The last of the Roaring Fork Cowboys?
August 16, 2005
Two pieces of paper printed 60 years apart do a good job of explaining the demise of ranching in the Roaring Fork Valley.One is an abstract of assessment and levies for Pitkin County in 1945, used by the county assessor to show what was being taxed. The other is a newspaper advertisement run last week by a successful local real estate firm.The abstract is a treasure trove of information about the land and its uses in Pitkin County in 1945. The valley was blanketed at that time by ranches and farms that flourished on relatively high cattle and crop prices while helping feed a hungry country mobilizing for a final push in a devastating war.The abstract shows there were 12,460 acres of irrigated land maintained by ranchers and farmers, 715 acres of dry farm land and 79,960 acres of grazing land. Those 93,135 total acres of agricultural ground, combined with ranch houses, barns, outbuildings and other improvements, had a total assessed value of about $915,000.In comparison, house lots and homes in the sleepy town of Aspen, where skiing was still a few years from turning into big business, had a taxable value of only $187,238.
The abstract’s list of personal property for county residents shows just how pervasive ranching was. It includes 151 “pure bred range bulls”; 2,667 calves; 3,562 range and stock cattle approaching 2 years old and older; 361 dairy cows; 17,920 stock sheep; and 220 swine.The omnipresent tax man also counted 57 tractors (not to mention 185 radios).Wealth wasn’t measured in terms of residential square footage, fancy cars or extravagant tastes. What mattered most was the ability to feed your family and hired hands, raise enough hay to get your livestock through winter and hopefully sell yearlings at a high enough price to make the year’s work worthwhile.Fast-forward 60 years. Family ranches – those that raise cattle as their primary income source – are more rare in Pitkin County than an Aspen socialite without a lift here and a tuck there.In 2004, the county assessor’s office labeled 44,450 acres as agricultural land. That figure includes everything from working operations to horse properties and so-called hobby ranches.Land prices are so high in many parts of the West, and certainly in the Roaring Fork Valley, that ranchers can make substantially more by signing on the dotted line of closing documents than they did in decades of cattle production.Even dedicated cattlemen who resisted pressures to sell when families divvied up their land or when beef prices plunged have a tough time ignoring the high prices their land can fetch now for real estate development.Real estate companies realize this and are seizing the opportunities. One prominent Aspen firm started a division this summer dedicated to ranch sales.”Isn’t it time that you considered owning a part of the West?” its ad copy asks.
The Vagneur family once owned a nice chunk of the West, in and around Woody Creek. They were the quintessential western ranchers.The first Vagneur came over to the valley from the Aosta area of Italy, along with numerous other people from that region, in the 1880s. Jeremy Vagneur worked for another rancher until he could buy his own place, where the Craig ranch is now located on Woody Creek Road on the way to Lenado.The family flourished and each of five sons acquired his own ranch in Woody Creek through a family partnership. One of those five sons was Tony Vagneur’s grandfather.”My granddad and I were best buddies. He always told me ‘Someday this is going to be yours.'” Tony recalled. His dad took over his granddad’s ranch and Tony helped out with chores on the 1,200-acre spread as far back as he can remember. He drove a tractor by age 9.
“I wanted to ride a horse, chase cows and irrigate,” he said.The area was composed of ranches as far as the eye could see in the early 1960s when Tony was in junior high. He would ride a horse the eight-or-so miles into Aspen to go to the movies and visit friends. He would ride cross country, closing ranch and field gates as he went. His neighbors didn’t mind.His family drove cattle through Aspen as late as 1964 to and from pasture that is now Northstar Nature Preserve east of Aspen.Vagneur’s perfect scenario fell apart before he took over the ranch. Tony’s dad and his siblings were divided over what to do with the land after their dad’s death. “That was the downfall,” Vagneur said.When his dad’s health started to fail, he abandoned the struggle to hold onto the ranch and sold out. Tony was 17. “It was huge to me. It took me a few years to get over it.”He took the only course of action that seemed logical: He went to college, then became an Aspen ski bum.The last of the Vagneur ranches in Woody Creek sold in 1988 to the Braun family. It’s now the exclusive, large-lot Chaparral development.
