Indivisible, Part 5 | Fighting for the farm: Tracing Routt County’s rural-urban divide through skiing and ranching
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When it comes to the rural-urban divide in Routt County, drawing an exact line is not so easy.
Take the Fetcher family. Their ranch, which has been in the family since 1949, sits in one of the most remote parts of the county, free from subdivisions and vacation rentals. Come nightfall, the glow of the moon and stars are almost exclusively the only source of light.
But the Fetcher brothers, Jay and Bill, also own a house in Steamboat Springs proper with a multimillion-dollar view of Steamboat Resort — a resort the family helped build.
The brothers’ father, John Fetcher, was one of the primary partners of the ski area when it opened back in 1963. His farm equipment constructed some of the first chairlifts. As he jockeyed to entice guests and investors, the ranch and the ski area became intertwined.
“We would put 10 cows on a truck and haul them to Denver to meet payroll,” Jay said.
Other ranchers lent a hand as a way of gaining some extra income. Ted Cordova, for whom Ted’s Ridge is named, would feed cattle in the morning and groom the ski trails at night.
Back then, Steamboat was a humble community, composed mostly of farming, mining and dirt roads. As the ski area grew, it drove a new era of tourism. Shops and restaurants opened to serve the snow-seeking visitors. As more and more people moved here, building houses on old farmland, the once-humble town became a burgeoning city.
The Fetchers’ work ultimately would turn Steamboat into a world-renowned vacation destination. The ski area is now owned by resort giant Alterra Mountain Co., lumping it into an international conglomerate of resorts. While the boon improved the area in many ways, it also is responsible for much of the growth that the Fetchers and other local ranchers find themselves fighting to outlast.
While Steamboat is no metropolis, it is defined as an urban cluster . The city of Steamboat Springs is classified as an urban cluster according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an area with at least 2,500 but fewer than 50,000 people. It is one of the only urban places in Northwest Colorado, surrounded by small municipalities and sprawling open space. As with the rest of the country, this urban-rural landscape has come to reflect the predominant political leanings of the county’s residents.
In 2016, Routt voted for Hillary Clinton, the fourth consecutive time the county has sided with a Democrat and the sixth time in the past seven elections. Clinton’s widest winning margins came from Steamboat Springs proper, the most densely populated part of the county. Meanwhile, Trump won most widely in Precinct 2, which encompasses the rural area north of U.S. Highway 40 near Hayden.
The big changes in that election came from Oak Creek and Phippsburg. Historically, these communities had been the most reliably blue corner of the Routt County precinct map. For the first time since 1984, the area voted for a Republican, with 49% for Donald Trump and 42% for Clinton.
Notably, Clinton won Routt County with a wider margin compared to Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. She beat Trump by 17%, compared to Obama’s 15.6% win over Romney.
This is not to say every rural resident has a Trump 2020 sign in their fields (though many do) or that no Steamboat neighborhood wants to see the president win a second term (though many don’t). Rather, it suggests that where one lives plays a role in how they view the world, from their political persuasions to energy policy.
Many people in neighboring Craig depend heavily on jobs from local coal and coal-fired power plants. It therefore comes as no surprise that about 85% of Moffat County voted for Trump in the 2016 election, based largely on his promises to “put coal country back to work” and “reverse the harmful actions of the past administration.”
One of the most divisive ballot measures in the upcoming general election, the wolf reintroduction initiative, has fallen along rural-urban boundaries, with ranchers among the staunchest opponents and the two main groups in support, Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund and the Colorado Sierra Club, based in the urban Front Range.
A bitter battle in Pleasant Valley
A more ideological divide splitting urban and rural in Routt County is the question of how Routt County should grow, if at all. Those who oppose major development want to avoid becoming the next Vail or Aspen, places plagued by sprawl and aristocratic decadence. At the same time, people want to live in a thriving community with amenities and good jobs, things that depend on a healthy and diverse economy, which necessitates at least some degree of growth.
Many of the values that define Routt County date back decades, borne from a scalding battle over a bold idea.
Starting in the 1970s, a group of developers looked into building a ski area in Pleasant Valley on Mount Baldy south of Steamboat Springs. After spit-balling some potential names for the resort, they landed on Catamount, which the dictionary defines as a wild cat, especially a cougar. The development also would include multistory condos similar to the ones huddled around Steamboat Resort.
The idea soon came to symbolize a greater divide in the area between the residents who wanted to make Steamboat into a destination community and those who wanted to preserve its heritage and wildlife.
“Whole land-use concepts are hanging in the balance, with both sides sure their point of view is the right one!” read a Steamboat Pilot & Today article from 1973.
