Grand County loses land, water as traditions fade
August 22, 2008
August haying season, the rancher’s equipment draws neat rows on pristine meadowlands, the mapping of harvest.
They bale and stack the season’s crop for cattle’s winter sustenance.
The Scholl family owns 1,800 acres adjacent to Bureau of Land Management ground, with a modest ranch home tucked in the Rock Creek basin past Parshall.
Over iced tea, Duane Scholl, 73 ” a third generation rancher ” tells it like it is.
“Every year when we sit down to do income taxes with a very good accountant, he just says, ‘Why in the h*#@ are you doing this?'” Scholl said.
The greatest detriment to the ranching community is “cash flow. Period.”
Legitimate ranches in Grand County ” even most dude ranches ” remain threatened by the future and present prospect of development, the rate of inflation and price of commodities.
“Right now, in all of America, agriculture is the least successful business you could be in because you have a huge, huge amount of capital in the value of the land, the machinery and the buildings, and the return on your capital is less than 1 percent, so it’s a lifestyle thing more than anything else,” Scholl said.
The challenges are stacked high against a long-standing livelihood once the pillar of existence in the high country. Ranches no longer can stand on their own when taxes, insurance, fuel costs, energy costs, veterinary costs, production costs, and costs to build and maintain ditches and reservoirs ” to name a few ” are factored in.
Family ranching in the Rockies may be nearing the end of its line.
Ask any rancher how they hold out, and the answer is supplemental income ” second jobs or lease of land.
“Land rich, cash poor,” they say.
“I have a very good insurance agency to support my ranching habit,” Scholl said, the owner of Town and Country Insurance in Kremmling.
The family also rents out the homestead cabin to visiting fly anglers and hunters.
Scholl’s father built it with rock hauled from the nearby creek.
A few years ago, Scholl’s ranch reduced the number of Angus from 180 to 110 because of drought. And prices per-head dropped $100 from last year to this year.
“It’s a very nice life, but no longer a viable business,” he said.
At present, the outlook is that none of the Scholls’ four children will carry on the family’s ranching heritage. Ranching involves hard work, long hours and a wealth of responsibility for little monetary return. “They can’t afford to,” Scholl said.
“Kids are different nowadays,” said his wife Pat.
Loss affects rivers
Continued loss of ranching is an unraveling seam in terms of conservation of land and water in Grand County.
In facing pressures from development, today’s ranchers and environmental conservationists stand shoulder-to-shoulder, where before they were locked in conflict over grazing issues and water use.
“The people who love the land are the best stewards of the land,” Scholl said, whose home is equipped with solar collectors saving 50 percent on energy bills.
Strategic grazing on his and neighboring BLM land consistently regenerates grasses “as nutritional as grain” and provides food for wildlife during winter.
And historic rights to water allow for 20 cubic feet per second dumped onto all of the ranch’s meadows “as if it were a huge reservoir slowing up that runoff,” he said.
“If we weren’t irrigating, if it weren’t for those reservoirs, Rock Creek would be dry, there would be no water reaching the Colorado River probably by July 1… As ag lands fall out of use, it changes the complexity of the river a lot.”
Roughly 80 to 90 percent of water used on Grand County ranch land is returned to the area’s river drainage, benefiting downstream users.
It’s believed municipal development returns about 97 percent of water back to the river as long as development is in the same valley as the river.
Sprinkle irrigation has a higher evaporative loss, so golf course development returns much less, about 40 to 50 percent.
Development on the Front Range causes 100 percent loss to the rivers in Grand County.
It’s a known fact that much of the water taken is used to keep residential landscapes alive.
“Truthfully, 50 percent of the water that they use in those municipalities is growing Kentucky bluegrass. That’s not necessary,” said Kirk Klancke, Grand County’s foremost river-water advocate.
“So they take it from us and kill this natural environment to create an artificial one, to grow an imported grass from a humid environment in a high plains desert. It’s completely illogical.”
A slow leak to Denver
In the Fraser Valley, a much-anticipated sculpture is unveiled.
The curved line of a cast captures the lesser-known leisure expeditions of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, his likeness overlooking the banks of the Fraser River.
