Ranchers to the core | AspenTimes.com

Ranchers to the core

Billy Grange turns off his tractor at his ranch just outside the Basalt town limits. Billy's grandfather started the Grange ranch in 1916. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)

All the Grange family wanted was to ranch in peace.Basalt native Billy Grange has fielded numerous calls in recent years from land developers who coveted the family’s 246-acre spread outside of town. The financial offers grew larger as the town’s boundaries crept closer.Grange’s answer was always the same. He, his sister-in-law, Tina, and Tina’s four children weren’t interested in selling. Thanks, but no thanks, he would tell developers from as close as Basalt and as far away as California.”People offer you this much and look at you like you’re crazy if you don’t take it,” Grange said.For the last 10 years, the Granges have had an easy way to brush off the offers. When Billy’s father, Emil, died in 1993, the family faced a large inheritance tax burden. The Internal Revenue Service’s regulations offered a way to avoid the hit – agree to keep the land in agriculture for the next decade. That was the family’s intent all along.The special use the IRS designated on the land was recorded on the title on file at the Pitkin County Courthouse. Developers doing meticulous research knew the Granges’ requirement to keep the land in agriculture was coming to an end in September, so the offers came fast and furious this summer.

The Granges had a different plan in mind. They contacted Dale Will, director of the Pitkin County Open Spaces and Trails Program, who had previously mentioned the county might be interested in buying conservation easements. The talks led to a deal. Pitkin County, Eagle County and Basalt signed a contract last week to buy conservation easements from the Granges for $5 million.If the deal is completed this fall, the Granges will extinguish the development rights on the land forever. In return, they will get to stay on the property and continue operating the cattle ranch that’s been in their family for nearly a century.Grandfather came from ItalyBilly’s grandfather, Joseph Grange, was among numerous Italian immigrants who found their way to the Roaring Fork Valley shortly before or after 1900. Joseph came to Leadville in 1906. He eventually married and bought a ranch in the Emma area in 1916. The ranch is just downvalley from Big O Tires and the adjacent self-storage garage in Basalt.Joseph and Mary Grange raised their family there, including Emil, Billy’s dad. Billy grew up on the ranch along with two brothers and a sister. Two historic homes on the property date from 1899 and 1907, and remain the homes of the Grange families.The Granges are one of the last families in the Aspen and Basalt area to keep a working cattle ranch in their family since the early 1900s. Billy, 61, remembers the property being surrounded by other ranches and farms when he was growing up.

“All the kids were farm kids,” he said. “You didn’t stay in sports after school. You came home to work.” He graduated from Basalt High School in 1963 in a class of 11.The families grew their own food, slaughtering livestock and raising vegetables. Trips to the Emma store or into Basalt often weren’t necessary. “The only thing you went to town for was the sugar and coffee,” Billy said.Their potato fields were a big part of the operation, as it was in much of the Roaring Fork Valley, until labor costs and low prices eliminated spuds as a viable option.The Granges used the high country throughout the valley for summer pasture at one time or another. They had a permit around Marble for a number of years. They also used summer pastures in Woody Creek and up Cottonwood Pass, above Missouri Heights.Jimmy Grange, Tina’s husband and Billy’s older brother, died in an accident on Cottonwood in 1993 while riding a motorcycle to check on the cattle there.New generation, same appealEven with their father gone, the Grange children have the same strong ties to ranching as the previous three generations of their family. Joseph, 23, recalled writing a letter when he was in third grade opposing the potential development of a supermarket on the south side of Highway 82 in Basalt for fear it would “put an end” to the ranch.

Joseph and his siblings wholeheartedly supported the sale of the conservation easements, which keeps the ranch in the family. Mary, 21, is a student at Mesa State College in Grand Junction. Peter, 19, and Paul, 16, immerse themselves in all aspects of the ranch work. The tall, square-shouldered boys fit the mold of ranchers.”We would never like to see it developed,” Joseph said. “This place is better [as a ranch] than for development.”They still produce much of the family’s food. Tina said all her kids, including the boys, are proficient at canning. They have some chickens, and they milk some of the last dairy cows in Pitkin County. They used to have 12 dairy cows but the lack of any nearby creameries forced them to cut down to two milk cows that supply all the family’s dairy products.Tina churns the butter and specializes in homemade ice cream. Her “taster” cannot adjust to store-bought dairy products, she said.Like her kids, Tina can’t imagine life without the ranch, and she is proud that her family is helping maintain the valley’s ranching heritage. Her family has a genuine interest as land stewards. “It’s not about the money,” she said.The family has persevered for so long because “it’s a way of life,” Tina said. “It’s a good way of life.”

The Granges stressed that they respect other ranchers’ decisions to sell to developers. It’s an individual decision that each family has to weigh for itself. But the Granges cannot imagine life without the family ranch.Billy said he was sure his dad and his brother would approve of the sale of the conservation easements.Will, of Pitkin County open space, said the Granges “don’t think of themselves as conservationists,” but in reality, they have a stronger ethic as land stewards than many conservationists in the valley. He considers this deal one of the best he’s been involved in because it preserves a ranch, keeps a rural buffer around Basalt and provides excellent wildlife habitat along the Roaring Fork River.Will said the Granges could have sold the ranch outright for a greater amount, but the preservation of the ranch was so important to them.Billy said one factor that helps the cattle ranch survive so close to Basalt is the self-storage garage that acts as a buffer from the houses in the Southside subdivision. “The neighbors are all storage sheds, and they make good neighbors,” he said with a chuckle.”It’s hard [running a ranch], but we don’t have any complaints. Nobody bothers us,” Billy said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.

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