Bill Koch's Wild West Adventure

The controversial businessman is building an Old West town near Paonia that’s a full-scale reproduction of a 19th-century settlement. But is the town simply the project of an eccentric billionaire, or is there more to the story? 

February 2013

On a warm day this past September, Bill Koch rode on horseback through Bear Ranch, his 4,500-acre property located just outside of Paonia. Koch’s six-foot-four-inch frame—clad in a collared shirt, chaps, boots, and spurs—sat comfortably atop his palomino mount as we toured his estate, which lies just below the Ragged Mountains, a fluted wall of granite that rises from the high mesas of western Colorado. A flat-brimmed cowboy hat hid his blue eyes and thick, tousled white hair. ✫ At 72 years old, Koch is the founder, CEO, and president of Oxbow Carbon LLC, a global energy company, and one of the wealthiest men in the world, with a reported personal net worth of about $4 billion. He’s also the brother of Charles and David Koch, the high-profile businessmen and bankrollers of conservative causes. Although his primary residence is in Palm Beach, Florida, where Oxbow is headquartered, one of Koch’s many passions is Western history. “What I really like about the West,” he says, “is the stand-your-ground mentality and the idea that you have to take care of yourself, take care of your family, and take care of the people that surround you. You all take care of each other.”

Koch was at the ranch that weekend to work out some details related to the Old West town he’s building on his land. The town, which has yet to be named, is an authentic reproduction of a full-scale 19th-century settlement; it’s largely comprised of structures from a former MGM tourist attraction called Buckskin Joe, which Koch bought in 2010 and transported piece by piece to his ranch from its location outside of Cañon City. Koch intends for the town to be a private getaway for his family and friends. “I want to have a place for my family and extended family to keep us all together,” he says. “It all gets back to trying to create a place where I can enjoy life and enjoy my family and friends without having to worry about my enemies. And I’m doing it because I can.”

We’d spent the previous day strolling through the 70-odd buildings of the town, which is set in a pasture surrounded by Marcellina Mountain, the Anthracite Range, and the West Elk Mountains. Located 25 minutes from downtown Paonia by car, or 15 minutes by helicopter from Koch’s Aspen abode, the 10-acre town features five saloons and a jail, firehouse, church, bank, theater, and library. There’s a 20-person team dedicated to overseeing, authenticating, and building the town and Koch’s collection of Western memorabilia, which includes more than one million items—including Frederic Remington’s painting The Trooper, General George A. Custer’s Springfield rifle, the only photograph of Billy the Kid (valued at $2.3 million), and an early Colorado hearse (a white horse-drawn carriage). Koch’s collection spans the 19th and early 20th centuries, and parts of it will be displayed at the Smithsonian next year. “It will be an extravaganza about the West,” Betsy Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, says of the exhibition. “It’s one of the best Western collections in the world. It has sculptures and paintings, but also artifacts, historic photos, and material objects drawn from daily life in the West. Spurs, clothing, wagons, cavalry uniforms, arrows, quivers, flags—you name it. A robust picture emerges of what life was like in the West.”

As we wandered through the town, the lead historian on the project said, “It’s as if you are literally going back in time. Everything from the ceilings to the accoutrements are period-specific.” The streets’ widths are historically accurate—wide enough so that a four-to-six-horse cart can turn around—and are bordered by sidewalks at the perfect height for a rancher to load his cart. We headed into the Cattlemen’s Club, a bar theoretically for men only (there’s a separate Spa-loon for the ladies, one of the only deviations from historical accuracy of the project, which Koch says he had to include in order to entice his wife to the remote property). The club, which would have been a watering hole for affluent types in the late 1800s, has a mahogany bar with two female figures sculpted out of the wood that overlook the room.

“You want to see the brothel?” Koch asked.

We climbed the stairs to the second story and toured the rooms wallpapered in Technicolor shades of teal, maroon, and pink. Ornate red and blue glass lamps cast kaleidoscopic shadows on the wall. The brothel is more a work of art than a den of sin and one day will serve, innocuously, as guest quarters. Eventually, authentic ephemera—beaded garters with holsters for mini pistols, matchbook advertisements for call girls, and pictures of 19th-century prostitutes—will adorn the rooms.

“Will there be real girls here?” I asked.

“Ghosts,” Koch said with a boyish chuckle. To hear him tell it, the brothel is haunted by the phantoms of unsatisfied customers.

The next day, as we headed toward higher elevation on our horses, Koch’s ranch unfurled below us, with views of the town and thousands of acres of grazing land for his 1,100 head of cattle. Riding with him, and seeing him against this Western backdrop, it was easy to forget his colorful romantic history (he’s been married three times and had a public falling-out with a mistress in 1995); his reputation for being litigious (he’s been involved in 26 personal lawsuits); and his accomplishments as a sailor (he won the America’s Cup in 1992). His downhome, aw-shucks demeanor seemed at odds with the businessman who has been demonized as a wicked energy baron. He’s been labeled “a greedy bastard” by a blog called the Vile Plutocrat, and New York Magazine’s website has a recent posting that describes him as “evil.” This past October, Koch made national headlines when a former Oxbow executive accused Koch of kidnapping him and imprisoning him at the ranch. But here at the base of the Raggeds, among the golden aspen trees and rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains, Bill Koch looked like any other cowboy out for a ride on an autumn day.