To supporters, the ski area would be a way to bring prosperity to an area dealing with recent blows to its economy. From 1950 to 1970, Routt County lost one-third of its population due to the demise of the coal mining industry and consolidation of ranching property into large units, according to newspaper archives. There was even talk of hosting the 1976 Olympics at the ski area.
“We hope to provide, as a result of this development, an opportunity for additional people to enjoy our way of life in a controlled, well-planned atmosphere,” the developers said in a letter to the Routt County Board of Commissioners.
To dissenters — and there were many — the development was a direct attack on the way of life here, particularly for ranchers. Bob and Elaine Gay, whose Green Creek Ranch was adjacent to the proposed site of the ski area, were among the most vivacious opponents. They attended public meetings, wrote letters and rallied against the developers, raising a cacophony of issues, from disrupting elk herds to polluting water supplies to letting “big business” take over the county.
“This area shows no promise of becoming the promised land the promoters proposed,” Elaine said in a letter to the county commissioners.
Other ranchers joined in the fight.
In 1990, the Routt County Sheriff’s Office investigated an incident involving people who repeatedly put a “Pleasant Valley” sign over Lake Catamount in protest over the proposed ski area. The year prior, a valley rancher erected a sign on his property reading, “This ranch is not for sale to the Japanese,” a xenophobic jab at the developers who had recently sold Steamboat Resort to a Japanese corporation.
The U.S. Forest Service ultimately axed the proposed ski area, following years of environmental assessments according to Ben Beall, a Routt County commissioner at the time. An avid opponent of the development, Beall still has a copy of the Forest Service’s letter hanging in his office.
“After 25 years of fighting, we were able to close the book on that chapter of the county’s development,” he said.
Instead, a 3,296-acre conservation easement was placed around Lake Catamount. The easement protected much of the open space while allowing some development, such as the upscale Catamount Ranch & Club.
As Beall said, that outcome shaped the county’s growth to this day. It affirmed residents’ profound care for agriculture and wildlife, even if it meant losing out on business.
Past becoming present
A proposed expansion at Steamboat Resort, announced in July, has once again brought a similar debate to the foreground. As planned, highlights of the projects include building what would be the longest eight-person gondola in North America, a new restaurant at the top of the Sunshine and Sundown chairlifts and a 650-acre expansion into Pioneer Ridge and Fish Creek Canyon.
“While a specific timeline for these projects is not known, with the appropriate approvals, our locals and visitors will be able to enjoy these amenities in the very near future,” Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Rob Perlman said in the July announcement.
It would be the first expansion at the ski area in more than 20 years, making Steamboat the second-largest resort in Colorado. It currently ranks fifth based on acreage.
The resort says the projects would enhance the skiing and riding experience, improve safety and reduce wait times in lift lines. If construction goes forward, the resort would remove the Priest Creek lift and replace Sundown Express with a “more efficient and higher capacity chairlift,” according to the announcement about the projects.
The gondola also help shuttle more people up the mountain from the base area, helping to mitigate long lines on busy days. As planned, the resort could get 10,000 people per hour up the mountain from the base area, as opposed to the current rate of 6,000 people per hour, according to Communications Director Loryn Duke.
But the project has its naysayers.
Among the most notable organizations to voice concerns about the expansion is Colorado Parks and Wildlife. In a letter submitted to the Forest Service in August during a required public comment period, CPW listed a wide range of negative consequences, from wildlife displacement to deterioration of natural habitat.
“Disturbances from proposed activities on the ski resort are likely to have negative impacts on mule deer and elk productivity, disrupt a known native raptor nest, increase moose-human conflicts, impede lynx movements, disrupt brook trout habitat, and increase backcountry recreation impacts on adjacent public lands,” JT Romatzke, the Northwest Regional Manager with CPW, said in the letter.
He did not oppose the expansion outright but urged a closer evaluation of these impacts through an environmental impact statement, which is a more in-depth analysis than the environmental assessment the Forest Service conducted.
Many of the projects in the expansion proposal already received preliminary approval in a 2019 master development plan amendment.
The Forest Service argues that by concentrating development in the ski area, it helps preserve more remote places elsewhere. The goal of the master plan, according to the agency is to “maintain and upgrade Steamboat, while achieving a balance of facilities on the mountain and within the base area in an environmentally responsible manner.”
A draft of the environmental assessment currently underway should be ready by January 2021, according to Aaron Voos, a spokesperson for the Forest Service. The assessment could either lead to the more in-depth environmental impact assessment or a finding of no significant impact. If the latter case proves true, which Voos said is likely, the project would move forward as proposed.
“But obviously we can’t say that for sure until we work through the process,” he added.
Larry Desjardin, president of Keep Routt Wild, also has been pushing the Forest Service to conduct the more thorough, cumulative environmental impact statement. He is concerned with the Forest Service’s piecemeal approach to several proposed projects in and around the Routt National Forest, namely the Mad Rabbit Trails project and the Buffalo Pass road improvement assessment.
