Crosby Creek Ranch
This is the application for the Leopold Conservation Award we submitted to the Sand County Foundation on March 16, 2010.
I respectfully request that you consider Crosby Creek Ranch this year for the Leopold Conservation Award. Crosby Creek Ranch is located on the west side of North Park, Colorado just East of Buffalo Pass. The 8,500 ft elevation ranch borders the Routt National Forest on its west and is nestled in a valley with Rabbit Ears in view to the south and Mexican Ridge to the east. One mile north of our northern boundary is the historical Grizzly Creek Ranger Station on Jackson County Rd #24.
As I pondered what to write in this application, it came to me; what better way of introducing our ranch than to tell the story of our involvement and of those who owned the ranch before us. So below is our story.
In 1995, my wife Susan and I were traveling through North Park on our way to the Black Hills for a vacation. Having been looking for land in Colorado for a get-away cabin, we stopped in Walden to talk to a local Realtor. We picked up a photocopy listing of the land the Realtor was selling. On that sheet of paper was a small paragraph that said the following:
For Sale: Randleman Ranch
Acreage: Aprox 1,500 A
Improvements: 2 story log home, log bunk house, log shop, 2 equipment storage buildings
Irrigated meadow: Aprox 300A
Esthetics: Adjacent to Routt National Forest for 2 miles, Lakes and live stream, Beautiful mountain ranch at the end of county road, Abundant wildlife, Private and Quiet, Peaceful and Serene
Although we were not looking for that large of a piece of property, for some reason, it peaked my interest. I made an appointment to see the ranch the following week on our way back from the Black Hills.
That next week, we met Kent Holsinger at the ranch for a viewing. Kent drove us up a centrally located knoll on the ranch to get a view. When we got to the top and got out of the truck, we walked about 20 yards to the West. In front of us was one of the most amazing views I had ever seen in the 40 years I had been in Colorado. We could see the whole ranch right in front of us. To the south was an open meadow that went almost to the boundary. Just above in our view, seven miles to the south was the Rabbit Ears outcropping. To the North was a continuation of the meadow to the northern boundary, which we could see. In between, were the ranch buildings tucked just inside the forest. The Routt National Forest spread out before us in all its glory from Rabbit Ears to the Zirkel Wilderness.
Not a word was spoken, I was sold! We looked at several other parts of the ranch that day, but all it took for me was that first view. We went home knowing that we wanted to be part of that ranch and would do all in our power to make it happen.
The ranch we now call Crosby Creek Ranch, after one of the original homesteaders, started out as the Johnson Ranch. In 1921, Otto Johnson applied for and received a Homestead Deed from the Government for 160A containing what are now the historical buildings and the land to the south and west.
Otto, and his son Del, were not the first people to settle in the valley. In 1901 William Bennett laid claim to the Three Lakes Reservoirs which is now called the Hidden Lakes. In 1909 Bennett applied for his own Homestead Deed which he received containing the 320A North of what was to be the Johnson claim. Also with in the same year a 160A Homestead was taken out by a frontier lady named Elislia Crosby. Several other adventuresome folks bought property in the valley, too.
After his father died in the early 30’s Del Johnson slowly bought out his neighbors, eventually owning most of the valley including the 1440A which is now Crosby Creek Ranch.
Del was a Jack-of-all-Trades. He ran cattle in and around the ranch, put up hay for winter feeding, and ran a sawmill. Using the mill he cut wood from the property and the forest around the property and built the house that still exists, as well as several other houses and structures in the valley. He was a craftsman who did not compromise. Even today when people see the old homestead they are amazed by the beauty of the home and the perfection of the dovetail corners of the log structure.
Oley Kohlman, a past Cattlemen’s board member and a resident cowboy of the Johnson Ranch in the 30’s, once told me a story about how the family celebrated one day when they completed a whole course of logs. See the house in person, and you will understand how impressive that is.
Del married and raised a family and in the 50’s bought a place “down country” using the upper place as a summer grazing ground, and putting up 400 ton of hay.
Thus continued his life until his death in the early 1970’s.
The beginning of the end of the ranch as he knew it, started to occur. The family, rather than continue the legacy, sold the ranch. I do now know why they did this, but it has been intimated to me that it may have been a combination of the large amount of money the place was worth, and the onerous inheritance tax laws back then. As we all know, those taxes punished families who wanted to “keep the ranch in the family”. For whatever reason, the property as a contiguous ranch, was about to end. In the next 20 years many owners took part in the splitting up of the ranch, even to the point that in the mid 1980’s 20A parcels were being sectioned off. The largest parcel went through foreclosure and there were large pieces split off, never to be part of the ranch again. The hay fields and the irrigation system were destroyed in favor of over grazing and the fencing was left in disrepair.
In a word, it was a mess.
Then in 1989, Everett Randleman bought the largest part of the original ranch out of foreclosure. He then went to the owners of the original 160A Homestead and purchased that part. The hardest part came when he tried to buy out the owners of the 20A parcels I spoke of above. Everett had to pay three times the amount per acre that the other parcels brought, but he knew it was worth it. By 1991 he had reconfigured the majority of the original ranch Del Johnson had put together in the 1930’s.
I did not meet Everett for some time after we expressed interest in the ranch. Two or three visits later we finally met. He looked me over, shook my hand and proceeded to tell me that he had refused to sell the place to the last two buyers because he did not like them and did not think they were “right” for the ranch.
