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A Modest Proposal

The High Lonesome Ranch in western Colorado is big enough to be a national park, but its owners, led by Paul Vahldiek Jr., don’t take their cues from the government. Instead, they’ve developed a unique approach to land management that could revolutionize the conservation movement for both private and public open spaces.

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The field looks dry and lifeless except for a few mule deer grazing at the edge, where tufts of yellow grasses tickle the cliffy toe of Cow Mountain. The dogs know better, though. Both of them—a pointer and a Labrador retriever—zip frantically through the clumps of straw, sniffing out the pheasant and chukar hiding there. Paul Vahldiek JR. walks behind them with a shotgun slung casually over his shoulder, African-style.

Vahldiek knows about Africa, having hunted many of that continent’s notable species, including the antelope, which is quick and elusive. Vahldiek’s shot proved sure. Now, at 62, adrenaline-flooded pursuits no longer call to him; these days, he prefers subtler hobbies, like casting for Bahamian bonefish. His fishing buddies include newscaster Tom Brokaw, rock musician Huey Lewis, and Yvon Chouinard, who founded the Patagonia clothing company.

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On this unseasonably warm November day, I’m wing shooting with Vahldiek at the High Lonesome Ranch, his 260,000-acre property not far from De Beque, Colorado, which is 35 miles or so northeast of Grand Junction. (The land constitutes approximately 35,000 acres of deeded land and about 225,000 acres of permitted land.)Vahldiek doesn’t much care if he kills any birds when he’s hunting. “It’s more about the people you’re with, and the dogs, and the scenery,” he says, glancing at the surrounding mesas. The low, late autumn sun has turned the clay cliffs amber and brought the piñons and junipers into sharp focus, so every needle looks distinct. Herds of elk and deer roam these hillsides, and 10-pound trout swim in the North Dry Fork and its beaver ponds. “You have more bear and eagle here than in my entire country,” a European friend told Vahldiek. After the conversation, he purchased two oil paintings, which now hang in High Lonesome’s dining hall. One depicts a bear; the other, an eagle. To foreigners, and even to many Coloradans who are already accustomed to the Rockies’ wide-open spaces, Vahldiek’s property looks as if it’s a rare swath of virgin territory, one that offers a glimpse into what the West was like before it was sliced by highways and boxed into housing developments.

These are not exactly untouched lands—some portions have been homesteaded and grazed for more than 100 years—but they’re largely undeveloped. And they’re vast: Encompassing more than 400 square miles, the High Lonesome Ranch extends from the desert washes near Highline State Park to Douglas firs atop 9,000-foot Middle Mountain to the beaver ponds of the North Dry Fork valley where we’re hunting. Touring the entire property takes three days by jeep. If these private lands were deeded to the U.S. Department of the Interior as a national park, they would become America’s 27th largest unit—ranking right behind Rocky Mountain National Park in size.

The High Lonesome Ranch’s 260,000 acres are largely undeveloped and home to a variety of wildlife, pristine fishing holes, and beaver ponds. Photo by David Clifford

Like our national parks, the High Lonesome Ranch is open to the public. In summer, families occupy its guest cabins, ride horses, cast for trout, and eat extravagant meals. But unlike our prized parks, it’s also a working cattle ranch that sanctions hunting and energy development—uses that make High Lonesome look more like Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property than acreage under the purview of the National Park Service (NPS).

Vahldiek, however, doesn’t want his private property to be like BLM lands or national parks. He believes he can do better. Gazing across the valley, which is but one small parcel of Vahldiek’s land, I’m startled when a flutter of red and indigo feathers takes flight in front of me and rises into the sky like an untethered balloon. I snug my gun against my shoulder and cheek, shoot, and miss. Vahldiek’s pointer looks at me quizzically. In his world, the firing of a gun is always followed by a retrieve.

The bird then veers toward Vahldiek, who takes aim. It’s a 50-yard shot—barely within a shotgun’s range—but still, he drops the pheasant. Vahldiek doesn’t celebrate; he’s not surprised. He’s used to hitting everything in his sights.

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Paul Vahldiek’s house sits on a hill overlooking a sweeping valley surrounded by dusky, wrinkled mesas. This spot on the High Lonesome Ranch is not his only residence; his primary address is in Delray Beach, Florida. But he grew up in Houston, Texas, on plains that made him crave a hilltop perch. “You can buy the nicest house in Houston, but it won’t have any view,” he says, “because everything’s flat.”

