Essay by Hal Walter
March 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine
In the beginning, the town of Westcliffe was founded on a land scam.
It worked something like this. The railroad built a spur from the main line along the Arkansas River to the boom town of Silver Cliff so that miners, ranchers and farmers could ship their goods. It sounded like a great idea. But lo and behold, if you wanted to locate your business at the railhead, the railroad executives owned all the land around it, sly devils. Westcliffe was born, limey spelling and all, a scandalous mile or so west of Silver Cliff.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. World without end. Amen…
This year the local ski area — formerly Conquistador, of late called Mountain Cliffe — closed for the third time. This time probably for good, as most of the surrounding property has been sold, and selling land, according to the natives, is the prime function of a ski resort.
Skiing, it seems, has little to do with sliding downhill on boards strapped to your feet. However, for a small community that was counting on the 80 or so jobs at “Mudcliffe,” the economic ramifications of such a misventure do take on the chattering overtones of an out-of-control descent on steep ice, riddled with rocks.
Today in Custer County, there is neither railhead nor ski area. But we do have a lot of real estate offices. By my count there are at least eight, which is eight more real estate offices than there were legitimate job offerings in the help-wanted section of a recent Wet Mountain Tribune. It’s also eight times as many real estate offices as there are grocery stores, and almost three times as many real estate offices as there are gas stations and taverns.
Curiously, there’s no gun shop in Westcliffe, but the town does boast a chiropractor, two fairly well-stocked liquor stores, and — get this — an espresso bar, portending the end of Western life as we know it. Can you imagine Clint Eastwood riding into Lago, striding into the bar, and saying in a low, husky voice, “Pour me a double mocha latte”?
The railroad and ski area were great scams, but what’s that on the horizon? Could it be…the Lone Eagles? Those fabled refugees from city life with fax machines and notebook computers under their arms?
Something in the way of growth is going on here. My property taxes have actually gone down for the past three years — a sure sign that more people are peeing in the property-tax pool.
A recent census determined that in Custer County, cattle outnumber humans six-to-one, down from twelve-to-one in earlier decades. Don’t knock it. At least the cows have jobs, and bovines don’t parcel out the county map like a Bigfoot from Pizza Hut.
Speaking of cows, check out what one enterprising rancher did. He hired one of the local real-estate rookeries to subdivide and sell off a big section of his ranch. This was done for top dollar and in short order. The rancher must have retained a lot or two, though; next summer, cows were grazing throughout the old ranch, just as they had before it was a subdivision. The Code of the new West: It’s up to individual lot buyers to fence the cows out. Talk about having your scam and grazing it too!
Once I wrote a letter to the local newspaper, satirically calling for a hunting season on real-estate developers — the way some small Colorado towns have held shooting contests for prairie dogs, coyotes and other unthreatened species. I wasn’t contacted by a single animal-rights activist. But one developer told me that “now that you’re in, you just want to keep everyone else out.”
You catch on fast, white man.
An island in this sea of absurdity is Bear Basin Ranch, a 5,000-acre land conservancy and the base for a booming adventure-travel business run by Gary Ziegler and Amy Finger. Bear Basin differs from most local ranches in that it is actually growing in size, rather than shrinking through subdivision.
The 52-year-old Ziegler is an interesting character. To draw you a picture: He’s the only person who has taught rock climbing in the Peace Corps and has served with the Special Forces in Vietnam.
In 1970, Ziegler enlisted in another war, though he didn’t know it at the time. He bought Bear Basin Ranch. “At that point, I wanted to simplify my life, get away from the violence and get back to earth. I bought Bear Basin Ranch while working for Outward Bound with the idea of using it as a base camp for climbing trips into the Sangres.”
The big real-estate hustle near Bear Basin in those days was five-acre lots, with no amenities, in the middle of nowhere. A trailer near the highway served as a sales office. Today that same trailer sits cock-eyed, its doors and windows broken out, in a gully to the north of the ranch, a ghostly reminder that what goes around comes around again. And again. And again.
During the late ’70s, Finger, now 32, began riding horses at Bear Basin while visiting her parents’ nearby summer home. A few years later, Ziegler hired Finger to help him manage the adventure-travel business, which offers pack trips in Mexico and Peru as well as our Sangre de Cristo range.
Now the pair’s expanding ecological frontier seems bounded by furious development. Over the years, they’ve pumped profits from their adventure-travel business back into real estate to protect the lands around the ranch. “Every penny we make off the business goes back into the ranch,” says Ziegler. “I guess that’s a form of eco-tourism.”
But it’s not enough. To add even more land to the trust, they have had to become developers — of a sort — themselves.
Here’s how their land scam works — and it’s a hell of a lot better deal than some others I’ve seen around here. They bring partners into the ranch for the price of purchasing adjoining property. They’ve brought other small ranches, mining claims, even 35-acre ranchettes. If it touches current Bear Basin holdings, it’s fair game.
The investors have full use of the entire ranch. They can board horses, go on pack trips at reduced rates, hunt, hike, whatever blows up their chaps. They may build a home on an established site, but the limit is one home to every 200 acres.
“This is going to be the last intact working ranch in Custer County,” Ziegler prophesies.
Look! There! On the horizon. It’s the Lone Eagles. They’re coming. I heard it on National Public Radio. They have the cash from selling their high-dollar homes in California and now they’re bringing their own jobs and multimillion-dollar contracts. They’re disease-free. They’ll lessen our tax burden. They’ll raise the average IQ and purify the gene pool. They’re fleeing the city, the gangs, the rat race. They’ll only spend money here. Modern-day Robin Hoods, they are.
And inside of two years, when they’ve gone stark raving cabin crazy from the wind, snow, and mud — after the coyotes have eaten their poodles and giant timber rattlers have carried off their first-born — some enterprising land monger with a new scam will help them sell their mountain estates to yet another wave of wannabe pioneers.
Bet you a mocha latte.
Free-lance writer and avowed hypocrite Hal Walter is a former editor of the Leadville Herald-Democrat and has resided in central Colorado for a decade. He and his wife, Mary, live on a 35-acre ranchette near Westcliffe, and he sends us his work via modem, just like a Lone Eagle.