With trails and public space only getting more popular, Desjardin believes it is time for a comprehensive study on the consequences of further development to inform responsible decisions in the future.
“It’s the only way we can appraise the cumulative impact and have some sort of plan,” he said. “If we have uncontrolled development in Routt County, we will have the same fate we have seen in Eagle.”
If the proposed projects reach the final approval stages, which could happen as early as next year, Desjardin and fellow conservationists are planning to file a lawsuit to appeal the decision.
“If we ever go to litigation, we believe we have a very strong case,” he said.
A local group, Coalition for the Canyon, started a petition on change.org to oppose the ski area expansion project. As of Oct. 7, it had more than 460 signatures.
The group also submitted an official letter to the Forest Service, featuring 28 comments included in the online petition. Locals and visitors alike raised concerns about ruining wild places and the community.
“As a visitor I’d like to see less development in the Steamboat Springs area. I come to visit the open wilderness and enjoy the small western town atmosphere, not to see construction, crowds, and traffic,” wrote Raymond Jerome of Massachusetts.
Anger over large, outside corporations having a hand in the matter stoked the flame.
“Leave us alone, Alterra,” commented Heathre Naused, a Steamboat resident.
Such remarks reflect similar sentiments over the Catamount ski area proposal from the ’90s. A fear pervades this community that outside forces, namely corporate greed and floods of tourists, will tarnish the pastoral integrity of Routt County. These fears are understandable, particularly when so many of the changes happening seem out of local control or out of touch with the way of life here.
This is an international pattern Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, attributes to the globalization of business. Major companies in the U.S., from Google to Alterra, do not rely as much as the prosperity of one particular community, state or even the country.
With the Ikon Pass bringing Steamboat Resort under a global umbrella of ski resorts, it makes many locals feel they have lost their small-town mountain to the rest of the world.
Of course, this draws a rather arbitrary line of who is a local, and frustration over tourists can quickly devolve into elitism or xenophobia. But in some important ways, residents have a right to feel that the way of life as they know it is in peril.
Just ask the Stanko family. Jim Stanko was born in Routt County in 1944 and grew up on the ranch his family has owned since 1907. As a child, he remembers having nine longtime ranching families as neighbors. He went to school with their kids. But over the years, much of the land was sold and subdivided into 35-acre ranchettes, the smallest lot allowed in rural parts of the county.
“Out of the nine ranching families, we are the only ones left,” Stanko said.
He and his wife, Jo, have seen a gradual decline of agriculture in their neighborhood along Twentymile Road. Fields that once grew grain or supported livestock have turned to grass and weeds.
In some ways, this reflects a boom-and-bust trend that has long shaped local agriculture, Jim said. Residents in Strawberry Park actually used to grow strawberries. Selch Dairy produced cheese and milk. Now they are but entries in the history books. Jo Stank uses an old Selch milk jug to hold flowers.
Amid a 20-year drought and the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Routt County ranchers are grappling with more bust than boom. Cattle values have dipped to 1985 prices, according to Jim. Hay prices have spiked. These and other factors make it hard to turn a profit for a variety of producers, not just cattle ranchers like the Stanko and Fetcher families.
On an ideological level, Jo described a growing disconnect between rural producers and urban consumers.
“People don’t think about where their food comes from. It’s just there,” Jo said. “Our kids are being taught milk comes from Safeway.”
As ranch revenues decline, their owners must find supplemental income through additional jobs or leave the industry altogether. Even when they can hold on, many would-be heirs of longstanding ranches cannot afford to buy the land from their parents, forcing it into foreclosure.
But the future of Routt County ranching is not all doom and gloom. Life remains hard for local ranchers, but if anyone can handle hardship, it’s the leather-skinned, frostbitten men and women whose very bones know what it means to toil for a living.
“We’ve always managed to make it,” Jim Stanko said.
To ensure their ranch would transition to the next generation, Jim and Jo Stanko got creative. When their son, Patrick, was still in college, they visited an estate planner to devise the best way to ensure he could afford the ranch when he was ready to take it over.
The planner recommended the Stanko family enter into a formal partnership. Other families choose to incorporate or utilize tax deferrals as succession plans. Over the years, Jim and Jo have written big checks to keep their capital gains taxes low to ease the burden on their son when he buys it.
One of the most important ways local ranchers have been able to preserve agriculture is through conservation easements, the same process that has kept Catamount from extensive development.
The Fetcher family became a statewide leader in land conservation in the mid-1990s. They led the way in forming the “Upper Elk Valley Compact,” a non-binding document among their neighbors. It proposes “protective development” to preserve ranching heritage and encourages anyone who sells his or her ranch to find like-minded buyers. This keeps their hay fields from turning into golf courses and high-end condos.