The son of a butcher, Vahldiek lost his mother to lupus when he was 11 years old. Even so, he found himself surrounded by people who demonstrated various routes up life’s ladder. His uncle was a lawyer, a career that granted him the kind of freedom and self-determination Vahldiek craved. His neighbors included Neil Armstrong and other NASA astronauts who zoomed around in Corvettes when they weren’t striding across the moon. His seventh-grade basketball coach, among others, introduced him to hunting and fishing.

The owners of  High Lonesome encourage shooting and hunting. Photo by Mark Lance / Courtesy of High Lonesome Ranch

Vahldiek’s natural athleticism led him down paths that extended far beyond his dad’s butcher shop. In 1973, he considered taking a job at Florida’s now-defunct Cypress Gardens theme park as a water-skiing stunt performer, but instead he accepted a scholarship to Trinity University in San Antonio, where he majored in business and played basketball. He also made a pact with his college roommate: The first one to buy a ranch would invite the other to come hunting. (Vahldiek was first.) He parlayed a degree from another San Antonio school, St. Mary’s University School of Law, into a highly lucrative career in personal injury litigation. When people were hurt in oil spills, plane crashes, train wrecks, or auto accidents that resulted from vehicles’ design flaws, Vahldiek would sort out the culpability. In 1994, he started buying property near De Beque. Standing on a remote mesa top as he looked down at cruising eagles, he decided High Lonesome was a fitting name for his growing estate.

Initially, he wanted a place where he could hunt, fish, and drink red wine around a campfire with his buddies. But he soon discovered that unlike the whitetail deer and quail he’d hunted in Texas, Colorado elk don’t stay put. They migrate over great distances and, in this case, onto properties Vahldiek had no control over. His years as a hunter had awakened an interest in wildlife and habitat conservation. So with the goal of improving his hunting grounds, Vahldiek started repairing the eroded streams and overgrazed fields he’d purchased. Some of what he’d learned came from his participation in the venerable Boone and Crockett Club, whose meetings attract some of conservation’s brightest minds. (Vahldiek is one of around 100 regular members who, like the club’s co-founder Theodore Roosevelt, pledge to devote their means and influence to conservation.)

Equestrian activities are part of the experience. Photo by Isaias Michiu / Courtesy of High Lonesome Ranch

But improvements on his own property couldn’t undo the negative effects rampant drilling and grazing had on the wildlife he shared with neighboring lands. Dealing with private landowners was straightforward; he could pick up the phone and work out a solution. Public land managers, however, stymied him. Bureaucratic procedures seemed to drag on interminably and frustrated his efforts to limit gas wells in animal migration corridors and to coordinate prescribed burns that would rejuvenate his sagebrush. Further, public agencies didn’t seem to have the bandwidth to investigate widespread problems such as sudden aspen decline or the eroded waterways that carry piles of silt into the Colorado River.

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Both the NPS and the BLM struggle to protect the lands they manage. Throngs of visitors trample the parks’ iconic features, and neither agency has adequate funding to study the threats they face or the staff to implement solutions. So Vahldiek continued to buy adjacent private lands, and today, the High Lonesome Ranch is five times larger than Mesa Verde National Park. In many ways, he’s Colorado’s answer to Ted Turner, who owns about two million acres in states including Montana, New Mexico, and Nebraska (but has virtually no property in Colorado). Like Vahldiek, Turner combines hunting, recreation, wildlife rehabilitation (Turner’s bison now total 51,000), and even energy development on his land. His 1996 purchase of Vermejo Park Ranch, primarily in New Mexico, didn’t include its mineral rights, but Turner did negotiate a responsible-use agreement so when energy developers elected to drill wells on the property, they had to abide by Turner’s low-impact guidelines.

Vahldiek has developed a similar plan for sustainable energy extraction at High Lonesome, but he’s also pursuing something Turner has never attempted: a scientific research arm to study wildlife and its habitat. Indeed, Vahldiek’s dream is to turn High Lonesome into a vehicle for landscape science and an incubator for conservation best practices. Meanwhile, he’s welcoming recreational visitors and introducing them to his principles of living gently on the land.

