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The Canterbury family. Photo courtesy of Public Lands Council.

The mantra “keep the country in the country and the city in the city”, is well-worn in Chaffee County and neighboring counties, but simply saying that does not make it so. In fact, over the past several years, the uptick in the subdivision of agricultural lands, the county’s non-agricultural population growth, and the proliferation of a Chaffee version of “McMansions’ has tended to make that promise ring hollow.

The Chaffee Comprehensive Plan finalized in 2020 included directives that seek to keep density out of county rural lands, focusing it within the county’s municipalities and a three-mile radius around those areas. The revision of the Land Use Code currently in progress is supposed to support that. The county reinforces the Colorado Right to Farm and Ranch statutes.

Bluntly put — making a living as a rancher is back-breaking work, even in the good times. It’s a life, and a lifestyle, that is 24/7. Those who live it do so because it’s their family heritage, it’s what they know, this is a gorgeous country, it’s where their family is — and because they value the land and the people.

But over the past few decades, it’s become harder and the recent wildfires have put many ranchers close to the edge.  Ark Valley Voice has had conversations with fifth-generation rancher Tim Canterbury, who provided a perspective on how the wildfires of the past several years have added to the challenges ranchers face. While his family has been on their ranch since 1879, beginning by providing beef to miners up on Cripple Creek, it is doubtful his ancestors could have imagined the realities of ranching today.

The Decker Fire jumped the Rainbow Trail during the 2019 fire, and roared into Bear Creek, with dark smoke plumes visible. Photo by Jan Wondra.

“We’ve lived through the Decker Fire up Bear Creek, and recovery has been rough,” said Canterbury. While he lives in Howard, Fremont County, his cattle have forest land grazing permits from Freemont to Chaffee counties. Since 2022 he has served as the Vice President of the Public Lands Council Executive Committee.

This journalist first met Canterbury in 2016; when I arrived at the ranch, the Hayman Fire was advancing. I accompanied him in his pickup (“Step into my office,” he invited me that afternoon) as he assessed the situation. It was a crash course in the integrated system that is cattle ranching in the Central Colorado Rockies.

That first day, I wanted to know what he was going to do about the cattle, who had been summer-grazing on national forest lands directly in the path of the fire. That day, he was trying to decide if they could truck all the cattle out of the fire’s advance.

“If I put them on the lower pastures, I’ll use up all my fall grazing pasture,” he had explained back then. Having grown up on a lush Wisconsin dairy farm, I didn’t know what he meant at that time. I do now. I met him again during the Decker Fire.

Then I met him another time, on the top of Poncha Pass just a few weeks ago, while touring with Senator Michael Bennet. We were there because it represents a convergence of elements: the top of two watersheds. From that point, the Arkansas River watershed goes north. The Rio Grand River watershed flows south.

Canterbury outlined some really important elements that ranchers hope will be put into the Farm Bill — critical federal agriculture support that gets reviewed and renewed every five years. At the top of his mind was the gap in what federal funding covers after a wildfire impacts ranchers.

Another rancher’s cattle drive along the Ute Trail up to summer grazing land. photo credit-S. Hobbs

“I’m a post-fire survivor,” he began. “After the markets and the management team leaves … if you’re in agriculture you’ve got to deal with the floods as the aftermath of the fire, and there’s the problem. You can only insure and replace your personal house — ranchers live on ranches. But all the infrastructure of your ranching business — the barns, the agricultural ditches, all your infrastructure — you can’t get any help or funding to repair the infrastructure that existed before. Its infrastructure built up over decades – infrastructure tied to the ranch’s water rights. Ranchers aren’t flush with cash.”

He said Bear Creek became a raging river in the storms after the fire and the damage is beyond the cash flow of a typical ranch. “When a 10 CFS (cubic feet per second) stream becomes 400 CFS into the Arkansas River at the gauge 1/2 mile from Bear Creek — the federal government can only help you if you want to put in new infrastructure. There is no funding to repair what’s there.”

“Can you help us to get funding to repair existing infrastructure?” he asked Bennet, reminding him that he would be one of the Colorado ranchers going to Washington D.C. to testify for the Farm Bill.

Post-fire BLM Grazing Challenges

Canterbury outlined the grazing challenges ranchers have faced since the fire, whose permits were within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Decker Fire burn area. Just in the past year, a new technology known as “virtual fencing” is being introduced as a solution.

The Decker Fire seen from Sand Ranch. Photo by Sandy Hobbs.

“When the BLM says you have to stay off the burn area for at least two years to allow it to recover, that’s half my grazing allotment,” he explained. “There is no infrastructure to manage those cattle to keep them out of the burn area. That’s where the virtual fencing comes in.”

Virtual fencing is a new technology for the grazing world. It uses a network of radio towers and programmable animal collars to set virtual fence boundaries. The Conservancy received a Chaffee Common Ground grant in Spring, 2022 to purchase the first set of towers for the region.

Canterbury explained that there is now a virtual fence communications tower on Methodist Mountain, but that while it helps regrow vegetation — the cattle are still hungry. “We set it up so the vegetation on the fire burn scar could regrow, but we need the livestock forage program while we wait.”

He suggested a common sense solution when fire impacts grazing lands: “We need to get them off the fire burn area anyway, so let’s get creative. We always move the feed to the cows – let’s think about moving the cows to the feed – we’re putting wheels under it either way.”

The Integrated System that is Ranching

Canterbury said he appreciated the legislative effort being put forth on the Farm Bill. “A lot of ag folks realize the benefits that you are trying to help. But when that $100,000 repair sledgehammer hits you in the face you scramble to figure it out. If it’s not brand new, they all stand there and say ‘well we can’t help you.’ But  I’ve got $500,000 of pipeline investment– I’ve got to use what I’ve got.”

Chaffee Commissioner Greg Felt talked about surveys taken before the county shaped the groundbreaking CommonGround ballot question. “We couldn’t wait for our federal partners – wildfire protection, outdoor recreation, and supporting our agriculture and working lands. We had to address the challenges.”

Canterbury, like so many area ranchers has had his share of run-ins with recreators (camper, hiker, hunters, and off-roaders who scare cattle with ATVs, and who leave gates open. He adjusts, taking steps such as changing grazing patterns for his cattle, based on recreational land uses.

Bennet confirmed that he often gets complaints about the permits for ranchers to graze cattle on public lands. But those who complain might not realize the integrated system that maintains those irrigated hay meadows that are so prized as long viewsheds and scenic byways.

“To maintain those irrigated hay meadows, those cows have to go up on summer grazing lands,” said Canterbury. During the short mountain summer while the cattle are up grazing on BLM and forest land, a crop or two of hay can be baled off the meadows, for feeding the cattle the rest of the year. “I often say I’m in the grass business,” comments Canterbury. “We get paid for the [weight] gain.”

“In Chaffee County, one of our surveys showed that 97 percent of Chaffee County residents value our ag lands — those irrigated hay meadows,” said Felt. “But lots don’t understand that if you want those irrigated hay meadows, those cows have to go up on the grazing lands. You got to buy into the whole system — this is an integrated system.”

“We’re all in this thing together, the BLM, the forest service, the ranchers,” said Canterbury. He didn’t add — but could — so are the rest of us who value those working lands.

For more about the stories of real ranchers in Colorado follow this link to the Public Lands Council.