Of course, Bill Koch is not any other cowboy, and his land is not any other estate: Bear Ranch is at the center of a bitter dispute that has divided Paonia’s eclectic community of ranchers, miners, New Agers, and farmers for two years. Koch wants to trade the federal government 911 acres of land he owns in Gunnison County, along with 80 acres in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, for 1,846 acres of less valuable public land in and around Paonia. Proposed in 2010 by then Congressman John Salazar, a Democrat who lost his bid for re-election that same year, the Central Rockies Land Exchange, as the swap is called, aims to connect the two disparate sides of Bear Ranch into one contiguous piece of property via a Bureau of Land Management parcel.

The federal government and private entities—ski resorts, developments, individuals—execute land exchanges all the time (typically more than 300 a year) to consolidate properties, and some observers have been surprised at the uproar Koch’s swap ignited. Although this swath of BLM open space is dotted with aspens and offers views of three 12,000-foot peaks, BLM land traditionally is at the bottom of the public-land food chain. As one of the least protected categories of federal land, the government often leases BLM parcels to mining, drilling, timber, and grazing operations for profit. The Central Rockies Land Exchange, which has been approved by the Delta County and Gunnison County commissioners, must now go before the 113th Congress.

Paonia resident Ed Marston, the former publisher of High Country News, is one of the swap’s most vocal opponents. Marston claims the deal reeks of political cronyism: Since 2006, Koch and various Oxbow entities donated more than $40,000 to Salazar, and Koch hosted Salazar on his ranch for several elk-hunting outings. But, more important, Marston believes the deal will rob Paonia of access to the Raggeds. “The land Koch is seeking provides the best existing access to 40 square miles of Forest Service and Wilderness land,” he told me.

In September, Marston led a group of locals up the contested BLM strip. Dawn Ullrey, an avid horseback rider who has lived in Paonia for 53 years, and whose husband works for the Forest Service, was on the tour, as was Frank Mastrullo, who videotaped the outing. (Mastrullo’s stepson works in Koch’s Elk Creek Mine.) When the group reached a point that overlooks Koch’s ranch, they stopped to take in the view, and a chorus of anti-Koch rants began: “It’s by invitation only,” one hiker said. Another chimed in, “A peasant like you isn’t going to give him your few pennies and get in there.” Marston added, “People like us are never considered to be fully human by him.”

Ullrey, who’s never met or worked for Koch, and does not have any family that’s ever been employed by him, says, “There is a lot of emotion involved in this, and the emotion is irrelevant. Is this a good thing for the American people, or is it not a good thing? My husband and I are of the opinion that the American people will win. In fact, we think the people in Paonia are actually going to be better off.”

Since the swap was proposed, Koch has added what he and his team consider to be several improvements to the original exchange bill. Koch has offered to build a new trailhead and improved access to the Ragged Mountain Wilderness through the acquisition of Buck Creek Ranch, an old homestead. (Marston argues the Buck Creek access is “far inferior” to the existing option.) Koch also bought a 21-acre lot on Jumbo Mountain, a popular recreation area outside of Paonia, which he plans to convey to the BLM to provide permanent public access to Jumbo; currently, a landowner allows people to cross his property to get to the mountain. And Koch’s offered to build a mountain bike trail connecting Crested Butte to Carbondale. Altogether, Koch has spent, or committed, roughly $7 million to the exchange.

Koch’s natural gas activities in the area may also be muddying the waters of the debate. Gunnison Energy Corporation, an Oxbow company, leases nearly 150,000 acres of mineral rights from the BLM and private mineral owners. One theory floating around Paonia posits the various BLM parcels included in the exchange, beyond the one that would unite Koch’s ranch, are strategic locations that provide resources for drilling and hydraulic fracturing infrastructure. Another contention is that Koch purchased Buck Creek Ranch so the land could be used for a compressor station, a condenser station, or a pipeline. “That’s absolutely false,” says Brad Goldstein, Oxbow’s spokesperson. “We bought Buck Creek for access. Period.”

No matter what Koch does, he seems to kick up dust in his wake. Conspiracy theories about him ripple through Paonia: One suggests that he (or his staff) flies his helicopter over his enemies’ homes, running surveillance or trying to scare his opposition. People say Koch’s team shows up at the homes of his opponents and asks what will quiet their discontent. Some fear their email has been hacked by Koch operatives, and rumors abound that former FBI agents pose as workers on his ranch in order to gather intel on what the employees are saying amongst themselves. “I don’t understand why there is so much antagonism and anger toward me from people in Paonia who have never met me, especially since we’ve been trying to make a lot of contributions to the community,” Koch says. Through his various companies—he owns the Elk Creek coal mine in Somerset, about 15 minutes from his ranch; Gunnison Energy, a major player in natural gas development in the area; and Bear Ranch—Koch pays more than $38 million a year in employee salaries. In 2012, he donated more than half a million dollars to charities in the region. But can Koch, the history buff, really be surprised at the local reaction? After all, the West has always loved its villains.