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Conservation easement is just another adventure

Column by Hal Walter

Conservation – April 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

“Prepare to receive intense gamma radiation,” the figure on the aspen-lined trail calls out from ahead. “We’re coming up on the richest vein of thorium in the nation.”

My first instinct is to hold my breath. But as I look into the pit, where splintering timbers point to a dark hole, I open my mouth and the irradiated but familiar thin air rushes into my lungs. I run by this mine quite often on my regular runs around Bear Basin Ranch near my home in the Wet Mountains. What the hell — if thorium particles are good for Gary Ziegler to breathe, they must be good for me too.

“Chunks of thorium from this mine were so rich they looked like chocolate bars,” Ziegler says as we jog past the mine.

We bear right through the forest, spook an owl hunting in the ponderosa pine-dimmed light of early evening — then a snowshoe hare the owl was likely eyeing for dinner — before cross-terraining to the century-old farmhouse, Ziegler’s base camp for any number of worldwide adventures. Near the house a redtailed hawk — motionless — rides a thermal high above a setting sun, multicolored rays shattered, refracted and reflected in all directions by the toothy, gleaming Sangre de Cristo range.

Thorium aside, the story of Ziegler and his partner Amy Finger glows differently than most. As owners of Bear Basin Ranch, they have recently formed a Common Tenancy Agreement and a Deed of Conservation Easement which will protect the 3,500-acre ranch from subdivision and further development in the future. Sitting right in the middle of what can only be called a real-estate developer’s wet dream, Bear Basin is now eight square miles of protected habitat for elk, deer, mountain lion, turkey, various raptors and other species, including humans.

While the land is protected from large-scale development, as part of the tenancy agreement, several associates in the roughly 2,400 deeded acres of the ranch represent a collection of several contiguous parcels ranging in size from 80 to 520 acres. A Bureau of Land Management lease and various mining claims controlled by the ranch make up another 1,100 contiguous acres. Bound by mutual covenants and agreements, the owners entered a tenancy agreement to protect the land from random building and commercial development, maintain maximum open space of meadows, timber and hills, and limit roads and structures.

ZIEGLER AND FINGER retain control of the agricultural and outfitting use on the ranch. They currently run a herd of horses year round and a calf operation in the summer. A holistic grazing plan is in place and the ranch is operated in an environmentally sound manner. The land and the original facilities are also used as a summer base for team-penning events, trail rides and other recreational activities. For Ziegler, the Conservation Easement is one particularly shiny achievement in a life that has not been dull.

“People like climbing legend Robert Ormes taught me to climb when I was a teenager,” Ziegler says over a cup of rum-spiked herb tea in his living room — a nest of mineral and archeological specimens.

In fact, Ziegler first climbed 14,191-foot Crestone Needle in Colorado’s Sangre de Cristos when he was 11 with Ormes and climber Lester Michael. Plenty of people with fully developed musculatures have died trying to climb that mountain, but for Ziegler it was child’s play. Decades later, the 61-year-old Ziegler looks back on a half-life filled with outdoor adventure. Climber, horseman, cyclist, trail runner, backcountry explorer, guide and outfitter — Ziegler has done it all and talks about doing this stuff the way most people talk about what they had for breakfast.

In the early 1960s Ziegler put up first ascents on most of the rock towers in Colorado National Monument while on spring break from Colorado College in Colorado Springs. He was one of nine finishers in the second annual Pikes Peak Marathon in 1957. Ziegler and his climbing cronies pioneered sandstone techniques in El Dorado Canyon near Boulder and the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs long before sportclimbing was rad.

He also was the first paddle-rafting outfitter on Colorado’s Arkansas River and actually named rapids such as “Reefer Madness” and “Maytag” on the nation’s most popular whitewater stream. And he’s probably the only person to have taught rockclimbing in the Peace Corps and served with Special Forces in Vietnam, too.

FOLLOWING THE PEACE CORPS stint, Ziegler graduated from Colorado College with a degree in philosophy, hitch-hiked to Peru and filmed the entire odyssey with a Bolex movie camera. In Peru he scored first ascents on several 20,000-foot mountains and enrolled in the anthropology and archeology program at the National University where he earned a doctorate degree. While he enjoyed studying the ancient cultures, discovering unnamed Incan ruins and bagging big Andean peaks on a regular basis, the Vietnam War was heating up and the U.S. Army wished to speak with 2nd Lt. Ziegler, who owed the military a commission from his days at C.C. where R.O.T.C. was mandatory.