“You can look down the valley, and it will be green forever,” Jay said.
Their conservation work won the Fetcher family a “Smart Growth” award from Colorado Gov. Roy Romer in 1995.
Residents soon recognized and agreed with the need to preserve open lands. The following year, Routt County voters approved a 1.5 mill property tax increase to fund the Purchase of Development Rights Program. Bob and Elaine Gay, the ardent opponents of the Catamount ski area development, helped to establish it.
In an ironic turn of events, two of their children, Bill Gay and Roberta Moellenberg, sold roughly 1,500 of the 2,000 acres comprising Green Creek Ranch in 2015 for $25 million. The decision caused a familial rift that continues to this day.
But Jo Stanko holds nothing against the ranchers who decide to cash in on their beleaguered operations.
“We are not rich people, so you can’t blame the people that sold out and moved somewhere else,” she said.
The Purchase of Development Rights Program provides landowners a financially attractive alternative to selling out to developers by compensating them for the development rights on their land.
The PDR program is not perfect, and neither are conservation easements. Some landowners take advantage of the system, and easements strip a good deal of a ranch’s market value. They also limit what people can do on their own land, gelding the rugged individualism of the Western rancher.
But for ranchers like the Fetcher and Stanko families, easements help to keep agriculture a part of the Yampa Valley.
Another creative solution to generate revenues has been the growth of agro-tourism, which allows ranchers to capitalize on tourism rather than suffer from it. Enticing visitors to enjoy a slice of rural living is what allowed Saddleback Ranch, owned by the Iacovetto family, enough money to purchase more land and support ranching operations. Year-round activities include hunting, horseback riding, sleigh-ride dinners and cattle drives, among others.
Looking to the future, Patrick Stanko has similar ideas to make his family’s ranch more lucrative, foreseeing it as a venue for weddings, family reunions and other special events.
He also works for the Community Agriculture Alliance, a local nonprofit that promotes farmers and ranchers.
Support for local agriculture has boomed this summer, Patrick said, thanks in large part to the disruptions to national food supply chains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Empty grocery store shelves helped to remind people of more local options.
The Agriculture Alliance bridges the gap between Routt County producers and customers, supporting the growth of niche operations like 41North’s aquaponic microgreens, edible flowers and herbs or Moon Hill Dairy’s gourmet cheeses and ice cream.
To be clear, the Fetcher brothers are not against development outright. As Jay explained, he is grateful for the amenities the community’s growth has brought, such as better internet access (which remains a headache in parts of North Routt) and an international spread of cuisine.
“Neither of us would want to ranch in podunk Wyoming where there is one restaurant in town,” Jay said. “We are grateful for the changes Steamboat has seen and the opportunities it has brought.”
The brothers invite groups to tour their ranch and learn how it operates. They host BookTrails, a literacy camp for kids. Rocky Mountain Youth Corps has its summer rendezvous on the land.
“It gives us a chance to tell our story. And I think it’s important to tell that story,” Jay said.
What he wants to see is responsible, managed growth. With this in mind, Sarah Jones, Ski Corp.’s director of sustainability and community engagement, proposed something called a “destination management plan.” Breckenridge already adopted such a plan. Steamboat has one in the works, according to Jones. The overall goal is to strike a balance between welcoming tourism and development while preserving the quality of life for residents. How this will play out, only time can decide.
Routt County also has a master plan, which set the goals and vision for coming years. Among the top values residents have stated again and again, and all three Routt County commissioners have supported, are preserving rural land and concentrating growth in municipalities.
“All in all, I think it’s been very successful,” Commissioner Doug Monger said of the master plan.
Born to be wild
The Fetcher’s ranch just south of Clark is emblematic of tradition embracing change.
On a sunny day in early September, Jay and Bill conducted pregnancy tests on about 70 of their heifers using ultrasound technology. Road bikes hung from the ceiling of a nearby barn that also stored farm equipment.
A plume of dust rose from the dirt road as a line of smiling children on bicycles sped past. They were from the North Routt Community Charter School, Jay explained. Teachers bring them to the ranch a few times a year to learn about local agriculture. On that day, the main attraction was a litter of puppies somewhere in the house.
As the kids rushed inside, Jay pointed out a brown-haired boy from the class, his grandson, Joey.
“He potentially could be the next rancher,” Jay said.
The boy has a keen interest in nature and an awareness of the natural world, one of those increasingly rare, Tom Sawyer-breed of kids who would rather watch for migrating birds or build a tree fort than glue his eyes to the latest video game. If Joey is willing, his grandfather wants him to learn everything he can about the ranch so he can one day take the reins.
Jay added, “Hopefully we are here long enough to give him that chance.”
To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.
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