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From a high point on the Laramie Range, Wyoming's Wagonhound Ranch appears as a single, unbroken landscape. It is a patchwork of hayfields and pasture, rolling high plains and alpine peaks. Seen from here, faraway fence lines are blurred and Wagonhound Creek, which drains this valley, pushes silently through a granite canyon before spilling onto the lowlands.
The ranch is not just a scenic place, though. Located 22 miles southwest of Douglas, Wyo., it is a productive enterprise, with 13,500 contiguous acres, 250 head of mother cows and 100 yearlings through summer. It boasts tall timber country in the mountains, suitable for logging, and good water for irrigation.
But the land's productivity was not enough to keep the Pollock family secure in their future, so three years ago they decided to sell their ranch and move on. It was an agonizing decision, because the land had provided them with so much for so many generations. Ed's great-grandfather, George Nathan Pollock, first trailed cattle into this country from Texas in the 1870s. He settled here in 1885 and began piecing together much of the operation that exists today.
"This ranch has been good to us," Ed reflects, as he scans the sky for rain. It's obvious how much he loves this place, how tough it must be to part with it. He knows its valleys and canyons and red-rock outcroppings in intimate detail. At 38, he is quiet and soft-spoken, but not withdrawn, confident and self-assured. His wife, Jennifer, 36, enjoys the company of people, and talking about the issues confronting their livelihood. Together, they are an attractive couple and an effective partnership, good stewards of the land and livestock. These things reflect in the quality of their cattle, and in the health of the rangeland under their care. They are also good parents, with two children in college.
Ed explains that the decision to sell was based on economics, that the price of cattle had been too low for too long, and that debt had made it unfeasible to continue. "We also wanted to settle the estate issues facing the family," he says. "We needed a way to pay for my mom's retirement. And we needed to compensate my sister, who wanted to expand her Colorado ranching operation."
The Pollocks listed the property two years ago, but had no takers. During that time, in the back of his mind, Ed worried the land would sell to someone who would develop the property improperly, building houses pell-mell where the Pollocks had once grazed their cows or swathed hay.
The eventual buyer, Sand Creek, The Ranch Preservation Company of Buffalo, Wyo., had other ideas, however, and the Pollocks received a full-price offer for their property and were presented with an unlikely idea to protect many of the ranch's productive and environmental attributes. Best of all, the new landowner wanted the Pollocks to continue on as managers, negotiating a five-year, renewable contract that keeps them on the ranch and enables them to continue operating their 250-head cow-calf operation--even though they will share the property with 18 new home owners.
While the thought of selling out and hiring back on as employees may make some independent-minded cattlemen queasy--and mere mention of developing a more than century old ranching operation may make some preservationists angry--the Pollocks see things differently. The arrangement provides them with the financial security that they've never had before. And the land they once owned, at least for the meantime, will remain as productive as it ever was, with all its scenic and wildlife values intact.
"Giving up ownership is a big deal, but having no debt is a big deal, too," says Ed. "But when you're in debt, you don't really own the property anyway. The bank does. We've been able to take care of all our estate planning, get all the money divided among the various members of the family--and continue to ranch at the same time."
Trouble is, many in central Wyoming are unsettled by what they're seeing on the Wagonhound, and some of the Pollocks' neighbors remain skeptical about impacts the sale of the property will have on them. They list road congestion, higher land values which could complicate estate tax issues, clashes between the new and old, and opposing values. They also can't see how so many newcomers will be able to get along--especially when the new owners are wealthy people accustomed "to buying their way out of problems."
Garrett Falkenberg, who ranches nearby, predicted the worst in an article that appeared in the Casper Star last May. The "war will be on" at the Wagonhound, he said, when "an animal-loving tree-hugger from one end of the ranch spots a hunter from the other end about to blow a deer away from the end of his deck."
Like that deer, many of the West's best ranches are being picked off one by one. And there is intense debate over how to save them or develop them properly. The problem is intensified right now because ranching has fallen on tough times, and yet the rest of the economy is booming. Even the National Cattlemen's Beef Association projected three years ago that about 10 percent of the nation's cattle producers--about 100,000 individual operations of all sizes--would go broke by the year 2000. The result is instability for rural communities, and uncertainty for the land.