Ziegler’s backcountry skills made him prime choice for the Army’s Special Forces intelligence unit and the role suited him just fine. “Except for the extreme tragedies — such as losing a close friend — the Vietnam War was an incredible experience,” Ziegler says as he digs out a photo of a plane that was shot down in enemy territory with him aboard. “We took one round in the oil cooler and everybody walked out alive.” He tells how U.S. jets held off the Viet Cong, allowing a Chinook helicopter to land near the plane wreckage and rescue the crew.

“It was literally life on the edge. I look at life in terms of historic events and the warrior role has been part of the human experience. There’s nothing I feel guilty about — it was war.”

Richer from the Vietnam experience — both personally and financially — Captain Ziegler came back to Colorado with every penny he had made in the Army and looking for a more humanistic experience. He guided Outward Bound 26-day wilderness courses, and led his first trip to Copper Canyon in Western Mexico in 1969. He made several return trips to Peru and recorded yet more first ascents in the mountains there.

[Amy Finger and Gary Ziegler on their horses]

“At that point I wanted to simplify my life, get away from the violence and get back to the Earth. I bought Bear Basin Ranch in 1970 while still working for Outward Bound with the idea of using it as a base camp for climbing trips into the Sangres.” It was during this period that Ziegler hooked up with Jeff and Mike Lowe, founders of the Lowe Alpine Systems climbing equipment company. Mike Lowe went in with Ziegler as a partner in Bear Basin and the internal-frame backpack pioneer designed some of the original pieces of the equipment line on the ranch. Today, Mike Lowe still is a partner in the ranch and has a vacation house on the property.

BY PURCHASING BEAR BASIN, Ziegler gained a neighbor and role model in horse trader Lee Jones. “Lee Jones was my mentor in ranching — he was one of the best horse traders in this area’s history and I learned everything I know about the old cowboy ways from him.” With Jones as a teacher, Ziegler honed horsemanship skills he had developed by playing polo in the Army and exploring Peru on horseback. He bought two horses from Jones and started his own herd.

It was also during this time that Ziegler launched Arkansas River Tours and pioneered commercial whitewater rafting on that river with the somewhat less-than-seaworthy equipment of the day. “I’ve seen every major rapid on the Arkansas from below the surface,” Ziegler says with a grin.

Now you might think rancher Jones would have some serious questions about people running on horse trails, climbing rocks with funny-colored ropes and floating down the river in rubber boats, but Ziegler says the cowboy accepted all outdoor activities. “The oldtimers were liberals in the Western sense — they accepted what people did with an open mind — I don’t think rednecks are indigenous to Colorado. Ziegler later purchased the neighboring Jones’ property and, ironically, he and Finger now live in the old cowboy’s former house.

During the late 70s, Finger, 20 years Ziegler’s junior, began riding horses at Bear Basin while visiting her parents’ nearby summer home. “I never did meet the famous Ziegler,” she jokes. “He was always off on some adventure in Peru or something.” In the winter of 1980, Finger, who had a background in working with horses, sent a résumé to Bear Basin in hopes of landing a summer job away from college in Iowa. But Ziegler left it lying on his desk, and instead busied himself over the winter with hunting gold in Honduras … I came back to the ranch out of touch,” he says. Upon returning, he found the résumé and immediately hired Finger to help get the outfit back on track.

“I got here and found that Gary had all this business lined up and no staff,” she says. “I was 19 and it was a great, great challenge to pull this thing together.”

WITH ZIEGLER RUNNING GUESTS down the river every day, Finger and one other staff member managed the 30-horse herd and the daily horseback trips. When the aspens began to change, she made the decision to stay at the ranch the next winter. “We broke horses all winter and basically spent the first year denying that this relationship was happening,” she says.

Following this denial period, the couple bought a house in Colorado Springs so that Finger could continue her education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where she received a combined degree in geology and climatology — two fields useful to an adventurer. She and Ziegler became partners in the adventure-travel business in 1982.

In the mid-1980s Ziegler and Finger brought the first mountain bikes to Peru and recorded the first-ever pedaled ascent to the famous Inca city of Machu Picchu in the Cordillera Vilcabamba.

To this day, Finger’s business savvy is still keeping the outfit on track. Between coördinating and running adventure-travel trips to Peru and Mexico’s Copper Canyon, and hosting summer “Cowboy Weekends” at the ranch, Finger somehow found the time to manage the research and legwork to form the conservation easement. With the knowledge gained from the Bear Basin project she is now working as a consultant to put together a similar conservation easement for a ranch between Wetmore and Beulah.

As for Ziegler, he still regularly leads expeditions to Peru, and spends most of his summers hiking, running and riding the trails and on the land he’s helped protect, as well as in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains. He recently was part of an expedition in Inca studies that will be documented in a forthcoming film to be announced by National Geographic. Life, it seems, is still just a big adventure.

Hal Walter raises and trains burros on his property in the Wet Mountains, and writes in order to support those habits.