Ranch structures, including a greenhouse. Photo by Russ Schnitzer / Courtesy of High Lonesome Ranch

In short, Vahldiek hopes the model he’s developing at the High Lonesome Ranch can influence how our public lands are managed. Although it’s still young, Vahldiek’s privately funded High Lonesome Institute promises to produce applied science that’s capable of guiding management decisions on multiple-use landscapes. Vahldiek plans to give these findings away, for free, to any private or public entity that stands to benefit from their application. He wants healthy ecosystems—whether the land is private or public. What remains to be seen is whether one man’s think tank can prove influential enough to change management policies outside his own property’s boundaries.

It’s a gloriously warm, sunny day in November, and I’m riding shotgun in a pickup with Vahldiek and his ranch manager, Scott Stewart. I’m here to see the High Lonesome Institute in action. There’s no building to tour: Although the ranch has obtained permits for a future assembly hall and other structures to house researchers and students, for now the institute remains more of an effort than a place. Some of the most respected names in environmental science—such as wolf ecology expert Cristina Eisenberg and Michael Soulé, who pioneered the field of conservation biology—have conducted research projects at the ranch. Shane Mahoney, the institute’s executive director, is a highly regarded conservationist who consults with the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But Mahoney lives in Newfoundland, Canada, not Colorado, so the task of introducing me to the ranch’s research arm falls to Vahldiek and Stewart.

Driving along a dirt road leading to the ranch’s interior, Vahldiek brakes to let a few cows cross in front of the car. “We don’t want to make them run or burn off any calories they don’t have to,” Stewart says with a grin. The heavier the steer, the more money the ranch earns at slaughter. High Lonesome’s cattle operation, numbering at least 1,200 head, helps to subsidize things like population surveys of the ranch’s songbirds—which cost the High Lonesome Institute a bundle but provide baseline information about the health of the ranch’s ecosystem.

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We park beside a fenced-in stand of aspen. “Stop me if I’m telling you something that you already know,” Vahldiek begins. Then he explains “trophic cascades,” how wolves and other top predators have a waterfall effect on the lower levels of the food chain. “I was trying to figure out what was wrong with my aspen forests when I heard a researcher at the Boone and Crockett Club explain that when wolves are part of the ecosystem, elk spend 80 percent of their time being vigilant and just 20 percent eating,” Vahldiek says. But the High Lonesome Ranch had no wolves, so its elk were free to graze in relative safety. All of Vahldiek’s aspens were elderly—60 years or older—with no younger trees in the mix. Could unchecked elk be mowing down the saplings that should be regenerating the forest?

To find out, Vahldiek brought on Hal Salwasser, an Oregon State University forestry professor, to have his students study Vahldiek’s aspens by taking core samples and evaluating the rate of regeneration. The project was one of many that grew into the High Lonesome Institute, with Salwasser as its first executive director, in 2012. Salwasser died a little more than a year later, but he’d already convinced Vahldiek to erect six exclosures around quarter-hectare (over half an acre) stands of aspen. “That exclosure has kept the elk out,” says Vahldiek, pointing at the fence that surrounds a cluster of aspens that range from tall to small. “Now, we’ve got young aspens growing alongside the older ones.” The diversity, Vahldiek explains, makes stands resistant to sudden aspen decline, which only affects forests of old trees. Without wolves to curb their eating habits, elk do appear to create imbalances in aspen forests that make the trees unable to regenerate.

Solving that mystery was the first step. To spread the word about that discovery and other work at the institute, Vahldiek helped create a kind of trophic cascade of his own: In 2011, he co-founded the Western Landowners Alliance (WLA). He wants to circulate his institute’s discoveries to all levels of land management, from individual property owners to the Washington lawmakers who craft policy for the BLM and the Department of the Interior. “What good is a High Lonesome Institute if no one’s listening?” he asks.

Some of the WLA’s members (such as Ted Turner and hedge fund manager Louis Bacon) manage vast holdings, while others own modest ranchettes. But together they represent upwards of 14 million acres of private land—roughly the size of West Virginia—from Canada to Mexico. And that, Vahldiek believes, can influence public debate. He pulls over so we can peer through the cattails at a beaver pond. The North Dry Fork had originally been a long strip of marshland that effectively filtered water throughout its slow progress to the Colorado River. But when homesteaders cut irrigation channels, they inadvertently turned the stream into a deep gully whose clay walls continually crumbled into the cutting current. High Lonesome brought in a host of beavers, which can “build dams without having to get permits,” Stewart jokes. Now, around 80 small dams—many of them beaver-built—have reversed the damage and created a thriving trout fishery where there used to be nothing but shallow, silt-choked frog water. “You wouldn’t have guessed this was here, would you?” Vahldiek asks. “Not in the arid West. But we’ve increased wetlands by hundreds of acres, just in this valley alone.”

