Back to the Ranch 

Chico Basin Ranch builds bridges between ranchers, environmentalists and city folks

Photos by Sean Cayton

The Richard Rodgers musical Oklahoma! established that "the farmer and the cowboy can be friends." But can the rancher and the environmentalist be friends? The Nature Conservancy of Colorado certainly seems to think so. And so does Duke Phillips, ranch manager of Chico Basin Ranch, an 86,000-acre cattle operation in southeastern El Paso County, about 40 minutes away from downtown Colorado Springs.

In 1999, Phillips' Box-T Partners was awarded a 25-year lease on the largest contiguous piece of property owned by the Colorado State Land Board -- land that ecologists recognize as one of the largest remaining intact shortgrass prairie/sandsage ecosystems in the nation. (The Land Board owns approximately 215,000 acres of land in the Chico Basin area, much of it given to the state by the federal government in 1876 when Colorado became a state. The state constitution mandates that the Land Board manage these lands to earn income for the School Trust.)

Some rangeland activists, like Santa Fe-based New West Research weren't happy with the Land Board's decision. In their position paper, "The City Slicker's Guide to Welfare Ranching in Colorado," they said: "In 1999, the state leased [the Chico Basin Ranch] for 25 years to a private beef business that will graze cattle and indoctrinate bussed-in school children about the glories of cattle ranching at its 'Ranch Heritage Nature Center.'

"The Land Board," they concluded, "could generate more revenue for public schools and better protect the ecological value of the land if it opened up these 'grazing lands' to competitive bidding for non-ranching, non-extractive conservation purposes."

Apparently they didn't know that, in 1998, the adjacent Bohart Ranch had been leased by the State Land Board to the Nature Conservancy, to be managed by cattle rancher Dick Tanner.

Together, the two ranches represent more than 130,000 acres of shortgrass and sandsage prairie.

When Phillips was awarded the lease on the Chico Basin Ranch, he entered into a stewardship partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, teachers, neighbor ranchers and community leaders to brainstorm and plan an educational and community outreach agenda that would enhance relationships with both urban and rural neighbors. Thus was born a new vision for the Chico Basin Community.

"I saw an opportunity to build bridges with people in town," said Phillips, a lanky cowboy with a drooping moustache who lives with his wife and four children at the ranch. "I saw [the partnership and the land] as high profile -- a way to introduce new ideas."

Some of those ideas -- like holistic management techniques, raising strictly grass-fed beef, no fertilizers, no grain added to the cattle's diet, no eradication of wildlife -- might raise eyebrows among traditional cattle ranchers, but Phillips believes the industry must change with the times in order to survive.

At Chico Basin Ranch, water and mineral cycles, energy flow and the health of the plant community are carefully monitored by a system called Land EKG, brainchild of Charley Orchard, headquartered in Montana. Under this system, transects -- graphs of specific sections of land -- are made to carefully scrutinize the natural balance; if needed, a plan is put in place to restore equilibrium. At ranch headquarters, a plan for rotating cattle among the thousands of acres of prairie is posted on the wall.

Ornithologists, mammalogists, entomologists and botanists, many from the Nature Conservancy, regularly visit the ranch to identify and monitor wildlife populations. The ranch has partnerships with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the Colorado Native Plant Society, the state Division of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other organizations.

Perhaps Phillips' most radical act has been to invite the public to come and see what's happening at Chico Basin, debunking the long-held mythos of the rancher as loner, living apart from the rest of the world. In a speech at a recent Colorado College symposium sponsored by the Nature Conservancy, Phillips explained it this way:

The rancher must understand that today, he is not managing his land just for his family and business. As the world becomes a smaller place, he has to learn to deal with people from outside his ranch boundary fences, who are vastly concerned about the effects of his management on the land.

Duke Phillips argues that ranchers must get away from a one-dimensional view of ranching with cattle-raising as the only value, although at this time his cattle operation supports the ranch financially. A multidimensional approach that equally values education, conservation and recreation needs to be developed to divert the need for cattle revenue.

And Phillips argues that environmentalists alone can't preserve the precious open spaces remaining in the American West.

"My big passion is how do I affect the western United States," he said, wheeling a pockmarked old Land Cruiser over the bumpy dirt roads of Chico Basin Ranch on a recent spring day. "I don't think environmental groups alone can save the land. I don't think Ted Turner or other big money corporate entities can do it. The people who are in the best position to do it are the people who live and depend on the land, and the people who live on the land are ranchers.

