Not­ting­ham Ranch was more than a home — it was a life

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Ja­son Blevins

As rain clouds cast a chro­matic hue across her lush pas­tures, rolling as far as the eye can see, Su­san Not­ting­ham shrugs her shoul­ders and sighs. “Ab­so­lutely gut-wrench­ing. So an­guish­ing. Just a very, very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion,” she says, kick­ing the dirt with a well-worn boot.

It was be­fore dawn on a cold spring morning in May when Not­ting­ham, freshly 65, called her child­hood friend Ed Swin­ford, a for­mer school­teacher turned real es­tate bro­ker.

“She said, ‘It’s time.’ I could tell the emo­tion in her voice and what she was feel­ing just to get those words to come out,” says Swin­ford, his hand rest­ing on his friend’s shoul­der.

“I’m just not finding a lot of pur­pose here any­more,” Not­ting­ham says. “There’s just no more rea­son for me to keep this go­ing.”

Ranch­ing is in Not­ting­ham’s blood. The Not­ting­ham clan home­steaded the Vail Val­ley, shep­herd­ing sheep along the banks of the Ea­gle River long be­fore the pas­tures would sprout re­sort mega-man­sions in Beaver Creek and su­per­stores in Avon.

Now, it’s time for the last of her brood to cede their ranch­ing roots. She is sell­ing the fam­ily’s 20,000-acre spread along the Colorado River. The green mead­ows — stip­pled with 1,200 head of cat­tle and another 1,000 year­lings bound for mar­ket — rolling from the dark tim­ber of the Flat Tops Wilder­ness Area’s basalt-columned Dome Peak. The cliff-pocked ter­rain along Cabin Creek and the Colorado River. The sage­brush high desert, the deep canyons. Elk, bears, wild­cats. Homes, barns, cor­rals, trac­tors, trucks and trail­ers. Enough wa­ter to slake a city.

The price: $100 mil­lion. Be­fore you start con­jur­ing Mike Mey­ers, ring-fes­tooned pinkie at the cor­ner of his mouth, re­al­ize Not­ting­ham is no Dr. Evil. Far from it. She is ask­ing $5,000 an acre in one of the na­tion’s prici­est re­gions. But still, such a stag­ger­ing sum.

“I do look at that num­ber and I think ‘Oh, my gosh. How did I end up here?’ My dad made some smart de­ci­sions. He was an in­cred­i­ble busi­ness mind,” she says. “The price is re­flec­tive of how hard my dad worked.”

A lit­tle more than three years ago, Wil­liam Em­met Not­ting­ham Jr. was tin­ker­ing in one of the ranch’s many shops when he laid down to take a nap. He never woke. He was 86 and a leg­end of the Vail Val­ley.

In 2004, he told The Den­ver Post, in a story about life­long ranch­ers es­chew­ing big-dol­lar deals that would make them in­stant mil­lion­aires many times over: “We are used to work­ing and we are used to ranch­ing. We aren’t go­ing to re­tire. We are go­ing to work un­til we die.”

Which is ex­actly what he did.

Su­san la­bored the land along­side her dad all her life. She says their souls were con­nected. It hasn’t been the same with­out him.

“I en­joy ev­ery day. Al­most,” Not­ting­ham says of work­days that al­ways be­gin well be­fore sun­rise and typ­i­cally end at dusk. “Ev­ery­thing I do is fun, in a way, but it’s a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity and it’s not a great one to carry alone.”

Strong ranch mar­ket

With her mom, Neva, liv­ing in Grand Junc­tion, there is no one left to run the ranch. Her older broth­ers, Randy and Steve, were killed in an avalanche while snow­mo­bil­ing up Vail Pass in 1987.

“There’s no one to take it from me when I’m gone,” she says.

Not­ting­ham’s de­ci­sion to sell comes as the mar­ket for so-called legacy prop­er­ties heats up af­ter a pro­longed lull dur­ing the eco­nomic de­cline and a shorter respite dur­ing last year’s tu­mul­tuous elec­tion.

While the high­est of the high-end mar­ket might not be siz­zling like it did in the early aughts, when amenity-seek­ing busi­ness folk parked mil­lions in acreage that could never re­turn the in­vest­ment with cat­tle or hay pro­duc­tion, the tro­phyranch buyer ap­pears back on the prowl.

A 265-acre ranch out­side Jackson, Wyo., sold for an undis­closed sum this year af­ter list­ing for $53 mil­lion. A year ear­lier, a nearly 1,900-acre ranch out­side Jackson sold for $27.5 mil­lion af­ter list­ing for $100 mil­lion.

Colorado ranch land bro­ker Ken Mirr said buy­ers are cir­cling his list­ing for a $46 mil­lion, 14,000-acre Wasatch Peaks Ranch out­side Og­den, Utah, and he is close to land­ing a buyer for the sto­ried Cielo Vista Ranch, an 83,368-acre prop­erty that in­cludes the 14,049-foot Cule­bra Peak and 18 13,000-foot peaks stretch­ing along 20 miles of the San­gre de Cristo range. He listed Cielo Vista for $105 mil­lion. It last sold to a con­sor­tium of Texas in­vestors in 2004 for $60 mil­lion. In 2007, a few miles down the San Luis Val­ley, renowned con­ser­va­tion­ist Louis Ba­con, a hedge fund boss from New York, spent $175 mil­lion on the 171,400acre Trinchera Ranch, mark­ing the largest sin­gle­home real es­tate deal in his­tory at the time. That was be­fore bil­lion­aire sports team owner Stan Kroenke last year bought the 511,000acre Wag­goner Ranch in north Texas, which was listed for $725 mil­lion.