Three years ago, that same river was rated the third most endangered in the country.
“Fifty years ago, we had such a healthy fishery that a guy who could fish anywhere in the world wanted to fish here in Colorado. We want to remind people that this used to be presidential waters, and now it’s endangered waters,” Klancke said.
The culprit: trans-basin water diversions. Tunnels cut through the Rocky Mountains to carry water from the headwaters to the cities.
Roughly 60 percent of Grand County’s rivers are depleted to meet the needs of water users elsewhere. Another 20 percent could be taken out of the Fraser and Colorado rivers upon the approval of water-rights firming projects poised to meet the water needs of the Front Range.
Public comment periods on Environmental Impact Statements for each of the projects are scheduled for this fall.
“When you take it out of the Valley, the river never sees that water again. That’s what has the most detrimental effects to the river,” Klancke said.
He refers to potential flows amounting to only 20 percent of the Fraser River’s historical flows.
“If we’re going to deplete our rivers to that extent, anything that we do in the valley has a greater impact on the river…. If it’s a golf course, all these fertilizers are coming off the golf course into the river. A river with a lot of water can absorb the extra nutrients and flush itself clean, but a river with low flows is going to have a high concentration of nutrients and it’s going to grow weeds and algae, something that’s not native to our rivers.”
Silt and sediment cover rocks, killing off bug life. “That’s what the fish eat, so if you kill the bug life, you’ve essentially killed the fish. We have to be very self conscious about soils migrating from our construction sites, which means we have to be very diligent about erosion control,” Klancke said.
The president of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited and general manager of the Winter Park Ranch Water and Sanitation District already sees rivers turned into solar collectors during July and August.
Trout thrive at 55 degrees, but at 65 degrees, they’re merely surviving.
“Most of the fly fishermen I know quit fishing at 65,” Klancke said, “and they all catch and release, but if you catch a trout at 65 and release him, he’s going to die anyway because he’s used the last of his life force just fighting to get off the line. At 65, savvy catch-and-release trout fishermen just quit fishing.
“Right now, we’re seeing temperatures over 70. The cold water fishery dies at 70 degrees on the Fraser, on Ranch Creek, and on the Colorado ” pretty much in all of Grand County.”
Promoting balance or flirting with unknown?
Wearing blue-jeans and a button-down collared shirt, Middle Park Land Trust Executive Director Billy Summerlin takes a bite out of a non-healthy pastry and says in his tempered Southern accent, “I mean look at me, do I look like a tree hugger?”
His mantras of “balance” include development.
“We’re all about balance,” Summerlin said about his trust and its board of directors, some who work in real estate. “We know you have to have growth in a community or the community will die on a vine. … You also have to have a healthy environment and ecosystem to sustain and maintain a healthy economy, you just do. So it is a balance.”
Summerlin, whose trust holds 52 conservation easements in Grand County, recognizes a paradigm shift in how conservation is being perceived, saying people want to feel good about the items they buy, the water they use, the land they own.
“We’re all just trying to be better stewards of whatever you want to call it, our planet, our country, our county, our property,” he said.
“It’s different when you live here than if you live in a concrete city. You’re so much more aware of your air quality and water quality.”
The land trust facilitates state and federal tax incentives to landowners willing to give up future development rights so they may continue historic uses of properties.
The easement follows the land forever, something hard to imagine for many landowners.
“Conservation easements aren’t for every family or every landowner. It’s a wonderful fit for some families in some situations,” Summerlin said. “Some families just want to be on the land, want family on the land, and this is one way they can benefit to a financial degree and continue to stay on their land and continue to ranch it, to use it, to enjoy it, still hunt on it, fish on it, still raise cattle on it. They retain 100 percent ownership.”
Taxpayers pay such landowners incentives to not develop. “And these incentives can in no way compete with development dollars; I mean its pennies on the dollars compared to what they could get selling it to the highest bidder. So it’s not designed to be a quick-rich scheme, it’s simply an incentive.”
Because conservation easements devalue property, the federal government considers them charitable contributions because it sees open space as a public benefit.
Since ranchers don’t have heavy income-tax liability due to limited incomes, state programs were created to allow landowners the ability to sell tax credits to other taxpayers for about 80 cents on the dollar.