Tony Vagneur helps out with cattle drives and other chores at a handful of surviving ranches. He acknowledges, with a matter-of-fact resignation, that those remaining family ranches will disappear too.”Somebody’s going to sell it. That’s just the way it goes,” Vagneur said. “They’ll hang on as long as they can but it’s not going to stay much longer, maybe a generation or two.”Often the land remains a ranch, of sorts. High-end homes get built around a pasture that still grows hay. These newfangled ranches might even run a few cattle. The real goal, however, is to retain lower property tax rates that are levied in Colorado on agricultural land.The land might remain open, Vagneur said, but it’s not the same as a family ranch. “It’s like the soul of it is going to be gone,” he said.
The loss of ranches and the disappearance of the cowboys that ran them didn’t just start in the last decade or two. Ranches have changed hands since the Roaring Fork Valley was settled in the 1880s. Often when there’s no younger generation to take over the operation, a rancher sells out.In the old days, he was likely sell out to another rancher who was starting an operation or expanding. Now, the sale is more likely to a developer.The demise has been slow and steady, but the best available statistics show a significant change has occurred since 1985.Over the last 20 years, 11 grazing permits for 1,100 total cattle on national forest lands have been abandoned in the valley, according to Wayne Ives, range manager for the U.S. Forest Service. Also since 1985, five permits for 4,400 total sheep have been dropped.Ives, who has managed the range program for 25 years, said most of the permits have been abandoned in the Aspen area. Around Carbondale there are fewer permit holders than before, but when federal grazing permits became available they were snatched up by other ranchers who were expanding.The overall loss of permits is due to poor economics for ranchers, not a decision by the Forest Service to pare back on grazing, Ives said.Bob Perry is one of the ranchers who has hung in there. He and his wife, Ruth “Ditty” Perry, have run their Mt. Sopris Hereford Ranch just south of Carbondale for 64 years. Ask the 87-year-old Perry if he’s still involved with running the ranch and he shoots back a look that seems to say “What the hell else would I be doing?”Indeed, visit the ranch and you will find him holding a 1-ton bull steady while his son-in-law, Bill Fales, uses a tube to send medicine down the bovine’s throat.”The Forest Service said 35 years ago ‘We’re not going to close you guys out. You’re going to quit,'” said Perry.
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He can only shake his head when asked to describe the changes he’s witnessed since moving to Carbondale in 1941. For one thing, he said, there were a lot more small farms than large cattle ranches.”Every farm was more or less an independent unit. Where there is one ranch today, there were probably five farms then,” Perry said. “The numbers [of farms and ranches] are practically zilch compared to 50 years ago.”Potatoes, of course, were a big crop around Carbondale and in other parts of the valley. Perry himself grew potatoes on his spread for two or three years. “We stopped and gradually everybody stopped.”Economies of scale favored co-ops and corporate farming of potatoes in places like Idaho.He recalls his first decade on the ranch with fondness. “I would call them good times, not necessarily prosperous,” he said.But through wise business practices Perry was able to add to his land holdings. He bought land for as low as $20 per acre. He raised as many as 400 cattle per year.Perry said there was no particular period that the farms and ranches started disappearing. It’s been a steady, gradual loss.
“If they didn’t have a young guy that could take over, they sold,” he said.Perry had a young guy. His daughter, Marje, married Fales and they have run an adjacent ranch for decades. Bill, 52, said he came out to help put up hay for Perry in the summer of 1973, stayed and married Marje. The Faleses don’t know if either of their two daughters will be interested in staying on the ranch.Bill and Marje don’t like to view themselves as the last of a disappearing breed. Bill noted there are younger guys than he, like Max Macdonell, who have figured out innovative ways to make a living from ranching.But Fales said there are probably only four families left in Pitkin County who depend on their ranch for their income. The evidence shows that he is, indeed, part of a dying culture.”I can’t deny it, but I don’t like it,” he said. “You just do what you like doing,” he said.Marje grew up at the Mt. Sopris Hereford Ranch and now works the land just a couple of miles down the road. Ranching is all she’s ever known.”You have to get your reward from the pleasure of doing it, not from the dollar,” she said.
