Editorial: Colorado Land Board may swap horses midstream at Chico Basin Ranch

The Chico Basin Ranch just southeast of Colorado Springs spans 86,000 acres and is held in trust for the benefit of Colorado’s K-12 schools.

For the last 23 years, this beautiful short-grass prairie land has been ranched and managed by Duke Phillips and his family’s Box T ranching business, but that will change in two years if the Colorado Land Board sustains a staff decision to lease the land to a different ranching operation.

In a public hearing on Wednesday, Nov. 8, the Colorado State Land Board will consider an appeal from Phillips and his family that is asking the board to consider more than just money when awarding a new 10-year lease on the land.

The appeal is a last-ditch effort to maintain operations on the land that the family has invested heart and soul into over the last two decades, generating grants to improve the land’s ecology and increase the ranch’s recreation, hospitality, and agricultural output.

We find it impossible not to empathize with the Phillips family for their pending loss – the family’s dedication to the land, their cattle and upholding the mission of the Land Board to generate long-term sustainable revenue for K-12 schools is admirable. The family invested time and grant money in the land and now is at risk of losing one of their ranching operations.

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - JULY 30: A drone image shows where Ranchlands Headquarters falls among the the 87,000 acres of land on The Chico Basin Ranch in Colorado Springs on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Photo by Rachel Ellis/The Denver Post)
A drone image shows where Ranchlands Headquarters falls among the the 87,000 acres of land on The Chico Basin Ranch in Colorado Springs on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Photo by Rachel Ellis/The Denver Post)

“When we had an opportunity to make a presentation to the commissioners last year, in that meeting, Bill Ryan (the Land Board agency director) and others stated publicly that we have exceeded all expectations,” Duke Phillips said.

The problem, of course, is that the Phillips family was out-bid, by quite a bit, in a competitive request for proposal sent out by the land board.

Enter Will Johnson of the Flying Diamond Ranch who bid $2 million more over 10 years to operate the agricultural lease on the Chico Basin land.

The Johnsons have operated a ranch in southeast Colorado for generations, but according to the bid documents, this will be their first ranching lease with the Colorado Land Board. The family has won two prestigious awards for their land stewardship in recent years.

“We’ve been on the same ground, the same acres since 1907,” Johnson told The Denver Post. “You’re just caretaking for the next generation. Stewardship is the guiding principle out here.”

This is not the first bid they have submitted for a land board ranching lease, having lost out on the recent request for proposals process for the Lowry Ranch and the Chancellor Ranch.

So how should the board approach such an appeal where a second-place finisher in a bid process is asking them to put less weight on the money and more weight on less easily weighted factors, including ties to the community and sustainability?

The answer is in the land board’s voter-approved mission statement: “to produce reasonable and consistent income over time, and to provide sound stewardship of the state trust assets.” The intent of this language is clear – the board is not tasked with maximizing revenue at all costs. Instead, the board must put equal weight on making sure the land granted to Colorado by the federal government to raise money for public schools is cared for in a manner that assures it will continue to generate revenue for generations to come.

Also, the Phillips family bid on two other leases on the ranch land — a hospitality lease to continue running a two-bedroom ranch house as a dude-ranch experience. The hospitality lease will go unfilled now (the Phillips can’t run it without also having an operating ranch to share with visitors) despite the Phillips having sold out the previous season to visitors. The Phillips were also the high bidder on the hunting rights on the ranch and would have taken fewer big game animals while diversifying the type of hunting than the second-highest bidder that was awarded the hunting lease.

Under the Phillips family’s stewardship, the Audubon Society and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies began using the ranch for bird-banding, a partnership so successful that the Land Board issued a separate free lease to the two agencies to ensure the practice continues no matter who won the bid.

Meadowlarks perch together atop a cholla ...
Rachel Ellis, Special to The Denver Post

Meadowlarks perch together atop a cholla cactus on the Chico Basin Ranch southeast of Colorado Springs on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2020.


Finally, the Phillipses partner with schools up and down the front range and have more than a thousand kids a year come out to the ranch to assist with bird banding and learn about ranching and conservation. To help the next generation of ranchers take root, the Phillipses also offer an apprenticeship program that helps train young ranchers with real-world experience.

Can all of that combined overcome a deficit in their bid of over $2 million in 10 years?

The board had better make certain if it’s swapping horses midstream that the gamble is worth the money. We’re eager to hear deliberations Wednesday night as the board appointed by Gov. Jared Polis grapples publicly with this difficult decision.

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