Last month, Cana­dian de­vel­oper Crave Com­mu­nity Co. listed its 4,700 acres atop Battle Moun­tain above Min­turn — an alpine par­cel once eyed as a $4 bil­lion gated ski re­sort com­mu­nity by Florida de­vel­oper Bobby Ginn, who foundered in the re­ces­sion — for $19.5 mil­lion, about $10 mil­lion be­low the price Ginn paid in 2004.

More of those dizzy­ingly grand trans­ac­tions ap­pear on the hori­zon as a new round of con­ser­va­tion­minded shop­pers are scop­ing large tracts of land they hope to keep for gen­er­a­tions, Mirr says.

“These buy­ers don’t have to buy these prop­er­ties. They are not think­ing about busi­ness or in­come as much as long-term fam­ily dy­nas­ties and lega­cies,” Mirr says. “They are the next ste­wards and they are tak­ing on the re­spon­si­bil­ity for pro­tect­ing and pre­serv­ing these lands.”

Not­ting­ham isn’t sure what kind of buyer — be­yond a bil­lion­aire or group of mil­lion­aires — might be in­ter­ested in her ranch, which in­cludes a whop­ping 100 cu­bic feet per se­cond of se­nior wa­ter rights, an amount that could serve sev­eral thou­sand homes for a year. (The se­nior wa­ter rights likely are more valu­able than the land, Not­ting­ham says, but de­liv­er­ing them any­where other than the prop­erty would re­quire se­ri­ous le­gal ma­neu­ver­ing.)

Her fa­ther be­gan as­sem­bling the ranch above Burns and the Colorado River in the early 1980s. In 1992, the Not­ting­hams pur­chased 14,000 acres from the Fen­ton clan, af­ter the fam­ily pa­tri­arch was killed in a plane crash just above the prop­erty. The Not­ting­hams got $12 mil­lion to fund that deal by sell­ing the last rem­nants of their fam­ily homestead along the Ea­gle River to Swedish ship­ping mag­nate Mag­nus Lind­holm, who built a Home De­pot and Wal­mart and has plans for as many as 2,400 homes on the roughly 1,700-acre for­mer sheep ranch in the town of Avon.

While wealthy buy­ers were rain­ing silly money on sun-bleached ranch­ers in the early 2000s, the Not­ting­hams never pon­dered a sale.

“For some of the old gen­er­a­tion of ranch­ers, I don’t think money means that much to them,” Su­san told The Den­ver Post in 2004. “For me, it’s about fam­ily. The best thing I do is work with my dad ev­ery day.”

The Not­ting­hams also never jumped on the con­ser­va­tion-ease­ment band­wagon. They were crit­i­cal of mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of­fer­ing mil­lions in tax dol­lars for deals that en­cum­bered his­toric

Pay­ing it for­ward

But she’d gladly sell to a con­ser­va­tion group. While it’s un­likely any pub­licly funded en­tity aim­ing to pre­serve the land could come up with $100 mil­lion, it’s not un­think­able that “10 peo­ple with $10 mil­lion each” could pre­serve the work­ing ranch, Swin­ford says.

Not­ting­ham is not will­ing, how­ever, to sell the ranch in pieces. She would hate to see a buyer di­vide it up as well.

“It works so per­fectly as a whole,” she says, not­ing how she never has to buy feed or ship her cat­tle out to sea­sonal feed­ing grounds and is able to keep cat­tle bound for mar­ket in one place, eat­ing the same hay, for their en­tire life cy­cle. “It’s such a bal­anced and per­fect op­er­a­tion, it would be sad for any part of it to be taken away. My big­gest hope is that the buyer keeps it like it is.”

She’s never been rich. Sure, her fam­ily’s land has al­ways been worth a lot, but that never trans­lated into an over­abun­dance of cash in their pock­ets. Mem­bers of her fam­ily earned their liv­ing by ranch­ing, which means work­ing all day, ev­ery day. The list of tasks in the to-do pile never stops grow­ing for a rancher.

“My em­ploy­ees all say, ‘You are great to work for be­cause you never ask me to do any­thing you wouldn’t do,’ ” she says. “If I ask them to get down in cow ma­nure, I get down there first.”

The ranch, with its four em­ploy­ees, sup­ports it­self and its im­prove­ments — in­clud­ing an im­pres­sive halfmile pivot ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem that ranks as one of the largest in the coun­try — with an­nual sales of those burger-bound year­lings.

And Not­ting­ham is not plan­ning on get­ting rich. She is plan­ning “a quiet, sim­ple life some­where” af­ter giv­ing away the money she makes on the sale of her fam­ily’s land. She wants to help kids: chil­dren in foster care or strug­gling with health is­sues.

“All the money will go to char­ity. I had the best par­ents in the world. There are mil­lions of kids out there who don’t have that. Maybe I can make a dif­fer­ence,” she says. “That would make all the hard work more mean­ing­ful, would it not?”

Visit not­ting­ham­ for more pho­tos and in­for­ma­tion about the ranch.

Pho­tos by He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

Rancher Su­san Not­ting­ham came to the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to sell her fam­ily’s fi­nal par­cel, Not­ting­ham Ranch, con­sist­ing of 19,500 acres spread along the Colorado River.

Not­ting­ham drives her truck through her land, with Dome Peak in the back­ground, while her bor­der col­lie Izzy stands atop an ATV.

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