Too Many Homes On the Range

I've been herding cattle amidst trophy homes in the nation's fastest growing county. Our family leases grass on the south edge of Denver, and we're helping to keep urban sprawl from claiming one more patch of rural America.

Nationwide, urban areas are sprouting extreme suburbs -- exurbs -- that leapfrog across the landscape at an unprecedented rate. According to the Department of Agriculture, the United States loses over a million acres of rural land each year.

As I drive through Denver on my way to check the cattle, I see this statistic in real life. Despite 10 lanes of traffic, it takes an hour to reach a narrow highway winding through what was only recently a ranching community. Unpainted barns sag, unused, in the shadow of steel horse arenas. Oversized new homes, dubbed "starter castles" by the locals, sit perched on hilltops. Shaggy hay meadows that once fed hundreds of cattle now support a few horses.

At the ranch where our cattle graze, the land opens up a bit. The Wiens family have worked to keep their piece of rural America intact. They've clustered their barns and homes in the bottom of the draw, instead of perching them on hilltops like the valley's newcomers.

Their pastures are green and tightly fenced, in contrast to the yellow, stagnant grass on neighboring ranchettes. Their steep hay fields are flooded with irrigation water from ditches laid out 100 years ago, and produce bales by the thousands. But all around them, the foothills sprout homes like weeds.

There's a saying among ranchers who struggle to make ends meet in the midst of beautiful spaces: You can't eat the scenery. Yet this summer our cattle gorged themselves on the backdrop of prime real estate, gaining 80,000 pounds on the hoof. That's two more semi-trailers than we hauled into the valley last April, enough roast beef dinners to feed a subdivision for two weeks. But cattle here are quickly being crowded off the range.

One midsummer evening I rode my horse over a ridge on the Wiens Ranch, pushing a small bunch of heifers to the corral. The sun's heat had slipped behind the hogback foothills as we waded through stirrup-high grass. Thunderheads rolled off the mountains, their bellies splashed pink and orange. The cattle slowed to nibble at wheatgrass.

Even my horse seemed entranced by the silent Rockies towering on the horizon.

It was a moment as pure and unfallen as any I can remember. But even then, in the background I heard cars whining up private lanes as commuters returned home from work. Only a few minutes of daylight remained for them to enjoy the rural solitude of their country estates.

Those new neighbors were lured here for the very sort of moment I enjoyed, a glimpse of the sunset at the end of a harried commute.

They paid dearly for their land, and continue paying the steep price of long commutes in four-wheel-drive vehicles. By displacing agriculture for their private enjoyment, they've turned the view into a commodity. Barbed wire may keep cattle in, but it can't keep developers out.

In the future, this land will produce more trophy home sites and fewer choice beefsteaks.

Intact farms and ranches produce a host of social benefits that make the nation livable. But as the countryside fragments into smaller parcels, it no longer produces food, fiber and the open spaces that add charm to rural America. Any midlevel corporate executive can outbid ranchers for the rights to a secluded hillside pasture, even though his seclusion is subsidized by the few ranches that remain.

America is filled with spectacular views, often threatened by people who will never be satisfied until they own one. But the view isn't going anywhere. Those who care to climb these grassy hillsides can discover it for themselves, at no cost. It's only those determined to buy it -- to tame the landscape within a picture window -- who spoil it for everyone.

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