"We have the opportunity to create a model that can be taken to other ranching communities that emphasizes conservation and enhancement of the land while preserving ranching as a way of life."

Back to the land

Heading east from I-25 and the Pikes Peak International Raceway on Hanover Road, the land is a series of low monochromatic hills, leveling out on either side to vast pastures. An occasional stand of willows and cottonwoods next to a creek bed are all that punctuate the gently undulating landscape.

But the land that comprises Chico Basin Ranch and the surrounding area isn't as one-dimensional as it may look at a passing glance. Grasslands like these are rich in biological diversity.

Several years back, the Nature Conservancy, planning their efforts to help preserve the Central Shortgrass Prairie of the United States, asked prairie experts which places were most important if their goal was to "ensure that all the plants and animals representative of the shortgrass prairie survive."

The Chico Basin with its wide variety of prairie was identified as a key area. For that reason, the Nature Conservancy began to focus efforts on this region.

At the recent Chico Basin Symposium at Colorado College, Nature Conservancy scientists Chris Pague and Steve Kettler explained the ecological importance of the Chico Basin.

Although both sandsage prairie (short and tall grasses and sage growing atop sand dunes) and shortgrass prairie (dominated by blue grama grass) are extensive in eastern Colorado and in some of the adjacent Great Plains states, scientists estimate that 30 to 60 percent of the shortgrass prairie has been converted to cropland or has been fragmented.

Twenty percent of the shortgrass prairie in the United States is in Colorado. And the single largest expanse is in the Chico Basin.

"Many of the plants and animals that require shortgrass prairie habitat are experiencing long-term population declines," said Kettler. "And some of the largest, least fragmented examples of shortgrass prairie occur in southeast Colorado, at Chico Basin."

In addition to blue grama grass and sandsage, Chico Basin hosts other vegetation types, including four-winged saltbush, yucca and cholla cactus. And the numerous spring-fed wetlands and riparian habitats at Chico Basin, unusual in shortgrass prairie, "greatly enhance the diversity" and provide a contrast to the largely arid, almost desert environment (average rainfall is just 12 inches).

This land, in its many various conditions, supports an abundance of wildlife. Pronghorn antelope live here in one of the highest densities in North America, alongside mule deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, badgers, eagles, numerous waterfowl, dove, quail and over 150 species of migratory birds. Additionally, Chico Basin's wetlands host the Northern Leopard Frog, a species in rapid decline in the Rocky Mountain West. The Arkansas darter fish, a candidate for federal listing as an endangered species, resides in Chico Basin, as do the lesser prairie chicken and the swift fox.

As partners at Chico Basin Ranch, Nature Conservancy scientists advise Duke Phillips on habitat and species depletion, coming up with strategies to, in some cases, rehabilitate or reintroduce plants that support particular wildlife within the reasonable bounds of natural cycles. Conservancy scientists also offer advice on dealing with invasive plant species and noxious weeds that crowd out native species.

As Duke Phillips pilots his Land Cruiser across part of the ranch on our half-day tour, we see mule deer resting in the shade beneath a stand of trees, coyotes racing across the prairie, antelope, prairie dogs, migrating geese and ducks, and a golden eagle -- all within relatively close range of grazing cattle.

Back to the bottom line

Many critics of grazing and grazing leases on public lands argue that those lands should be leased by environmental groups and left to return to their natural states. In the specific case of the Chico Basin Ranch, Duke Phillips would disagree, arguing that it's not necessarily cattle but bad management practices that are bad for the land.

Eighteen-hundred head of cattle graze on the Chico Basin Ranch, and they are herded and moved in a manner that emulates the passage of bison herds in the last century. Large numbers of cattle are set out on a small piece of land for a short period of time, effectively loosening the ground with their hooves, making it arable and open to new seeds, and laying dead plant matter or mulch on top of it. The cattle are then rotated to another pasture. No pasture is grazed to death, and no pasture is retouched by cattle until it has been completely restored to a state of full health and productivity.

Phillips stops the car on a road straddled on one side by long, wavy, knotted tangles of golden grass and on the other by land that has recently been grazed by 900 cattle. Splinters of grass stick up from muddied ground, littered with stems, sticks and trampled forage.

Left to its own devices and never grazed, he explains, the "pretty" grass would eventually choke itself out. Little of the area's scarce rainfall would penetrate to its roots, and it would not reseed as long as the ground remained undisturbed. The "ugly" grass, now left to recuperate for the next nine months or so, will regenerate and become once again, food for the grazing cattle.