But some ranchers such as the Scholls do not trust the word “perpetuity” thrown around in conservation-trust jargon.
Who knows what the future holds?
“None of us are smart enough to know what we’re going to need five years or 10 years down, how things are going to change. The change in this county the last 10 years is phenomenal. I don’t care who you are, none of us is smart enough to look into the future,” Scholl said.
“If we as a society put a very high value on open space, vistas and meadows, obviously we need to step up,” he said, adding that the solution remains obscure.
“People in society should find some way to help the people who are stewards of the land. They do much better caring for the land than government entities because it is part and parcel to their lives.”
Why don’t nonprofit trusts lease development rights from ranchers for a set period of time? he asked. When that term expires, the trust and rancher can then re-evaluate and re-negotiate.
“They’d preserve 10 times the amount of land than they could afford to buy,” Scholl said. “Then we’d all have some breathing time to look and see what we really needed.”
The Scholl ranch, like many, has reached a crossroads.
“If one of us got sick, if we needed help, would I sell to a developer? You bet I would,” Scholl said.
The natural flow of conservation
The tack toward protecting and conserving what’s important may be in motion.
Progress of late has conservationists encouraged, including Scholl who’s served 16 years on the Middle Park Water Conservancy District.
He sees West Slope towns, counties and other water users putting their heads together like never before.
– Grand County leadership is rising to the occasion with a needed scientific approach to saving rivers. Scientists are creating a Stream Management Plan to figure out what flows are needed to maintain healthy river habitats. The plan produces indisputable data at a time when negotiations with Denver Water and Northern are critical to preserving West Slope waterways.
“Once we have scientific proof what that is, then we can at least start the conversation: OK Colorado, where do you want to go? What do you want to do with your environment?
We know what it takes to sustain it,” Klancke said.
– The Middle Park Land Trust, in its pursuit of land valued for its view corridors, wildlife migration and conservation value, recently launched the Colorado Headwaters Conservation Initiative, steering some of its focus to river corridors of adjacent lands. In a recent transaction, five families formed a trust that included water rights to the Fraser River.
Natural riparian habitats located 100 yards on either side of rivers filter sediment and nutrients. About 3 percent of the land mass in Colorado is riparian habitat, yet 90 percent of the wildlife interact and depend on that habitat. With normal river flows, those habitats are better able to protect the rivers, considered the state’s lifeblood.
– A water milestone was achieved this year in Colorado. New legislation should help to keep water in rivers. Considered an advance in Colorado water law that for greater than a century has been limited to water “use” over water conservation, the tweaking of that law provides a way for water “use” to be defined as letting it flow down the river rather than taking it out.
– On another front to preserve and conserve, the state recently turned its attention toward Grand Lake, the largest natural lake in Colorado, thanks to grass-roots efforts. The lake is the last body of water as part of a series of reservoirs that make up the Colorado-Big Thompson project that delivers water to northeastern Colorado.
Because of its increased nutrient loading, some say the natural lake is being used to its detriment. In recognizing that the lake may need further protections, the state set a loose quality standard for the lake this year, the first of its kind in Colorado. This first standard could be a forerunner for more stringent standards in the future.
– Meanwhile, in collaborative efforts, agencies including Grand County and owners of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project are conducting studies and tests to assess the health of lakes within the system.
– Grand County is in the process of updating its Grand County Master Plan, the guiding document for development in the county for the next decade. The public input portion of the plan is already two-thirds complete, and the county planning department says it has only seen “marginal” participation. The last chance for the public to help shape the master plan by delineating where open space should remain as well as where growth is appropriate is 6 p.m. meetings in September: Sept. 23 at the Kremmling fairgrounds; Sept. 24 at Mountain Parks Electric in Granby; and Sept. 25 at the Fraser Town Hall.
Such initiatives may become the groundwork for future generations.
After all, preserving and conserving water and land boil down to the will of the people.
“Legislation is too slow, litigation is too expensive. Education is our only hope,” Klancke said. “If people knew they were killing the environment on the West Slope, they wouldn’t kill it.”
” To reach Tonya Bina, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.