What was I to think? I was not a rancher. The closest we came to having anything to do with ranching was the fact that my wife’s father, Del Scott, came from a farming background in Missouri. And her uncle was part of a family that had ranched in Routt County since 1905.
For whatever reason, Everett thought that we were “okay” people and we made a deal to purchase the ranch in the fall of 1995; closing to be the summer of 1996.
In those intervening 9 months, I learned a real lesson in life. We would come over to the ranch to see what we were buying only to see Everett working on projects. These were not not just little hobby projects, but large “cost money” projects. I was amazed! Why would this guy spend his own money and time improving the property knowing that he had it sold? I was worried. Was he really going to sell the ranch to us? For sure, there were many “outs” for him built into the contract. To be honest, I was not sure we were going to own the ranch until the moment we walked out of the closing on July 7th 1996!
It took several years for me to really understand the relationship Everett had with the “Johnson Ranch”. But, after being there, working and playing there, something overcomes you, it entraps you. It takes awhile, but eventually you are overcome by the history, the beauty, the love of the land, and the importance of preservation.
How do you preserve a place like Crosby Creek Ranch? We have three families that own the ranch. Will the offspring want to preserve the ranch and all of its history? Will their kids do the same? It would be very unlikely that the future generations would all be on the same page. There would certainly be some that would want to get out and want their “rightful” compensation. This is the type of situation that destroys ranches. We may not have a family heritage with Crosby Creek Ranch like so many other family owned ranches, but I feel that, I do. I have come to love this ranch, like Everett did, like Del Johnson did, and I do not want it split up for the convenience of those who, in the future, do not have that love for the ranch, its beauty, and its historical heritage.
Four years ago I heard there was a program whereby we could preserve the ranch by placing it in to a conservation easement. I was intrigued. A friend of mine in Steamboat, Jay Fetcher was part of the Cattlemen’s Land Trust. As you all know, Jay has been an advocate of the conservation movement in this state for years, and I know of his unselfish desire to promote conservation within the state of Colorado.
The rest of the story is nothing but good news. With the Cattlemen’s help, we started a the process of putting Crosby Creek Ranch into a conservation easement with the Colorado Cattlemen's Association Land Trust. This would provide us a way of preserving the ranch’s agricultural heritage as a cattle and hay production ranch.
Along with this action we have put together an operating agreement that will preserve the historical ranch in perpetuity. If the family wants to sell the ranch in the future, the only way it will be sold will be as the historical ranch.
The future of Crosby Creek (The Johnson) Ranch is secure just like Del Johnson, Everett Randleman and now, Scott Hoffner, want it to be. And, yes, I used the present tense “want”. Because, I am sure, both Del and Everett are looking down with approval.
In the summer of 1997, Susan and I moved to the ranch permanently. Not full time, mind you, but for the summers. Just like Del Johnson in 1950 when he moved down country, we find that fighting an average snow depth of 7 ft in the winter, a bit too much.
Continuing Everett Randleman’s lead, the whole family has worked to bring the ranch back to its glory days. We have replaced, or built new, over 3 miles of fence. We have reconstituted the irrigation systems, and have built several ponds and a small lake for stock, wildlife, and recreation. We, also, manage the forest areas so that the cattle are absent when the elk and moose migrate in the spring and fall.
A yearly “Ranch Week” brings upwards of 20 extended family members to do projects to repair, replace, or build new improvements on the property. The added help for that week helps Susan and me do more than just maintain the ranch. It also gives those family members, not as involved with the day-to-day operations, a chance to experience the rewards that come from performing the hard physical work ranch life requires, and strengthens their love of the land.
The recent destruction of the lodge-pole pine has been particularly hard on our forest. Although most of the forest on the property is aspen, we lost the majority of our pines, a number in the several hundreds. At first we were devastated. Then a friend suggested we put all that beetle-kill wood to good use by milling it.
So in 2007, I sold a tractor and purchased a sawmill. Now, rather than cutting all that wood into firewood, we are making lumber. In the fall of 2007, I started to build a cabin with the wood from the property and I continue on it today. As I build, I think of Del Johnson and what he did in 1930.
In our quest to be good stewards of the land, we strive to efficiently use the natural resources on the ranch. My son, who is an Electrical Engineer and designs substations, wants us to use the water on the ranch to develop a hydroelectric plant to generate electricity for our use and others in the valley. In addition, we are looking into using wind to do the same. Those familiar with North Park know there is certainly enough wind to do that. We have a neighbor down valley that has a newly constructed wind generator. I will be talking to him this summer about his experience.
The future of Crosby Creek Ranch is, and will be, in good hands. Today ranchers are losing their fight with development and many ranching families have given up on the lifestyle of their forefathers. Families leave ranching in many cases because the children do not desire the ranch lifestyle they grew up with, and many families succumb to the temptation that the large amounts of money offered for their ranch can bring.
We have, in a way, reversed that trend at Crosby Creek Ranch. From a ranch that almost lost its heritage to one that has gained a new one, Crosby Creek Ranch has a new family and a new future.
I conclude with a sincere thank you to the Sand County Foundation for their efforts in helping in the preservation of historical ranches in this country.
I have put together a website about the ranch where interested parties can see pictures, and learn more about the ranch and its history. The URL is:
N Scott Hoffner
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Crosby Creek Ranch