Mike and Kit Strang’s ranch in Missouri Heights helps illustrate what it takes for a family ranch to be successful these days. They raise a special breed of Australian lowline cattle, which are smaller than most breeds and mature more quickly. They are capable of fattening up efficiently on grass rather than grain before slaughter.They tend a small flock of sheep and sell lambs fed only on grass and mother’s milk. The Strangs’ daughter, Bridget, runs a horse-boarding operation and offers riding lessons.In 1976, they were forced to sell off a herd of cattle due to drought. That prodded them to experiment with raising sod (the Australian cattle would come later). Now they have a 35-acre patch dedicated to lush green grass that they sell for landscaping.”We had to rise with the opportunities as they arose,” said Mike, 76, a gregarious guy with a sharp wit and homespun philosophy on any and every topic. His father was a rancher southwest of Pueblo who always advised him to diversify rather than rely on one crop or type of livestock. That advice served him well.”All of those things together got us out of debt,” said Strang, a former Republican congressman from Colorado. “We’re not getting rich but we’re making it.”He and Kit celebrated 40 years in Missouri Heights in March. Mike got into ranching in Carbondale in 1961 but sold out of a large operation he established with three partners. He bought an old ranch in the Garfield County portion of Missouri Heights in 1965. Neighbors were miles away and few if any lights were visible at night.
“Nobody wanted to live here,” said Mike. “They called it ‘Misery Heights.’ We could have bought every ranch up here for $200 per acre.”Strang Ranch is set in a bowl cradled by low hills. Carefree horses swish away flies with their tails and keep their heads buried in lush grass. Huge sprinklers clunk steadily and keep everything a deep shade of green. Cottonwood trees line the irrigation ditches. Large hay stacks and ancient structures dug into the dirt give it the feel of an old working ranch. It is easy to see that they could make a killing if they sold it for development. Homes already surround much of the property.But the Strangs are going in a different direction. They have placed conservation easements on part of their property that allow the agricultural uses to continue while removing the development rights. The easements will also allow them to pass on the ranch to their children without saddling them with ungodly estate taxes.
Mike’s casual demeanor turns serious when he is asked about the demise of family ranching in the Roaring Fork Valley.”These are little markers in our culture,” he said of family ranches. “If they disappear our culture would be diminished.”You hate to think we’re like the Indians and will be replaced,” Strang said.His ranch manager, Max Macdonell, takes a more fatalistic view.”Is that whole ranching culture going to disappear from the Roaring Fork? It probably already has,” said Macdonell, without a touch of bitterness. Perhaps ironically, Macdonell, 48, represents the glimmer of hope that bona fide ranching and cowboys will find a way to survive in the valley.His grandfather immigrated from Scotland, settled in the Brush Creek Valley near Eagle and raised five kids on a prosperous 350-acre farm.By contrast, Macdonell laughed, “I have 3,000 acres, go like hell and struggle.”Macdonell, 48, doesn’t own land. He leases two pieces of ground and approaches ranching in a financially astute way. He rents out pasture for other ranchers’ cattle, grows hay that he sells to other operations, and raises yearlings that he buys in spring and sells in fall. By keeping the yearlings for only a short time, he takes on some risk that prices won’t be favorable enough to recoup his investment, but he eliminates the expense of feeding them all winter. That way, he said, the cows are working for him rather than him working for them.There is a saying, according to Macdonell, that goes, “Take change by the hand or it will seize you by the throat.”His key to survival is keeping his costs down. The commodity prices for calves are about the same today as they were in 1979 even though expenses have soared over 26 years.
Psychologically, Macdonell said, he needs to keep ranching, so he constantly examines ways to make it work. “It’s kind of in your blood or it’s not,” he said.Macdonell’s dad, George, managed the Strang ranch for 26 years.Even when younger folks have ranching in their blood, the odds are stacked against them. Land prices are so exorbitant today that someone cannot go out and buy land and make a living by ranching, Macdonell said.Most of the remaining family ranchers paid off their land years ago, so they aren’t battling a hefty mortgage. But as one generation gets out of the business, few in the younger generation want to take over the long hours, hard work and low pay, Macdonell said.And so the ranches sell. Just east of the Strang Ranch, the 565-acre Hunt Ranch is on the market for $8.75 million. The longtime owner no longer want to ranch the historic property. The real estate firm’s ad touts the potential for 94 homesites.In today’s superheated real estate market, smart money would bet on a sale of some sort.”This real estate market is taking them off quickly,” said Martha Cochran, executive director of Aspen Valley Land Trust, whose top priority right now it to preserve agricultural lands. “There’s a time limit here. I don’t know how many years we have to save them.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.