But how best to protect the land, satisfy a growing market for ranches, and stabilize markets for ranchers? Philip Burgess, president of The Center for the New West, says growth in the West is inevitable, that little can be done to stop or even halt it, that local people have to find creative solutions to their own distinctive problems.
"We have a Constitution that guarantees free movement of people and goods across state lines," Burgess says. "Much of the talk about limiting growth is misleading unless people are prepared to amend the Constitution. The attractive places for people to live are America's wild areas. That movement can't be stopped, and it's demagoguery for politicians and others to give the impression that it can be stopped."
The solution may lie in addressing the root of the problem, says rancher Tony Malmberg, who operates near Lander, Wyo. That means looking at why people are leaving cities and moving into the country in the first place--not just focusing on ag land protection through so-called "open space preservation."
"Preservationists who seek to protect land from development may actually be encouraging it," Malmberg says. "By preserving large chunks of open space they force more development into smaller space. Yet their denial of this fact causes more problems. Preservationists should be more involved in the planning of development--rather than the exclusion of development--in cities that people are fleeing, so people don't feel the need to escape into the country."
The ultimate irony, Malmberg adds, is that some land will need to be sold and developed to satisfy this demand in order to save what ranchland remains. So why not develop the Wagonhound, and do so the right way, ensuring future economic viability and environmental sustainability?
That's exactly what the Pollocks were thinking when they sold their ranch to Sand Creek. Although Sand Creek will eventually sell the ranch to a select group of 18 new landowners, company representatives say they'll preserve the property in a "tasteful, ecologically sound and sustainable manner."
Sand Creek is the brainchild of nine people--mostly ranchers, ag bankers and sportsmen--who decided two years ago that something had to be done to protect ranches, plus allow for some well-planned development of these properties. The Wagon- hound, one of 140 properties they evaluated for purchase, is the first project they have taken on."Our job is to think through 20 years of mistakes and try to avoid the problems that so many developed properties have faced," explains CEO John Jenkins.
To market the ranch, the company turned to Sotheby's International Realty (SIR), a worldwide network of approximately 176 brokers and affiliates who handle "recreational ranches" and other "luxury properties." The Wagonhound itself offers all of the characteristics that high-dollar ranch buyers are looking for: big country, isolation, wildlife, scenery, recreational opportunities and ranching tradition.
To determine how best to develop the property, Sand Creek tapped the expertise of Wirth Design Associates, a nationally recognized land planning and design firm. For nine months, Wirth carefully looked at every aspect of the ranch. They used digital aerial photography, satellite imagery and digital elevation models to evaluate the ranch's geology, archaeology, hydrology, wildlife and habitat, which helped identify locations best suited for homes.
Based on this information, the team located 18 select homesites. Each homesite, along with 40 acres, is listed for about $875,000. The remaining 13,500 acres of pasture, haymeadow and mountain will be owned collectively by the 18 landowners through a ranchstead association. Construction of houses is not included in the asking price.
Most important to the Pollocks is that the master plan calls for the continued use of the land for cattle production. The contract they signed keeps them on as managers, and allows them to continue to run their 250-head cow herd year-round and 125 yearlings in the summer. Both Ed and Jennifer also receive regular monthly salaries, plus whatever they make off the cattle. They also receive an annual payment to the association for the grassland lease.
All of these things are positive for the future of the ranch, says Ed. Hopefully, if this works out well--and it is something of a grand experiment, he says--other ranchers considering selling their land for development can use what they've learned on the Wagonhound as a blueprint for success.
"Our commitment to this place, to our family and to our way of life runs deep," he says. "We believe we've struck a balance, a win-win situation for everybody. We're really looking forward to sharing this great place with the owners who follow us, who I believe will learn to love and appreciate it as we have. We believe we've done what's right for the ranch, and feel good about our prospects for the future."
Eric Grant lives and works in Colorado. He can be reached at or
c/o RANGE, P.O. Box 639, Carson City, NV 89702 or through e-mail: