”

Keeping the culture

McPhail says one challenge facing ranchers is that they aren’t always known for their contributions to the valley. In a land of many uses, it is possible to lose sight of this part of our identity as we focus on adding more trails and events to spaces used by ranchers—and by wildlife.

“Many people don’t necessarily see any value in this way of life,” she says.

Ranchers can get a bad rap for their herds trampling land and damaging grasslands, but in some cases it is actually wildlife such as elk herds breaking their normal pattern of moving on to new areas each day. Increased urban interface and trail use, particularly by fast-moving, two-wheeled humans, can be confusing and unsettling for wildlife, and changes wildlife’s patterns of travel, according to McPhail.

“And where we used to have two annual bike events here, last year we had 14,” she points out.

A sign placed prominently along an entrance gate at the Brush Creek ranch property line tells a story of how cultural alignment is possible, if not always easy, between recreation and ranching. The sign says no trespassing or public access, as it is private property, but a Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA) logo has been printed at the top to show its solidarity with the ranch. It may help dispel an “us versus them” approach. McPhail suggests other ways to improve relations between those who do not understand ranching and the ranchers who own or lease the land. She says when trail users pass a ranch hand on public land who is moving aside to let them by, it would perhaps make a difference to say “thank you,” rather than complaining about cow manure.

Some ranchers throughout the northern and southern ends of the valley offer seasonal access through their property to beloved trails and fishing areas, as long as users are respectful of the property. Maybe this coexistence strategy is a more figurative way of laying down fences.

Maintaining representation

The Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI) proposes a holistic plan for the Gunnison Valley’s future land management, including ways to protect and integrate the sometimes disparate needs of ranching, recreation and wildlife. The county commissioners are now recommending that federal agencies incorporate this plan into their own proposals as well. The Gunnison Water District and the Gunnison County Sustainable Tourism and Recreation committee maintain at least one rancher among their members, although prominent local rancher Bill Trampe recently reported to the commissioners that representation on one of the Colorado River Conservation District working groups has dwindled to only one rancher for the first time in its history.

“So there’s a lot of concern about the makeup of that group—same with the others,” he said. “But we will continue to be involved … as much as they let us.”

Grappling with a series of federal land management proposals, the commissioners recently objected unanimously to a potential energy corridor that could infringe on existing conservation easements through eminent domain, or by curtailing public lands use for grazing as an indirect consequence of shuffling land  uses around. Chairperson Jonathan Houck said that for a community with ranching roots such as Gunnison, “knowing your Ag is everything. It’s something that we have done right here, where others have gone wrong,” he said.

“Most people in the Gunnison Basin are positively impacted by the agricultural industry, whether they realize it or not…it’s the one industry that has outlasted everything. So anything that takes that away we will take very seriously,” he added.

McPhail talks about how conservation easements are a way of “protecting this area from ourselves.” What GRCL does to bridge the gap between the ranching industry and other interests in the community has a lot to do with outreach.

“Conservation in the valley has been successful,” says McPhail. “I think the most important thing is that the community knows what a ranch is, and how it operates and why it should be here—and maybe, why you would want to see it here in the future.

“There’s a seamless kind of conservation value between the public lands and the private lands. You can’t tell by looking where private land ends and public land begins. And that’s a real benefit to this valley, for both tourists and residents. There’s an unbroken landscape, and that gives us a sort of scenic value. But attached to that is the working parts of the landscape. The water rights and how they work for everyone, including the ranchers, and then producing food when we otherwise wouldn’t be able to,” she says.

There are no guarantees that there will always be cattle on the expansive grasslands of this valley. McPhail says it is hard to know what the future holds for ranchers and the thousands of acres they maintain. “It could be cattle, we don’t know—but cattle are appropriate for the landscape right now,” she concludes.

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