That theory, posited by Allan Savory of Holistic Management whom Phillips calls his mentor, is held in dispute by some rangeland activists and ecologists, especially those opposed to grazing on public lands. In April 2000, Sinapu, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving public lands for native wildlife, protested a Bureau of Land Management grazing allotment in Walden, Colorado, where the land had suffered significant damage due to overgrazing. Questioning Savory's theory of ranchland management by intermittent trampling, Sinapu's written protest argued that, in at least one proven case where previously grazed land was left to its own devices for a period of several years, "cessation of grazing allowed recovery." Plant and animal species actually increased when the land was left alone to recover.

"The obvious question," the protest concludes, "is how did the land survive for countless millennium without this 'management'?"

Phillips says that's a good point, however, the land not only survived, but evolved precisely because of the interaction between grazing herds of bison and the land at rest.

"The land needs to be disturbed, needs for the crust in the bare areas to be broken and the ungrazed standing grass removed and laid on the ground as mulch, by hooves," he explained. "Then rest is applied in order for the plants to grow back and seedlings to sprout. Our management uses cattle as a tool for harvesting the grass and disturbing the ground surface, then resting the land for most of the year, just as nature has done with its great herds of hooved animals all over the world. It's important to understand that overgrazing is a function of time mismanagement. Poor management -- not grazing animals -- causes overgrazing."

Much of what occurs at Chico Basin Ranch defies the usual, often well-founded criticism of those who argue that cattle ranching is detrimental to the environment. Riparian areas and wetlands on Chico Basin Ranch are protected from the cattle and from what Phillips calls "over rest." Wildlife such as prairie dogs, which are frequently poisoned on ranches where they are seen to be hazardous to cattle, are left intact on Chico Basin Ranch. The prairie dogs actually till the land, says Phillips, and provide important habitat for a variety of other bird and insect species. Wildlife that are potential livestock predators are also left to their own devices.

More importantly, Phillips argues, conservation and environmentalism do not occur in a vacuum that ignores economics.

"One of the problems with the environmental movement is that it does not take into account that the land must sustain itself in order for it be protected in today's world," he said. "Economics, traditionally, has been seen as a bad word by the environmental community. The people who are providing the stewardship have to make a living if they are to remain on these large parcels and keep them from being sold off and developed."

At the Chico Basin Symposium, El Paso County planner Carl Schueler pointed out that although population is sparse in the area of the Chico Basin Ranch, more and more land to the north of the ranch is being subdivided into 35-acre "ranchettes," increasing the population of the rural area, placing demands on the infrastructure and water supply and dramatically stretching the resources of local schools. Additionally, said Schueler, as Colorado Springs continues to stretch its bounds, areas like the Chico Basin are more and more likely to become the sites of unwanted projects like throughways and high-transmission energy stations.

That, says Duke Phillips, is precisely why the rancher must enter new partnerships, like his with the Nature Conservancy and other groups, and learn to diversify, creating supportive relationships with urban neighbors. If the value of keeping a large ranch like this one intact cannot be demonstrated to urban dwellers, then the future of the Chico Basin Ranch and others like it will remain in jeopardy.

Back to the future

Duke Phillips sees Chico Basin Ranch as a huge, sacred piece of land with endless possibilities, so long as it remains intact and sticks to its mission of preserving and enhancing the natural environment while supporting a healthy lifestyle.

Since the lease with the State Land Board was signed in 1999, the ranch has hosted numerous educational and recreational groups. TENS (Teaching Environmental Science Naturally), a program of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, brings teachers and students to the ranch for studies ranging from aquatic invertebrates to grassland habitats. The Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory's "On the Wing" program, a residential summer camp for kids 11 to 18 who have an interest in ornithology, is held at Chico Basin Ranch each summer. The ranch holds retreats for regional artists and an annual art show is staged every September. Ranch Camp is an opportunity for school and youth groups to stay for a few days or a week, riding with the cowboys, learning about range monitoring, wildlife habitat, fence building and ranch life in general.

Two guesthouses on the ranch are rented out for retreats and for working ranch vacations to families and individuals. The ranch hosts fishermen, hikers, bikers, birdwatchers, photographers and painters. Natural horsemanship workshops are conducted at Chico Basin as well as range management workshops. In May of each year, the ranch hosts "Bugs, Birds and Beasts," a spring barbecue and festival for scientists and naturalists to create a baseline inventory of all plants and wildlife and for the public to enjoy.

In these ways, the land supports itself economically and socially.

