Farms Finest: Honoring those who conserve their land |

Farms Finest: Honoring those who conserve their land

Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times
John and Theresa Nieslanik were the hosts for the Save the Land Dance held Aug. 23.
Farms Finest/Special to The Aspen Times |

“We are SOLD OUT!” was the message posted on Aspen Valley Land Trust’s Facebook page on Aug. 22. You can be sure this organization is describing none other than its most recent ticket-sales success for one of its fabulous events.

The draw was not simply great dancing music by Halden Wofford and the Hi Beams, the delicious salmon and baby-back rib buffet by Hickory House or a breathtaking mountain-valley setting. No, it was to recognize those who had given something back to the community in the deepest way — their land.

Four hundred supporters and landowners joined together with this year’s host, John Nieslanik’s Ranch, on White Hill just outside Carbondale on Aug. 23. This was the 11th annual Save the Land Dance fundraising celebration. In 2005, the Nieslanik family conserved their 167-acre ranch with Aspen Valley Land Trust, and they continue their ranching heritage with third and fourth generations raising cattle, oats and hay.

An enormous white tent sprawled over a freshly cut hayfield waiting for the festivities to begin, but it was nature that stole the show. In the distance, clouds mingled with mountaintops while irrigation sprinklers quietly sprayed long water ribbons over sweeping fields of alfalfa. Many guests paused quietly outside to appreciate the beauty before the evening settled in.

Behind me, steady streams of cars twisted down a curvy dirt road and poured into a field, forming neat rows. Generators cranked over and rumbled as they began to light up the night’s parking lot. The energy was building for another wonderful community gathering where a common love of the land was to be shared and celebrated, with honors given to those due.

By the tent’s door, name tags were arranged alphabetically on swags of baling twine, clipped in place with red-and-white clothespins. To the right and left were long tables of silent-auction offerings given by merchants — fly-fishing trips, spa escapes, bike tuneups and nights on the town — so many it seemed like everyone in the valley had something they wanted to offer. Round dining tables were decorated with ranch oats in mason jars and silverware rolled in colorful bandannas. Country bouquets, with bright-yellow and chocolate sunflowers, were scattered throughout the bar and silent-auction tables.

At 6 p.m., Bridget Strang gave a sheepdog-herding demonstration with her dog Treat. She explained to the audience, while working the sheep, what to look for in a young dog and when to start training them. It seemed the sheep enjoyed themselves even more than Treat by insisting on leaping over a canal several times to eat uncut alfalfa.

Strang reminded the audience that Sept. 9 through 14, the Strang Ranch, in Missouri Heights, will be hosting the 2014 National Sheepdog Finals. Food and other booths also will be there, and Aspen Valley Land Trust is the nonprofit beneficiary of ticket sales.

Since 1967, nearly 38,000 acres of land has been conserved by the land trust.

The mission statement on its website states: “Permanently preserving open lands for agriculture, wildlife habitat, scenic enjoyment and recreation in the greater Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.”

By keeping farms and ranches intact, agriculture efforts and natural habitats can continue to thrive. Habitat fragmentation and carving up productive agriculture fields for development alters forever the sustainability of land and its natural community. Fortunately, multiple generations of ranching families are finding answers for preserving their land so it will remain unchanged.

How can you ever give enough thanks to these folks for this perpetual gift? You can start by contacting Aspen Valley Land Trust at to learn more about these important families and this organization. The land trust also has two books published titled “Our Place” and “Our Place Two,” by Martha Cochran, where stories about these ranching families are shared.

Joni Keefe grew up on a Vermont farm and has spent her career working with the environment and agriculture. She is passionate about sustainability, healthy agriculture and food systems. Contact her at