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Where the Gate is Always Open

This morning a stranger wandered into the Chico Basin Ranch office, looking for dragonflies. It was his first time coming to the ranch, he admitted, wondering if was in the right place. At another ranch, he might have been turned away. I assured him, however, that he was right where he belonged, and gave him a list of all the dragon- and damselfly species recorded on the ranch, a list compiled by two birders who have been coming to see wildlife at the Chico for years. With our policy of open gates to all, even something so simple as hunting for rare insects by our lakes and wetlands is enough to bring a new visitor from town out to experience the Chico.

Guests on a guided tour of the ranch. Photo by Matt Delorme.

Almost the entire crew here not only works but also lives on the ranch. The land that we call home here at the Chico, however, is not only ours. The ranch remains open to the public year-round because this land is owned in trust by the state, and it belongs to the people of Colorado. It belongs to the thousands of children who visit the ranch in school groups each year. It belongs to future generations of humans who might still have the opportunity to harvest meat from that same land. It belongs to the birders and the dragonfly-hunters. It belongs to all of us who are willing to step outside of our comfort zone and come see for ourselves where the food we eat comes from.

Whether it be for a single evening event, a few short days as a ranch guest, a few months as an intern, or the first few years of a lifetime as an Apprentice, Ranchlands openly and enthusiastically engages with all those who wish to come see for themselves what this life really is, in all its grittiness and beauty.

“All those who drive across the first cattle guard under that red Chico Basin Ranch sign will come to learn that ranches are not just places where cattle graze and cowboys ride. They are wild, natural, open spaces, where native flora and fauna are allowed to thrive.”

Beyond the typical duties of a working ranch, we work hard throughout the year to provide opportunities for people from all backgrounds and places–from within and especially outside of the ranching community–to experience and engage with ranching as a culture, as a producer of food, and as a means of conservation. Part of our mission at our ranches is not only to be a source of healthy meat, while preserving the centuries-old tradition of range cattle production along with the shortgrass prairie habitat it protects, but also to be a place that is truly open for the public to experience.

Just as the guest looking for dragonflies I met this morning, all those who drive across the first cattle guard under that red Chico Basin Ranch sign will come to learn that ranches are not just places where cattle graze and cowboys ride. They are wild, natural, open spaces, where native flora and fauna are allowed to thrive. If he returns once, even twice more, the dragonfly hunter may eventually begin to build a relationship with this piece of land, just as we have. Though for different reasons, he may grow to care about it, to know it, to respect it, and to want to protect it, just as we do. This is why we have an open gate policy at the Chico – to cultivate in the public (and within ourselves) deeper connections to the land, and to educate anyone who will listen about the rangelands that are preserved through ranching.

Experiential learning about roping techniques. Photo by Sean Cayton.

When kids arrive at the ranch, be it in small education groups from schools, or with their families on vacation, they bring with them preconceived notions of what a “rancher” or a “cowboy” really is or looks like, which often includes shooting guns in the air and the images portrayed in Western films and novels. Our work to engage with the people from outside of our community are all different ways of demystifying a way of life for many people who consume the meat we produce but whose knowledge of how we live is based more in myth and imagination than reality.

Here at the Chico, I see–just as I saw at the Zapata–guests who arrive to the ranch with no idea what to expect. But after spending a week working horseback alongside us and eating dinner with every member of the crew at each of our houses every night, they become friends of ours, friends of the ranch. They learn that ranchers are not just wild cowboys in John Wayne movies, but real people working hard every day to do right by the land that sustains us all.

A school group learning about some of the native plant species of the ranch. Photo by Sean Cayton.

Be it through our education programs, workshops for other ranchers and conservation professionals (like the wetland restoration workshop we hosted last week), our annual concert and art show, hospitality programs, invitations to photographers and journalists, or our partnerships with organizations like Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy, and the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, we work to encourage people from outside our community to build a relationship with us and with the land, and hopefully to understand what would be at stake if ranching landscapes were lost.

I came to Ranchlands as a vegetarian college student from the flatlands of the east coast with wide eyes, a healthy dose of naive skepticism, and only the most basic of understandings of animal agriculture and what it means to manage big working lands in the American West. With open arms, and an unreasonably forgiving attitude towards the inevitable mistakes of an ignorant beginner, Ranchlands welcomed me to their team. After working at two Ranchlands properties, I’ve seen firsthand how the meat we eat and sell is raised, and I feel proud and lucky to know where it comes from when I eat it. And two years later, though I never planned on it, I’m still here.

“Those who consume the meat we raise are connected to this land, this way of life, and these animals, and without their support, this way of life may not survive.”

Once an outsider, I was given the rare opportunity to learn and experience ranching from within, and I have now become part of this community and of this landscape that I help to care for. As a consumer, a colleague, a student, or a teacher: these are all ways that one can become a part of our community, as I did, and join a diverse constituency of humans who understand the value of ranching and its potential as the most compelling solution to wide-scale land conservation in the West.

Ranching is as much about working and building meaningful relationships with people as with animals. This is a lesson I learned quickly after arriving at the Chico. As ranchers and producers, we turn grass into meat, and we are tied to people all over the country through intimate relationships of consumption. However far away from us they may live, however detached their life may be from this world, those who consume the meat we raise are connected to this land, this way of life, and these animals, and without their support, this way of life may not survive. Through our outreach programs, anyone, from anywhere, has the chance to come and turn that relationship of consumption into a personal relationship.

Our education programs and other public outreach allow for visitors to connect to the landscape. Photo by Sean Cayton.

The expansive, geographically isolated nature of ranches in the American West does not, in fact, breed the insular, disconnected, private agricultural communities that may have existed in the past (at least here, that is). Instead, living on such uniquely productive and wild landscapes demands that we engage the outside world with eagerness and open arms. These lands and the ways of life to which they play host have rich stories to tell, and they beg humbly for a diverse audience. Just like park rangers, all of us at Ranchlands are ambassadors for these special places we call home. If we are lucky, if enough people come through our open gates to hear their song, these lands may sing forever.

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