Bringing in the sheep |

Bringing in the sheep

Kathy Heicher
NWS Bair Ranch1 5-21 CS Vail Daily/Coreen Sapp Craig Bair walks along side the new flock, herding them towards their first pasture on Red Hill, an area of BLM land on Cottonwood Pass near Gypsum.

Craig Bair has an answer for those critics who have been suggesting that he really isn’t a rancher. Actually, he has about 5,000 white, woolly, bleating answers.A year-and-a-half after drought conditions forced him to sell his band of breeding ewes and lambs, Bair is getting back into the sheep business. The woolly animals are being trucked in by the hundreds for release on his ranch and adjacent Bureau of Land Management pastures.Keeping a watchful eye from atop his horse as his sons and ranch hands guide hundreds of hungry and disoriented ewes and lambs down a chute from the truck and onto pasture land, Bair looks happy to be dealing with stock animals again.

“Ever since we sold the sheep, we’ve been filling ponds, fixing fences and preparing to get them back,” says Bair, a fourth-generation sheep rancher whose 4,300-acre property straddles the Eagle and Garfield County line at the mouth of Glenwood Canyon. In the months sheep have been absent from the ranch, Bair says he has felt “like a mechanic without tools.” While he kept the ranch going by building up his dude-ranching business, he’s eager to get back to the sheep business. That desire to continue the lifestyle he grew up with, and to ensure that his kids and grandkids can do the same, is what led him to be the first rancher in the county to seek to formally conserve his property, guaranteeing the land will remain relativelty empty forever.”I know sheep. I know livestock. I know my problems here,” says Bair, gesturing toward the band of sheep foraging happily on Red Hill, west of Gypsum, moments after being released from the truck where they have been confined 24 hours.

Conservation costsBair’s pursuit of what’s called a conservation easement, under which he would be paid $5 million by a coalition of conservation groups and government agencies not to build on his lands, is a local hot topic. For the first time ever this year, Eagle County has about $3 million of voter-approved tax revenues to spend specifically on open space acquisition. The Bair Ranch deal is the first major application.

If the deal goes through, Bair will get the cash, but will continue to own the property and operate it as a working ranch. What he, or any future owner, won’t be able to do is build homes, golf courses of shopping centers on the land. The conservation easement is a complex deal. The Bureau of Land Management has tentatively pledged $1.5 million for the project, which would be appropriated from the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado program has pledged $400,000 for Bair Ranch, and another million is coming from private donors. The Eagle County commissioners will decide on Tuesday whether they will contribute $2 million in open space tax revenues to the Bair Ranch easement.It has been a controversial issue, with County Commissioner Tom Stone among the most vocal of the critics. Those doubting the value of conserving Bair Ranch question the use of public money to place an easement on property that, for the most part, will not be open to the general public.

Critics have also suggested that Bair is not really a rancher, citing the sale of his sheep 18 months ago. They have also objected to his guest ranch operation.Supporters, who count County Commissioner Arn Menconi in their ranks, argue that the land’s scenic, agricultural, and wildlife values make it well worth protecting from development. The county’s Open Space Advisory Committee, which advises the commissioners on spending the open space tax, recommended by a 9-1 vote that the money be spent at Bair Ranch.The swing vote rests with the third county commissioner, Michael Gallagher, who has been seriously ill and absent from the county building for many weeks in recent months. After one lengthy afternoon hearing two weeks ago, the commissioners have tentatively scheduled to take up the subject again on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. with Gallagher present.

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Answering the criticsBair said he isn’t surprised that not everybody is enthusiastic about the conservation concept. He wasn’t sold on the idea himself when first approached several years ago by Brad Udall, who directed the Eagle Valley Land Trust at the time. The trust is a private organization devoted to securing open space.

However, when a brother who owned 1,200 acres of land in the middle of the Bair spread decided he wanted to sell, Bair said he was left with two options: the conservation deal or raising the money by selling a chunk of his own land. There’s developers out there who have offered him as much as $20 million for some of his property, says Bair. Deciding that he would prefer to ranch, Bair decided to go after the conservation easement.”It’s been hard,” he admits. Christine Quinlan, project manager for the Conservation Fund, a private land conservation organization that is coordinating the Bair Ranch conservation deal, says such deals don’t get completed overnight, particularly with a first-time project like the Bair Ranch.

“Conservation easements do compensate ranchers. Without the willingness to spend taxpayer dollars to pay private landowners like the Bairs or others not to develop their lands, we miss out on the opportunity to protect lots of important values,” she says.Bair and his wife, Doris, say they have been surprised by the sometimes personal attacks critics of the conservation easement have made against him. The comments have come from strangers, neighbors and fellow Eagle County ranchers. The Bairs attribute much of the criticism to a lack of public understanding about how conservation easements work.He defends his guest ranch business, pointing out that many ranchers in the county supplement their incomes with such services as guiding and outfitting and horseback rides.

“You better have something else. The taxes have to be paid, or you lose the place,” he says. “Most ranchers try to diversify with hunting, fishin or horseback riding. It’s nothing new.”Neither does he buy the argument that if public money is used, the public should have complete access to the land. Bair says a working ranch can’t be operated successfully if the public is free to roam through it on foot or by motor vehicles.

Condos and golf coursesSelling the sheep 18 months ago was a practical decision prompted by drought conditions, Bair says. Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Woolgrowers, says similar decisions have been made by sheep ranchers throughout the western United States during the past two or three years of drought. Many shipped their breeding stock to Mexico for slaughter.

“Ranchers do sometimes have to liquidate. That is one of the difficulties within the sheep industry,” Kline says. She notes that building a breeding herd up again is difficult. Bair confirms that, saying that he sold his sheep for $65 a head, with the replacement stock costing him about $93 per head.He’ll start his band of sheep out grazing on his ranch and Bureau of Land Management lands, then trail them up to the Flat Tops, where he has a Forest Service grazing permit. In the fall, the lambs will be sold, but he’ll keep the breeding ewes.

During an interview, Bair abruptly stops his defense of the conservation deal and announces he wants to say thanks to his critics.”They made the opportunity for people to see what a real bargain and value conservation easements are,” he says, “The whole issue is the conservation easement. It stops me from building condos and golf courses.”

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