Range Rovers

Luxury ranch developments are cropping up across Colorado. Are they preserving our open spaces and cowboy culture—or destroying them?

July 2009

Summer sunshine blazes out of a cloudless Colorado sky, beating down on Chad Bedell's black cowboy hat. His forked wrinkles converge into a squint, which he aims at the herd of glossy cattle milling about him. He's looking for the calf he'd seen limping yesterday, and as he steers his mottled paint horse through the pasture, he glances at the numbered tags dangling from the cattle's ears.

Aside from his well-worn work boots and forthright gaze, Chad Bedell has lifelong cowboy credentials: He worked cattle and sheep on his family's land in the Elk River Valley before going onto the professional rodeo circuit and winning the 1996 World Championship in steer wrestling. Now, at 43, he's too old for the rodeo tour and, unfortunately, he has no land to ranch of his own; his family sold its failing 90-year-old homestead 13 years ago. Today, Bedell works as the ranch manager at a Steamboat Springs farm named Marabou.

Once Bedell's located his calf, he rides his horse over a ridge and drops into the valley. The Elk River shines like a silver ribbon curling through the grassland, and beside its glimmer a tiny tractor cuts tidy rows of grass to make hay. "That'd be me in that tractor, except one of the owners asked if he could do it instead," explains Bedell.

Driving the tractor is John Dorton, the CEO of MasterCraft Boat Co. Dorton has bought one of the 62 plots of land at Marabou, which is no regular working ranch: It's a 1,717-acre luxury development where cash-drenched gentry line up to get dusty doing chores alongside Bedell and his ranch hands. Owners pay millions for a piece of property and the right to play cowboy by moving cattle, driving tractors, and planting crops.

Later, after his hay is baled and the horses are stabled, Dorton confides that cutting hay helps him escape the stress of keeping his shareholders happy. Though he resides in Knoxville, Tennessee, he's spent four weeks at Marabou during his first year of ownership. As a kid, Dorton worked on his grandparents' Virginia farm, and before buying land at Marabou, he'd toyed with the idea of owning his own ranch out West. "I just love land, and I feel a deeper connection to it when I get my hands dirty," Dorton says. "But I don't have the time to devote myself fully to an agricultural operation." Marabou lets him indulge his ranch cravings without committing himself whole-hog. "In a way," he says, "it's sort of like fantasy ranching."

Shared ranch communities, as they're known, offer a place for people to buy property and participate in agricultural operations as their interest dictates. States such as Idaho and Montana claim a handful of these ranches, but there's a high concentration of them in Colorado. Generally, they're high-dollar affairs: Marabou "homesteads" cost as much as $6 million, and elsewhere, at 2,953-acre Maytag Mountain Ranch, southwest of Pueblo, and 2,000-acre Sandstone American Ranch, near Larkspur, the bidding starts around $800,000. That's land only—owners need to build their own homes. Marabou's first residence, now under construction, will be 4,800 square feet of Western luxury.

The outlay at Marabou gets buyers gorgeous views, luxurious amenities—such as stables, gyms, community centers, spa facilities, and groomed fisheries—and, most of all, a rural lifestyle. Maytag and Sandstone both include a community garden and a chicken coop where owners can collect their own farm-fresh food. Sandstone participates in the local 4-H program so owners' kids can have the experience of caring for their own steers and showing them at the county fairgrounds. And at Maytag and Marabou, each homestead owner receives a share of the ranch's grass-fed beef.

Homestead sales started brisk, but slowed in 2008 due to the recession; since '06, Marabou has sold 39 of it 62 sites. Overall, the number of shared ranch developments is on the rise, a trend that Jeff Davis, a managing partner with M3 Companies, Sandstone's developer, expects to continue as others get into the game. "It appeals to people who always dreamed of having a ranch," says Davis. "You're living the ranch experience, enjoying your cattle, your horses, but without physically doing the work. We do all the heavy lifting."

Some owners just like the pastoral views and find that their version of a "home in the country" affords a peace and relaxation that's all too elusive at their primary residences in Denver, Chicago, or Atlanta. But for many, shared ranches represent a chance to return to a rural lifestyle they sampled as kids: Some helped their neighbors put up hay years ago; others spent their summers mending fences on their grandparents' farms. They want to reconnect with those memories, with the wholesome, character-building experiences they found on farms somewhere in their past—and to have their kids know them, too.

Colorado's ranches are deeply nostalgic places, but as agricultural land shrinks across the state, the wealthy may be the only ones able to afford to "ranch." A 2006 study by Environment Colorado reported that the state lost 1.26 million acres of agricultural land since 1997, and Colorado continues to lose the equivalent of about five family farms per week. A complex web of factors, including rising land values and estate taxes, squeeze family farms.