In the Unknown Certainty of Tomorrow
It is November 1999. I am standing in the Chico Basin ranch corrals, watching the long line of semi-trucks rolling toward me, loaded down with the first cows coming to the ranch. I remember it clearly, as if standing there now, thinking how they looked like big ships with tall sails plunging through the ocean of prairie surrounding me. And then that first long walk with the new arrivals, moving them out to Twin Mills, their new home. Me and the very first interns – Jeff and Jeremy – who were very young and very green. I can see the first guest, a young woman who worked in an office in Hollywood, who I’m pretty sure came looking for a handsome young cowboy, and instead ended up with blisters on her back end from all the horseback miles. Memories rise like horses appearing out of the early morning dark at the corral gate, of times not so long ago.
It’s Christmas Eve 2020 and I am on another of the ranches that Ranchlands manages today, the MP Ranch in New Mexico, with my wife, Meredith. Mike and Lynae, our interns, have left to celebrate Christmas with their families. I look out the window at the large expanse of land and feel incredibly thankful. I am reminded of how special a privilege it is to be alone here on the ranch with no one else around. I think about how lucky all of us are at Ranchlands, especially in today’s times, that our day-to-day lives remain relatively the same as not only a year ago, but also not all that different from the lives of those who lived on these ranches generations before us.
As I look at Ranchlands today, it has grown so much and become so different from anything that I could have foreseen or imagined, but back on that day in November 1999, I didn’t have a big vision; I was trying to make a go at ranching on my own, using my imagination as best as I could. I cut expenses to the bone. I ran the ranch with Jeff and Jeremy, just the three of us, not knowing how I was going to make ends meet at the end of the year. I could barely keep up with the work looking after other people’s cattle because I couldn’t afford to hire anyone. It was a story I knew too well – one that has played out for family ranches across the west for decades. But regardless of how daunting and frightening it felt, I kept trying one thing after another. I invited artists out to depict ranch life and hosted an exhibit of their work where I thought I could make a little extra on commissions selling art. I created a website and a brochure for marketing a guest program, made a small table in the corner of the wood shop and brought my sewing awl and needles out of the little leather bag that I’d carried around for years. And as if I didn’t have enough to do, I made a deal with The Nature Conservancy to manage their Zapata Ranch because I wanted a backup in case the Chico fell through. But also in the back of my mind I knew that conservation, the foundation of my daily work and the future of my ranch and family, was an important part of the future and that The Nature Conservancy’s work was a good thing to build into our group and learn from.
Slowly, one step at a time, our cow herd that fed our lives for so long has grown to what it is today, quietly working the land behind the scenes. It is our foundation. Carefully cultivated through the genetics of the small herd of 35 cows I brought with me from the Lasater Ranch, our now populates all the ranches that Ranchlands operates, perfectly adapted to each of these natural environments. They are the most beautiful, feminine, and hardy working cows that I know and are one of the accomplishments that I am most proud of. This herd is the embodiment of a philosophy that selects and culls animals to be adapted to their natural environment, an ideology that represents our personal values and perspective on managing the land and wildlife that supports us – a perspective that sees us not as masters of nature, but as a part of it. Our cattle represent our connection to the past, but also to the future of ranching – serving as vital cogs in the wheels of an evolving practice of ranching, a tradition that holds land stewardship at its core, recognizing the value of conservation as the product of our collective efforts that will outlive any single animal in our herd, and if we do it right, will be a legacy that outlives each of us as well.
But as life-changing as all these developments over the years have been, there has been an unexpected phenomenon, uplifting Ranchlands to a watershed event in our journey. And this has been the overwhelming number of people who have become Ranchlands: the close circle working on our the ranches and the bigger, growing circle spreading throughout our region and beyond. Students, naturalists, scientists, professors, and guests. Nearly a hundred thousand supporters on social media. A network of environmental organizations, conservation agencies, and neighboring and like-minded ranchers. How could we have known that there would be such a magnitude of enthusiasm from so many people who support and attend our social media platforms, education events, field days, art exhibits and music concerts? That our ranch and these events would become rich venues for people of all walks of life to gather to talk, dance, exchange perspectives about ranching and land stewardship – important interactions that have become guiding lights in our journey.
I thought I was getting into the business of grazing animals, but instead, it has become more about a growing group of people working together on a mission to create a better world through the management of land, people and animals through the legacy of ranching – a medium for living in harmony with nature.
This year has been a big one for us, even in these times of uncertainty and imbalance, bringing new opportunities along with unprecedented challenges that will hereafter change the face of humankind. I believe we are living in one of the most exciting, if also difficult, times in human history, shifting into a powerful transitional stage in our growth as a society, which is also reflected in our future outlook as a company. As we entered this time of chaos and isolation in March last year, we began sharing more stories over our networks as a means of connecting during the lock down that has kept so many people confined to their homes. And as we saw the effects of unemployment taking hold on families in our region, we were fortunate to find a butcher who was willing to process cows from our herd on weekends, which enabled us to donate our beef to 2000 members of our local community over the following weeks.
We have been able to continue operating our ranches, even though we are experiencing a severe drought in Colorado and New Mexico. Our newest ranch, the FP, is fully online with Nick and Amy at the wheel, running a large cow-calf operation in Texas. It has had enough moisture to help take the load off some of our drier ranges. My first granddaughter, baby Dean, was born to Duke IV and Madi on April 29th and cannot stop smiling at everyone. Tess and David’s three boys now have their hands full with their new cousin. Our leather business has experienced unprecedented demand and growth. Even though we closed down our guest programs at the beginning of the lockdown, we reopened and had an overwhelming demand from guests more eager than ever to experience the privacy and wide-open spaces of our ranches.
Growth and expansion is a natural phenomenon which has now happened in a way that we never anticipated. It’s been a long road with my children growing up and now having babies of their own and becoming partners alongside me at the helm of Ranchlands. In November of this past year, we took what feels like our biggest leap since that day I stood in the corrals watching the ships come in. We are working on a large, hugely exciting project in Wyoming on a landscape where we think we can harness everything that we have learned, everything that we have worked for to reach the next level, whatever that might be. More news to come later.
In the bigger picture, we feel that because we began working on this new Wyoming project almost at the same moment in time as the COVID-19 outbreak, that it is a sign, a call to act together in a bigger way than we have in the past. Ranchlands has become what it is today by facing the prospects of an insurmountable future with undeterred confidence that no matter what, we are going to make it work and it’ll be better than anything we can imagine. The overpowering fear that has huddled the entire human race against a force of nature none of us ever experienced before is even more powerful, yet fear and confidence can be two hands working together instead of against each other, leading us to a deeper life understanding that provides the confidence to hold our heads high and take pride in who we are and our ability to adapt and grow in ways we never anticipated.
It is February 2021, still early in the new year with a new era ahead of us. Let us face the future the same way we deal with encroaching exotic weeds: let’s manage for what we want, rather than for what we are afraid of. I know it is easy for us at Ranchlands to ride our hills and open ranges on isolated ranches removed from population centers, forming bold opinions of the future, of opportunities and inherent risks affecting our personal lives and beyond. But I also think it’s not a bad place to start. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead knowing that if we act together and have the courage to set free our imaginations, maybe, just maybe, the wave we are on will plunge us into a future far beyond what we could ever imagine.