High Lonesome has already shared its stream-restoration breakthroughs with WLA members, some of whom are starting to mimic its strategies on smaller scales. And, Vahldiek says, “we can take [what we’ve learned] to state and federal agencies to influence the dialogue about how to be better, react quicker.”

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Public land managers, he continues, don’t have the money or incentive to pursue true innovation, so when it comes to conservation, they’re hardly the tip of the spear. “It’s up to the private arena to step up and save the federal government in spite of itself,” says Vahldiek, who serves as a board member of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Bonefish & Tarpon trust (which operates in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean). He’s also contributed to the Wildlands Network and Trout Unlimited. “Hopefully, the WLA betters the whole West.”

Perhaps it could, but there are potential downsides to private land conservation—namely, what happens to the High Lonesome Ranch when Paul Vahldiek dies? National parks remain in public hands regardless of who occupies the White House. The future of private estates, however, can change with every human lifetime.

Every model of land conservation has its drawbacks, and one of the biggest weaknesses with the private landowner approach is generational change. “Owners can try to ensure continuity of their wishes,” Mahoney says, “but the heirs who would inherit the property may have different views.” In other words, Turner might devote his entire life to resurrecting the American bison, but if his kids want to cash out, they can—and reverse the fate of the world’s largest bison herd.

Thus, despite President Donald Trump’s recent threats to shrink or eliminate several national monuments, public lands still offer a stronger guarantee that protections will last longer than a generation. After casting about for ways to keep the High Lonesome Ranch intact beyond his lifetime, however, Vahldiek settled upon two strategies. One involves energy development. Vahldiek concluded, after studying the 825,000-acre King Ranch in Texas, that oil royalties had kept it unsplintered over several generations. Along with the ranch’s lucrative quarter horse business (and its brand licensing partnerships, which stamp the King Ranch logo on certain Ford trucks), oil money from deals the family struck kept heirs content, and they continued the family legacy of conservation, hunting, and horse breeding.

Consequently, Vahldiek developed an energy-extraction plan for High Lonesome and coordinated his aims with his neighbors’. The Roan Creek Landscape Initiative, which Vahldiek founded, brings the region’s public representatives and private landowners into one group that’s dedicated to charting the region’s energy future. In 2015, it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the BLM and other entities that sketched out a vision for 221,000 acres of natural gas development on BLM and private lands, including the High Lonesome Ranch.

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Diving energy prices snuffed companies’ interest in drilling before any pads were constructed on the ranch. But when fuel prices rise again, Vahldiek says he will drill using low-impact techniques. Wells will be situated in the valleys to avoid having invasive roads run onto the mesa tops, and the gas will be hauled away using underground pipelines rather than trucks. Pipelines are the safest, most sustainable export system—when built responsibly—according to his energy adviser, Steve Belinda. Energy revenue, in theory, will fund a ranch endowment that will finance the High Lonesome Institute for decades or even centuries to come.

The second strategy for ensuring his ranch’s continuity required a bit of legal ingenuity. That Vahldiek is an experienced lawyer didn’t hurt in this area, nor did the fact that he’s closely acquainted with top lawyers, across various specialties, who helped him devise a novel way for ensuring the perpetuity of his vision. Vahldiek chartered the property like a corporation so that it’s controlled not by any one individual but by an entire group of investors (who are split into two corporate entities). It’s not a conservation easement, which wouldn’t allow for energy development. But it’s similar in that heirs (such as Vahldiek’s eight-year-old son) won’t be able to overthrow the project.

That promise of longevity is what really excites conservation gurus. With this arrangement, Vahldiek claims, the High Lonesome Ranch pairs the best things about private landowner conservation (like adequate funding and agile decision-making) with the long-term security of public land management. “It really is quite reformative,” Mahoney says. “I don’t think there is anything like this, anywhere in the world.” The vastness and ecological diversity of High Lonesome’s landscapes make it an unprecedented laboratory for wildlife and climate science, and with the ranch’s research arm funded in perpetuity, at least hypothetically, scientists can devise monitoring and research projects that look at 20-, 50-, and even 100-year chunks of time. “For researchers, this is incredibly exciting because the monitoring and research experiments we design won’t be subject to political changes or shifts in ownership,” Mahoney says.

