Ranch management company aims to further conservation, bridges between urban and rural worlds

Zara Saponja, leads the Joly family ...

Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

Zara Saponja leads the Joly family of Chicago on a horseback ride in The Great Sand Dunes National Park outside Mosca on Friday, July 31, 2020. The Zapata Ranch, located about eight miles from the dunes, offers several activities to guests that connects them to the natural world, including a day riding horses and hiking in the dunes.

Along with raising cattle and bison on five ranches, Duke Phillips III and his team are raising awareness about ranching as a way of life and a way to conserve the West’s open spaces, wildlife and other natural resources.

Even during the coronavirus pandemic and a statewide drought in Colorado, Ranchlands, the management company founded by Phillips, is still running cattle, running workshops and programs and hosting visitors at the Medano-Zapata Ranch in the San Luis Valley.

Work goes on at the Chico Basin Ranch southeast of Colorado Springs, although it remains closed to most visitors.

The two ranches are among five managed by Ranchlands. The others are in New Mexico, Texas and South Dakota. Altogether, they cover about 300,000 acres and form the foundation of a business that Phillips, his son, Duke Phillips IV, and his daughter, Tess Leach, run with about 20 full-time employees.

Duke Phillips IV, left, plays with ...

Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

Duke Phillips IV, left, plays with Hayes Leach near old gas pumps outside the Ranchlands headquarters at the Chico Basin Ranch in Colorado Springs on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

“Ranchlands is a cattle and bison company. We raise cattle and bison to sell into the market as protein,” the elder Phillips said. “We’re basically the front end. We are a range operation where we operate in a natural environment. We don’t have feedlots. We don’t have irrigated pasture. It’s all natural range.”

Ranchlands operates the Chico Basin Ranch on a 25-year lease from the Colorado State Land Board. Just under 90,000 acres, the area is one of country’s largest uninterrupted stretches of shortgrass and sand-sage prairie left, according to the management company.

At left: Ranch Foreman Jake Meldon ...

Photos by Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

At left: Ranch Foreman Jake Meldon wipes grease off his hands after working maintenance on a truck at the Chico Basin Ranch in Colorado Springs on Sept. 15, 2020. At right: A herd of cattle begins to migrate across a pasture at the Chico Basin Ranch on July 30, 2020.

There’s a panoramic view of the mountains, including the Sangre De Cristo and Green Horn mountain to the north and west, and the Spanish Peaks farther south. Ranchlands has had an open-gate philosophy, Phillips said, serving as a place where both locals and travelers can take advantage of the various education programs and opportunities to connect with the staff and gain a better understanding of what ranching is all about.

Chuck Dye is fairly new to the Ranchlands staff, starting as at Chico Basin five months ago. For him, it’s all about “doing right by the land,” something that appealed to him about Ranchlands mission.

Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

Ranch intern Chuck Dye wrangles cattle out in the pastures of the Chico Basin Ranch on Thursday, July 30, 2020.

“My role is to learn, to gain a stronger and more attentive eye in ways livestock can be used sustainably,”  Dye said. “The focus is on the land, and the continued education of younger generations about land management. It’s inspiring.”

The Nature Conservancy owns the 110,000-acre Medano-Zapata Ranch, which is on the eastern edge of the Great Sand National Park and Preserve. Ranchlands runs cattle and bison there, operates a lodge and offers several education and arts programs and ecotourism opportunities.

Ranchlands works in partnership with The Nature Conservancy to offset the costs of running and owning the property while implementing conservation projects.

“We also have hunting and fishing. We have an education program that sees over 2,000 kids a year for day programs” Phillips said. “We have a ranch management leadership school that’s been in existence for 20 years. We’re training young people how to be to be leaders in ranch management.”

Photos by Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

At left: Solly Levine, right, helps two young guests Luther Joly 16, left, and his brother Adam, 12, practice their roping during their stay at Zapata Ranch near Mosca on July 30, 2020. Though The Zapata Ranch was closed for part of their tourism season, they re-opened mid July to overnight travelers from around the world. At right: Knox Leach, right, and his brother Hayes, look for a goldfish in a watering tank outside in the corrals near headquarters at the Chico Basin Ranch near Colorado Springs on Sept. 15, 2020. They were coming in for lunch after spending the morning looking for fossils around the ranch.

While COVID-19 has forced some changes to the way Ranchlands does business, the Zapata ranch began welcoming visitors again in mid-July. Phillips said social distancing and other precautions are being followed.

Leach, head of business development, said the accommodations are at about 80% capacity and are open through Oct. 31.

Ranch guests can go horseback riding, following cattle at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain. They’re encouraged to go hiking, bird watching, and practice roping cattle. The landscape changes from forests and meadows, alpine lakes and topping out in tundra.

The ranches host concerts by singers and songwriters. Artists and photographers are invited to visit and the ranch managers sponsor an exhibition of their work in Denver.

Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

Chase Kelly, head chef at the Zapata Ranch, brings out a dish he prepared for guests at their individual picnic tables for dinner on Thursday, July 30, 2020. After re-opening to guests mid July, the ranch has adjusted their procedures to adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines, including having visitors eat outside at separate, spaced out tables around the property.

“Those are platforms or a medium for bringing people together to talk about conservation and ranching because ranching is such a misunderstood way of life,” said Phillips.

Many times, people tend to either romanticize ranching or see it as the mining of the land, he added. He wants the public to understand the business as well as the role he see it playing in furthering conservation.

Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

Brandon Sickel, apprentice, rests his arm against the corrals during a horse training lesson at the Chico Basin Ranch on July 15, 2020. Part of the Ranchlands mission is to train young ranchers to understand the traditional aspects of ranching as well as educate them on a more conservational, modern approach to ranching.

“In order for ranching to function it has to have open space, open pastures,” Phillips said. “There’s such a need today for that, especially with development and people buying small acreages.”

Wildlife needs open spaces to migrate, nest, breed and give birth. “Animals just don’t do well with a bunch of people around them,” Phillips said.

Photos by Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

At left: Ranch apprentice Louis Qualia checks one of the pastures at the Chico Basin Ranch on July 30, 2020. Qualia was examining the water levels at several wells that are filled using an irrigation system to provide water throughout the 87,000-acres ranch. At right: Andrea Parrie, right, works on making handmade leather coasters inside the leather shop at the Chico Basin Ranch on Sept. 15, 2020.

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