Family keeps ranch life alive

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— Local longtime rancher Elaine Gay was recently selected as a 2000 Master Farm Homemaker, while the agricultural operation she helped build, the Green Creek Ranch, was the winner of the Angus Journal's Land Stewardship Award Program.

Elaine and her husband, Bob, who recently died, founded the Green Creek Ranch 52 years ago, after both were raised on ranches in Routt County. Their son, Bill, is now in charge of the ranch operations.

"I think the awards are nice, but I don't think we deserve the attention," Elaine said modestly. She went to Colorado Springs to accept the award at a ceremony last month.

Elaine was nominated as a Master Farm Homemaker by the Routt County CattleWomen's Association for her years of volunteering in the community and being a positive voice for agriculture in the community.

In a letter of support for Elaine, County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said the Gay family played an instrumental role in the downsizing of the Lake Catamount development, which would have been built like a city and ski resort similar to Steamboat Springs.

"She met with developers, served them her homemade pie and told them about the importance of ranching in Routt County and how it can be impacted by residential development," the county commissioner said.

While doing that, the Gay family passed up opportunities to sell their land for top dollar.

"It's an issue that you have to look beyond the superficial dollar value," Bill Gay said.

The ranch is a symbol of the family's heritage that he would never want to sell, he said.

"Unfortunately, we're about the only ones that think that way," Elaine said.

The Green Creek Ranch is one of the last examples of real ranching in the Yampa Valley. It is one of the last ranches that survives the old fashioned way without an off-ranch income. Most agricultural operations has someone in the household working in town to make ends meet, Routt Count Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow said.

Or, as Elaine pointed out, they are going into the operation with money.

However, both acknowledged the difficulty to ranch in Routt County, with land prices as high as they are.

"Only the old, old ranches, that are four and five generations old, that have always been profitable are able to make it," Bill said.

In the Pleasant Valley, where the ranch is located just south of Catamount Lake, 44 ranch operations wintered cattle when Bob and Elaine started in agriculture together. Now, there are only two, Bill said.

That element of change in the Yampa Valley is as evident in a drive out to the Green Creek Ranch as anywhere else.

At the Routt County Road 18 turnoff, the lanes have been widened to support more construction traffic and an expected population growth in the Pleasant Valley.

Skeletons of million dollar homes going up in the Lake Catamount Resort scatter the landscape.

Though the Green Creek Ranch has managed to survive as a pure agricultural business in the resort environment that has brought on the changes, it has made progressive moves to survive that are made possible from change.

To help maintain the ranch, half of the land was put under a conservation easement, where local land conservation agencies buy the building rights on the land.

That, along with fencing off riparian zones on the land and not using chemical fertilizers and pesticides on its property earned the Green Creek Ranch the Land Stewardship Program award last month

"To me, it's a business thing," Bill said of the conservation easement.

The extra cash opens doors for the operation, he said.

"We just happen to live in an area where you have an opportunity to do this," Bill said. "But there is a hidden agenda here."

He said he sees the resort economy, which markets the cowboy image, as a reason that conservation easements are out there to help agricultural operations.

"If you're going to sell the cowboy image, you have to have a few cowboys around," Bills said.

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