Public agencies’ willingness—and freedom—to adopt the results of such science or adjust their policies does often depend on political whims. Under the Trump administration, Congress rolled back the BLM’s Planning 2.0 rule, which the agency had developed to keep pace with the energy industry’s latest technologies and protocols. “That repeal could make implementing practices from the High Lonesome Ranch much more difficult,” says John Gale, conservation director for the advocacy group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, adding that it strikes him as an unfortunate roadblock. “There’s a lot of great lessons to be learned here,” Gale says. “If the Department of the Interior took a page from their playbook, development on public lands would look a lot better.”

It might also look a lot less democratic, especially if our parks adopted a similar funding scheme. The High Lonesome Ranch isn’t accessible to everyone. Rates start at $1,245 per person for a two-day, three-night stay. Wing shooting for a similar period of time costs $2,620 per person. Vahldiek claims that doesn’t make High Lonesome off-limits to the public. “We just have a different gate fee than the national parks, and even they charge admission,” he says. “You could say ours costs more because it comes with food and lodging.”

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The Sierra Club sees it differently. “Most Coloradans will never be able to afford that,” says Hillary Larson, spokesperson for the club’s Rocky Mountain chapter. She argues that private landowners can play an important role in the collective fight to conserve wild landscapes but that the most important battle must take place on the public lands to which everyone has access. “The private sector sometimes claims that they should take the lead, but we just don’t think so,” Larson says. “That shouldn’t be the main way that we’re conserving our open spaces.”

Technically, Coloradans didn’t lose any acreage to Vahldiek’s venture: He bought up only private properties. None of the adjacent BLM lands are islanded by the High Lonesome Ranch. And from a wildlife-protection standpoint, Mahoney argues, there are benefits to exclusivity. He points out that national parks in Canada and the United States suffer from high numbers of invasive species, thanks to an open-door policy that’s indiscriminate about who can enter and in what numbers. Backpackers transmit diseases via their shoes and gear, and lost pets sometimes alter park ecosystems in far-reaching ways (80 percent of Florida’s nonnative reptiles and amphibians are the result of pets that were released into the wild).

The problem, he maintains, is when privatization takes over such huge swaths of land that the public feels robbed of its rightful territory. On his Double RL Ranch, Ralph Lauren triggered that kind of general indignation when he erected a gate across Ouray County Road 9 near Ridgway and ranch staff tried to shoo away motorists on the public byway. So when I visited High Lonesome, I stayed alert for evidence of elitism.

There is no printed menu for my dinner at the High Lonesome Ranch, just a warm welcome from the waitresses—who also happen to be wranglers in the horse program. Dinner includes raw oysters, salade Lyonnaise, ranch-raised beef, and the best French onion soup I’ve ever eaten, on either side of the Atlantic. Yes, it costs a lot to dine, fish, or hunt here. Yet the High Lonesome model—and its high-dollar entrance fee—has obviously benefitted the ranch’s wild inhabitants. When Vahldiek first arrived at High Lonesome, it was rare to find bull elk in the 300-point class (a measurement devised by the Boone and Crockett Club to gauge antlers’ breadth and mass). Now, hunters in the area bring down at least 15 300-pointers every year.

When I ask about the ranch’s profitability and whether the guest component subsidizes its landscape restoration and scientific research, Vahldiek laughs and shakes his head. “My friends say what I’m doing is stupid, financially,” he says. His ownership partners are motivated by the ranch’s ideals, not the promise of any dollar return on their investments.

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That seems too good to be true, I think as I step outside beneath the coal black sky. From the moment I’d arrived, I’d been trying to uncover something objectionable about the High Lonesome Ranch, some discrepancy in its ideals that would expose the conservation talk as little more than a marketing ploy for a rich man’s luxury resort. Now, I feel that doubt dissolve as I stroll along the dirt lane to my guesthouse.

Lots of wealthy people donate to philanthropic causes. Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, have given away around $50 billion of their own money to programs that work to ease society’s problems, and each year, Warren Buffett typically contributes $2 billion or more to their foundation. Maybe the High Lonesome team is also motivated by altruism, but with wild lands and creatures being the beneficiaries.

A trio of mule deer look up and measure me. If the High Lonesome model doesn’t take root, it won’t be for lack of passion, funding, smarts, or scale. And so, apparently confident in their lot, the deer resume their grazing, then disappear like three gray ghosts into the woods.

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