Con­ser­va­tion is king amid re­mote­ness of Ver­mejo

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Joshua Berman, Spe­cial tot he Denve rpo st

The first an­i­mal we saw was a bighorn sheep, a lone ewe am­bling along the em­bank­ment of the snow-packed dirt road. Our driver and guide, Pete, sus­pected a moun­tain lion would get her soon. Our next sight­ing was a bound­ing bob­cat that crossed in front of the truck, then peered at us from be­hind a tree while my three daugh­ters took turns with the binoc­u­lars.

We drove far­ther into the for­est, on a two-hour “guided ranch and wildlife tour” of the prop­erty, in or­der to get a lay of the land and also to learn a bit about the half-mil­lion acres that is Ver­mejo, a Ted Turner Re­serve.

The prop­erty strad­dles the Colorado and New Mex­ico bor­der and has seen an in­cred­i­ble trans­for­ma­tion since me­dia mogul and con­ser­va­tion­ist Ted Turner took it over in 1996.

A bit far­ther on, Pete cir­cled off the road to give us a bet­ter view of the horses, which had just come into view. A dozen an­i­mals grazed in front of a row of sev­eral red brick char­coal kilns, built 130 years ago. The horses, ex­plained Pete, were wild de­scen­dants of horses that had es­caped into the woods when the log­ging town of Catskill went un­der, around 1905.

We rounded a cor­ner on an elk herd, then stopped the truck to get out and in­spect a set of fresh lion tracks in the snow and dirt. As an early, cold dusk set­tled in, Pete drove us back to the lodge, which sits in an alpine valley at the end of a 38-mile-long drive­way snaking west­ward from Ra­ton. Guests have been com­ing to Ver­mejo for more than a cen­tury to ex­pe­ri­ence the re­mote­ness of the land, in­ter­act with the wildlife and en­joy the stately lux­ury of the re­sort build­ings, which have been care­fully re­stored.

Our ac­com­mo­da­tions were in a stone cot­tage with mas­sive fire­places and a lovely

ar­range­ment of an­tiques and art. Fifty yards across the lawn, we dined in the main lodge, a model of grand, cozy moun­tain decor, orig­i­nally built in 1909 by Chicago grain mag­nate Wil­liam H. Bartlett. I had an ex­quis­ite bi­son ten­der­loin, the one an­i­mal we hadn’t seen on our sa­fari — the bi­son had been hang­ing out in a dif­fer­ent part of the prop­erty.

The bi­son are un­doubt­edly the most fa­mous of the prop­erty’s wildlife, a ge­net­i­cally pure herd of about 1,400 head that was raised from only 87 an­i­mals. When Turner bought the land from an oil cor­po­ra­tion (which had been us­ing it as an ex­ec­u­tive hunt­ing re­treat), the first thing he did was re­move 33,000 head of cat­tle, then pro­ceeded to grow the bi­son herd, bring the Rio Grande cut­throat trout back from the brink of ex­tinc­tion, and man­age the lo­cal elk pop­u­la­tion to a sus­tain­able level.

Else­where on the prop­erty are a small rid­ing sta­ble, var­i­ous shoot­ing and archery ranges, and hik­ing and rid­ing trails, but most of the land re­mains wild, rugged and hard to ac­cess. Turner re­stored the stately stone lodge and cot­tages in or­der to es­tab­lish a highend eco­tourism op­er­a­tion, which, in turn, helps fund on­go­ing con­ser­va­tion ef­forts. That means guests who come to hike, ride, hunt, fish and shoot — and wine and dine — are con­tribut­ing to Turner and his team’s ef­fort to bring the land back to a more nat­u­ral state.

Over din­ner, gen­eral man­ager Jade Mcbride said of Ver­mejo’s change: “Twenty-three years later, the wildlife is abun­dant, the for­est is healthy, and the grass is tall.” I sliced an­other medi­um­rare bite and chewed on that in­for­ma­tion.

The next morn­ing, the girls and I would hike across the valley, then to the sta­ble to meet (and catch, groom and ride) some of the horses. But for the mo­ment, af­ter a day of driv­ing and with bel­lies full, we were con­tent to cud­dle in front of the grand fire­place and watch snow fall out­side.

Joshua Berman is the au­thor of “Colorado Camp­ing.”

Find him at joshuaber­man.net.

Pro­vided by Ver­mejo, a Ted Turner Re­serve

Moun­tain bik­ing is one of the many ac­tiv­i­ties avail­able to guests at Ver­mejo.

Pro­vided by Ver­mejo, a Ted Turner Re­serve

Sports shoot­ing is one of a va­ri­ety of things to do out­doors at this Ted Turner Re­serve.

Pro­vided by Ver­mejo, a Ted Turner Re­serve

The great room in the main lodge was built in 1909 by Chicago grain mag­nate Wil­liam H. Bartlett.

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