A private refuge: Wildcat Ranch to continue family-based, wildlife-focused mission for next 30 years
On a bluebird January morning, a white truck drove along the roads winding across the snowy hills of Wildcat Ranch.
Homes large and small passed the window viewplane, along with a fox and an elk all within an hour’s time as Mike Thomas, longtime ranch manager, drove on. Groomed cross-country ski trails and animal tracks could be seen veering off into the distance and although the ski area was on the horizon, the town of Snowmass Village was nowhere in sight.
“This community is kind of like its own small town,” Thomas said.
For over 30 years, Wildcat Ranch, a 7,000-acre, 15-parcel private neighborhood, has served as both a different living option for local families and an aspiring wildlife preserve in Snowmass.
From development and living restrictions, to active wildlife management and third-party research projects, Thomas and the Wildcat Homeowners Association have worked to create a place that cultivates a positive, sustainable way of life for both residents and ranch wildlife.
And on Jan. 21, Town Council approved a resolution that will allow homeowners and staff to continue on as they have been at the ranch for the next 30 years.
“One of the conundrums of humanity is if we care about a place and want to preserve it, we protect it against development but not unlimited human access, meaning we love to death some of our favorite places,” said Bill Hegberg, president of the Wildcat Ranch Homeowners Association. “The entire concept of Wildcat is to live in a wildlife refuge and ensure the human element is consistently positive and protective.”
In 1994, the “Wildcat Ranch Lands” were annexed into the town of Snowmass Village, identified as a Planned Unit Development, or PUD zone, pinned with development restrictions and awarded vested property rights for a period of 30 years, according to Hegberg and town documents.
A host of development and land-use restrictions also were placed on the ranch area by Pitkin County before the Snowmass annexation — which has a homesteading history that dates back to 1884 — altogether including limits on the number and size of developed buildings, required wildlife protection and mitigation measures, and limits on pets, specifically allowing for only two dogs per homestead that must be leashed, kenneled or kept indoors.
The town also requested public use of the Rim Trail, which cuts across some Wildcat Ranch property and a fishing easement for Snowmass Creek, according to the 1994 ordinance.
Roughly 26 years later, Thomas and Hegberg sat before Town Council on behalf of the ranch to have the same vested rights detailed in the original ordinance extended from 2024 to 2054, save for a new easement that helps the town reroute the Rim Trail to be less steep with less blind corners and more sustainable.
On Jan. 21, Town Council unanimously approved the new ordinance, including the proposed Rim Trail reroute, after little discussion.
For Thomas and Hegberg, the decision was important in helping them continue to preserve Wildcat Ranch as a unique wildland-urban interface.
“What we’ve asked for is nothing more than we’ve had for the past 26 years,” Hegberg said. “These vested rights allow families to take the time, be thoughtful and see what they really need, which often is not a big house, but also keeps them from having to give up the future value of a big house.”
On a recent morning from the ranch headquarters, Hegberg, Thomas and Dan Gageby, assistant ranch manager, talked about how they’ve seen the ranch evolve over the years and what they feel it offers to the families who live there.
The men said they’ve watched babies grow into adults who now have children of their own on the ranch.
“The ranch has become a really important place for families who want to raise their children with the outdoors in mind,” Hegberg said.
The ecosystem of the ranch also has improved over the past several decades with the help of Thomas, who has a forestry degree and has been managing the ranch for more than 30 years.
Thomas said he’s worked to stay on top of managing the ranch’s 30-miles of trails, weeds and to improve the ranch’s streambeds over the years, and has a multi-objective vegetation management plan in place.
“The wildlife habitat here has improved significantly through management and is really a big refuge,” Thomas said.
As Thomas drove around Wildcat Ranch and pointed out different wildlife and management features on a recent morning, he said he plans to continue working with outside researchers and nonprofits to host wildlife projects and camps on the ranch.
He’s also driven to continuing to manage the ranch as if it were a wildlife refuge, hinting that what’s best about Wildcat is the fact that it’s been preserved for so long.
“We’ve always been in the mindset that people don’t really need to know anything about the ranch,” Thomas said, smiling. “It’s just a private place where people bought into the concepts and we all want to keep the land as untouched as possible.”
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