History of the Baca Ranch/ Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Part II: 1900 to present

Filed under: Living on the Earth |

by Gussie Fauntleroy

It was a blustery early spring day in the late 1940s, and the cavernous wooden auction barn at the Baca Ranch was humming with excitement. Automobiles rolled in and cattle buyers from fifteen states and Canada took seats in the bleachers, ready to bid on some of the most highly prized Hereford bulls in North America. The auctioneer rattled off prices, dust rose from hooves, and buyers signaled bids. When the auction was finished, the cattlemen’s bids totaled almost $1 million. Among the animals sold that day at record price was Baca Duke the Fifth, a five-month-old descendant of Domino, the original Hereford bull brought to the Baca Grant years earlier by legendary ranch manager Alfred Collins.

From gold to grazing

The Baca Ranch—much of which is now the Baca National Wildlife Refuge—was spread across almost 100,000 acres south and west of Crestone, the result of a Spanish land grant that came into private hands in the mid-1860s. (See Baca Ranch History, Part I in the August 2013 Eagle.) Early owners and settlers sought riches, though few found them, in gold mines in the mountain foothills. By the early 1900s the mines were playing out and mining settlements, including Liberty and Cottonwood, were being abandoned.

The San Luis Valley Land and Mining Company purchased the Grant in 1900, its new owners focused on mining and ranching. They turned their attention increasingly to the latter and in the early 1920s changed the company’s name to the San Luis Valley Land and Cattle Company. In 1930, Alfred Collins, a Philadelphia-based big game hunter, polo player and major stockholder in the company, took over management of ranching operations with the aim of bringing the company out of a reported $1 million in debt. While Collins had no experience with cattle, he was an astute businessman, manager and promoter. He knew to hire men who knew cattle, and he soon earned the respect of these men.

A fine spread

With water flowing west from the Sangre de Cristos and east from La Garita and Saguache Creeks, several hundred miles of irrigation ditches, and artesian wells at the corner of each pasture, the ranch was blessed with expansive natural tall-grass meadows. This bounty allowed for winter grazing on the valley floor and summer grazing closer to the foothills. Hay from the meadows was cut, raked and stacked for winter feed, with twelve-foot stacks placed in stack-yards throughout the ranch. For decades, haying on the Grant provided reliable seasonal work for many young men. By 1940 the Baca Ranch had gained a wide reputation as a well-run operation, with registered bulls from its Hereford herd in high demand. In 1949 Collins was named Cattleman of the Year. He retired in 1950 and died the following year, at which point the Grant was sold to Newhall Land and Farming Company. In 1962 the Arizona-Colorado Land & Cattle Company acquired the ranch.

Lifelong valley resident Bob Bunker began working as a cowboy on the Baca Ranch in 1970. In 21 years of living and working on the ranch, he witnessed two decisive changes: the development of the Baca Grande subdivision, which eliminated summer grazing grounds for 800 cows, and increasingly arid conditions in the valley. “In its time, this was probably the easiest operating ranch there ever was,” he remembers. Rather than drive or transport cattle long distances between seasonal grazing grounds, the Baca’s cowboys had only to open the gates between summer and winter pastures. Bob worked on the ranch and lived there with his family until 1991.

Another plan for the land

In 1971, Arizona-Colorado Land & Cattle (later renamed AZL Resources) created the Baca Grande Corporation, which removed 14,000 acres from the ranch operation at its eastern edge to develop a subdivision aimed primarily at retirees. The land was plotted into 10,000 lots with roads and underground utilities and marketed nationally and overseas. Amenities including an airstrip, nine-hole golf course, the White Eagle Inn and a lake (just west of the inn, now dry) were built. Prospective buyers were flown in, but the development never got off the ground. Instead, individuals gradually acquired lots and over time the subdivision took on its own, more iconoclastic, life. Then in 1978 Canadian businessman Maurice Strong, who owned a controlling interest in AZL, and his wife, Hanne Marstrand Strong, moved to the Baca Ranch headquarters. Soon afterward Hanne was visited by a man locally known as a visionary. Following internal guidance prompted by this visit, she established the Manitou Foundation, which began granting parcels of land to spiritual organizations from a variety of wisdom traditions. Today there are more than two dozen spiritual centers on former Baca Ranch land.

The Baca National Wildlife Refuge

In 2000 as part of a bill authorizing establishment of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Congress created the Baca
National Wildlife Refuge (BNWR), to be administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Fish and Wildlife had been interested in the grant’s rich wildlife habitat since the 1930s, notes BNWR manager Ron Garcia. The refuge was formally established in 2003 and today is among the largest in the lower 48 states. To ensure that its meadowlands, bird nesting areas and other wildlife habitat remain healthy, sections of the refuge are selectively grazed by cattle and sheep—with prescribed burns as another tool—for keeping down growth of invasive species. Plans for restoration of historic ranch headquarters buildings are in place and awaiting funding, with work to begin in 2014. Meanwhile, citizens are invited to join Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges (slvrefuges.org). And while the Baca Refuge currently is closed to the public, Garcia leads periodic educational tours of the magnificent expanse of land that contains so much of this area’s history, ecological richness and human hope. Contact Garcia at 719-256-5527.

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