Phillips hopes that eventually the cost of running the place won't depend so much on cattle production as on these other ventures. But the cattle operation will remain central to the ranch through Phillips' partnership with Lasater Ranch in Matheson, Colorado. Together, the Lasater and Phillips families own Lasater Grasslands Beef, purveyor of beef that has not been fed antibiotics, pesticides, hormones or any animal by-products. Cattle owned by Phillips on the Chico Basin Ranch spend their entire lives grazing on grass forage with natural protein supplements like molasses, then go directly to small processing plants, skipping the feed lot and the dangerous conditions at some of the nation's larger meat-processing facilities.

Ultimately, Duke Phillips wants to bridge the gap between rural and urban dwellers in the Pikes Peak region -- assuring the preservation of open spaces, increasing a pure, local food supply, and developing a system of mutual trust and support.

Neighboring rancher Jay Frost articulated the rural/urban gap at the Chico Basin Symposium, advocating a year-round farmers market in the city and enhancement of diverse agriculture among farmers and ranchers of the Chico Basin:

The alienation we have created between our agriculture and its urban counterpart is largely responsible for the insecurity felt by our region's producers. They become vulnerable to despair and to avoid economic collapse may dispossess all or part of their land base. Fortunately, our agriculture has found support from environmentalists and now begins to find its voice in the community. ...

If our regional agriculture can establish meaningful commerce within our own community the reconnect will occur and the inconsistent, noncommittal, contrary nature of our experiences surrounding land use issues will evaporate!

Our tour ends back at headquarters where Phillips shows us his prize mare, hugely pregnant and ready to foal any day. The corral gate is open, and as we talk she waddles down to the edge of the adjacent reservoir to take a drink. Across the ranch, cattle have been giving birth all week to wobbly little calves.

Dust rises from the road as a ranch hand approaches in a pickup truck. One big gullywasher by June, says Phillips, and the prairie will turn into a sea of green. Of course, the threat of extended drought is always on his mind.

Across the prairie and across the burgeoning city of Colorado Springs, stretched to the rural eastern boundary of its urban seam, stands Pikes Peak. One glance reminds us all, rancher and city dweller alike, exactly where and who we are -- tiny individuals in a massive landscape bordered to the west by looming, snow-capped mountains and to the east by sandsage and shortgrass prairie.

The big question, says Duke Phillips, is: "If we open our ranches to the public, will they come?"

If the rancher and the environmentalist can be friends, can the rancher and the average city dweller be friends as well?

The future of the region, argue Phillips, the Nature Conservancy and numerous other partners of the Chico Basin Community, depends upon it.


* To learn more about Chico Basin Ranchs guest accommodations, programs and operations, see www.chicobasinranch.com or phone or fax: 719/683-7960

* To learn more about purchasing Lasater Grasslands Beef, see www.lasatergrasslandsbeef.com; call 719/541-2833; fax 719/541-2888; e-mail lasater@rmi.net. Locally, Lasater Grasslands Beef orders are stored for pick up at Tour Ice, 4325 Northpark Dr.

* To learn more about the Nature Conservancys Colorado projects, including the lease on Bohart Ranch and work in the Chico Basin, go to www.nature.org/colorado.

* To learn more about Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, see www.rmbo.org.

* To learn more about TENS teacher training program, contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

* To learn more about environmental degradation caused by over-grazing on public lands, see www.westernwatersheds.org or www.publiclandsranching.org.

Selected upcoming events at the Chico Basin Ranch:

April: Bird banding, Monday through Friday (project set up specifically for school kids from Colorado Springs and Pueblo areas.)

April 1922: Artist gathering (artists come to the ranch to work)

May: Bird banding

May 11: Aiken Audobon Society field day, starting at 8:30 a.m.

May 13: One-day workshop for city folks, dealing with expanding knowledge of ranching, ranchers working with environmental groups, and ranching and the environment.

May 17: Bugs, Birds and Beasts BBQ Spring Festival. Public invited.

May 19: Havover Park range ride fundraiser

Week of May 20: Branding in the Sand Hills area of the ranch June 1425: Artists gathering

June 26: TENS (Teaching Environmental Science Naturally) training day (for all teachers interested in using Chico Basin Ranch as an outdoor laboratory)

June 28: Colorado Historical Society summer youth camp

August 1117: Natural Horsemanship Clinic with Bob Miller

For info. on any of these events or for a complete list of events, e-mail: info@chicobasinranch.com or call or fax 719/683-7960.


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