The last ranch | AspenTimes.com

The last ranch

Tony Vagneur

There was a Woody Creek man who made his living on the family ranch for more than 80 years. The first time he ever opened his eyes, it was in a cabin there, and for almost the rest of his life, he got up every morning and looked out and saw the same damned beautiful scenery he’d seen the day before.Maybe he didn’t know how beautiful it really was until it was too late and he probably had his dreams about this and that, like maybe piloting a steamship down the Mississippi or taking his wife on a long trip. But I suspect the thought never really crossed his mind that he’d wake up anywhere else but where he did yesterday. Not many years ago, he sold the place for a few million dollars and bought a nice house downvalley, one with a big yard and a good view. Soon after that, he was found out by the driveway gate, done in by his own hand. People asked me why I thought such a thing could happen and, without a proper answer, I wondered to myself how such a thing could not happen.There’s really not much to say about the last cattle drive, except that it’s over and it happened on what was one of Pitkin County’s few remaining cattle outfits, just recently sold. Someone should have taken pictures to memorialize the final chapter, but such documentation would have kept us from spending the next 20 years wondering if maybe there’ll be one more long drive on the ghost of the old Fender spread.No one buys property around here to ranch seriously, no matter what they may say. Like dead American Indians of old, swaying in trees, sold ranches lie quietly by while their spirits drift away, never to reappear. New owners become not ranchers, but instead large landowners, unspecified quantities, people to look out for because you can pretty well bet they’ll screw up the view plane in one direction or another. Conservation easements are tools of and by landowners, so it’s never clear if there is any real benefit to the public. If a conservation group gets involved, you can bet there’s going to be some subdivision of land to try to foot the bill. And let’s not forget, conservation easement is more correctly spelled “open space” rather than “ranch,” a huge difference.Pitkin County officials say they want to preserve agriculture in the county, but they never seem to back up their tired rhetoric. If you talk to people in the know around places like Colorado State University, they’ll tell you it’s impossible to ranch in a community with soaring real estate prices because everything else is soaring as well, with the exception of ranching revenues. If a rancher could sell off a couple of clustered home sites and gain enough to keep on going, he might be inclined to keep his land in the family and keep it pleasant to look at for the rest of us. As it is now, the rancher has two choices: stay and eventually dry up all his capital just because he loves his place that much, or sell to the highest bidder and get out while he still can. Not really options a man can play with. Did you ever drive up to one of those old ranch houses and, after deciding to take a chance on the dogs, duck between a couple of overgrown lilac bushes framing the gate and wander up a sidewalk cracked and settled in every direction? If you made it to the door about lunchtime, a total stranger notwithstanding, you’d be offered a place at the table and an equal share of whatever was being served. Chances are, the house will soon be empty, the table warped from lack of care, and if you hear anything, it will be the voice of the new “ownership proud” age, telling you that you’re trespassing on private property.Tony’s column appears here every Saturday. Send comments to ajv@sopris.net

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