The legacy of the Carpenter Ranch
March 13, 2016
Hayden — When a bald eagle flew directly over a line of cross country skiers and snowshoers at the Carpenter Ranch on Feb. 28, it was almost like a sign of affirmation. The raptor symbolized the Nature Conservancy's ongoing work at the ranch near Hayden to explore how conservation efforts and traditional ranching can not just co-exist, but thrive together.
Two decades into the Nature Conservancy's innovative approach to running a grass hay-based cattle ranch, the eagles, herons and sandhill cranes, which are due to arrive any day now on their migration north, have become the rock stars of the 906-acre property in the bottomland along the Yampa River about 20 miles west of Steamboat Springs.
"This forest really is important for the nesting of many migratory bird species," Nature Conservancy Forest Health Program Manager for Colorado Paige Lewis said during a celebration of the collaboration between the conservation group and the local community last month. "The research and education that has gone on here over the years (has drawn) a number of graduate students from all of the major universities in Colorado and a lot of folks looking at bird populations and how they use the riparian cottonwood forest and meadows. More than 130 species use it."
Liza Rossi, the coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in this region, said the bird habitat on the ranch involves the dynamic between the river, which allows for its rare forest to persist, and the plants themselves — tall narrowleaf cottonwood trees, along with lower-growing box elder and red-osier dogwood.
"It's a combination of cottonwood overstory as well as a really thick shrub understory many smaller birds require for nesting," she said. The insects that occupy the shrubs provide an abundance of food.
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Among the smaller birds that appear at the ranch, Rossi said, are yellow warblers, Bullocks oriole, catbirds, yellow-breasted chats, the Hermit thrush, olive flycatcher and the western wood peewee.
Karen Vail, of Yampatika, said the Carpenter Ranch also expands the ability of her local conservation operation to expose youngsters to wildlife. The ranch, she said, is a wonderful place to expose children to a variety of wildlife tracks in winter.
Last month's gathering marked both 50 years of the Nature Conservancy in Colorado and 20 years of its stewardship of the Carpenter Ranch, named for the late Farrington "Ferry" Carpenter, who came to the Yampa Valley in the early 20th century with a cowboy background and a law diploma from Harvard University.
Carpenter, who raised purebred Hereford cattle at the ranch just east of Hayden until his death in 1980, likely would be pleased to see the ranch continuing both, as a place to innovate, as well as a key player in supporting traditional ag practices in the valley.
Although Carpenter was distracted from his high school studies in Evanston, Illinois, by his desire to work as a cowboy on New Mexico ranches, he earned a diploma from Princeton University, where one of his influences was future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
Carpenter's grandson, Laramie, Wyoming, attorney Reed Zars, who spent some of his formative years on the ranch under the supervision of his grandparents, said Ferry Carpenter also used the ranch as a place to try new ideas.
"Respect tradition, but don't be afraid to change — that was grandpa," Zars said. "I think he had a very strong sense of tradition but was open to change. I remember that at one time, he was feeding the cattle dry hay in mid-summer to see if it would cause them to produce more milk. He would learn about things, and we'd change the ranch."
Carpenter probably would have approved as North Routt ranchers Doug and Adele Carlson were introduced by Yampa River Project Director Geoff Blakeslee as the new ag operators of the ranch Feb. 28. Doug Carlson said the addition of the hay meadows and ranch facilities on the Carpenter ranch to his Sand Mountain Cattle Company near Clark would help keep his two adult sons, Kelly and Danny (with a growing family), involved in the family cattle business.
Carlson added he is familiar with ranching in a conservation environment at the North Routt ranch bordering the Elk River.
Another Elk River rancher Jay Fetcher told the gathering at the Carpenter Ranch how he and Blakeslee, classmates at Colorado State University, looked forward as young men to annual opportunities to help with calf weaning chores at Carpenter Ranch, really an excuse to learn from the
"I would come here and sit with Ferry by the fire and just listen," Fetcher recalled. "He would drive me around the ranch in his old (Ford) Bronco. One time, he got out of the Bronco to open a gate, and it rolled over him. When he got up, his remark was, 'These new horses — they don't stay ground tied.'"
Carpenter Ranch inspires others to conserve
Geoff Blakeslee said one of the things he is most impressed with about the Nature Conservancy's 20-year tenure in the Yampa Valley (he and his wife, Betsy, have been there since the beginning) is the capacity of the ranch to inspire others to conserve the landscape adjacent to Carpenter Ranch.
"If you look out the window to the north, you can see 30,000 contiguous acres that have been protected," by independent conservation easements, a handful managed by the Conservancy and others under independent management, Blakeslee said. What makes that fact significant, he said, is that the virtual reach of the Carpenter Ranch has been extended by those other conserved lands representing a far larger tract of largely intact wildlife habitat.
Striking the right tone with farmers, ranchers
Jay Fetcher recalled it was Jamie Williams, now the president of the Wilderness Society, who worked for the Nature Conservancy in the Yampa Valley, who showed great wisdom in the way he introduced the Conservancy's interest in the Carpenter Ranch. Williams was the Conservancy's Northwest program manager from 1992 to1997.
The Nature Conservancy, at that time, had a reputation locally of "believing we know what's best for the land," Fetcher recalled. He remembered thinking, "Dammit, TNC needs to know what we go through! The beavers are going to chew their cottonwood trees just like they chew ours!"
Williams and his advisory committee seemed to have a sense of that sentiment. They came in very quietly, Fetcher recalled, and put together a group of community members, including himself and nearby rancher Jocko Camilletti, in an effort to understand what was important in the valley.
"It was because Jamie put together this group to explain to the community what was going on that it was accepted," Fetcher said. "When a rancher said to me, 'I heard The Nature Conservancy is going to buy Carpenter Ranch and turn it into a nature preserve,' I said, 'No, it's going to be a ranch.'"
Carpenter Ranch facilities manager Betsy Blakeslee alluded to an old axiom that applies to the American West: Good fences make good neighbors.
Blakeslee observed that good fences are also essential to the coexistence of agriculture and conservation within the ranch.
"Think about how important fences are to protect and separate where livestock can go where we have this native forest and wetlands," she said.
Ultimately, she suggested, the landscape of the ranch, which contemporary Yampa Valley residents have come to admire, will persist through the lifetimes of many stewards.
"The 100 years that this place has been here takes on a different significance when you remember that the Utes were here first," Blakeslee said. "Time is going to go on, we're going to keep up the good work and everybody here should take pride in its conservation."