Saving the ranch: AVLT prepares to close on purchase of Coffman Ranch near Carbondale
Rex and Jo Coffman couldn’t imagine their 141 acres of land east of Carbondale being anything but a working ranch and riverfront nature preserve. So they made sure of it.
The Coffmans, now both 90 years old, have been working with the Aspen Valley Land Trust in recent years on a plan to keep the ranch in agriculture well beyond their own years.
That vision is about to become reality Aug. 31, when the AVLT is set to close on the purchase of the property with the goal of maintaining it as a working ranch, while also serving as an outdoors, agricultural and science learning center accessible to the public.
The closing will also mark the launch of a four-year public fundraising campaign aimed at securing a total of $14 million, about half of which is to complete the land purchase itself. The other half is to go toward restoring the property; enhancing wetlands, providing public access, including a fishing easement on the Roaring Fork River; and developing an educational facility for partner organizations, including area schools and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, to use.
Funders so far have included Garfield County, Pitkin County, Great Outdoors Colorado and AVLT’s River Valley Ranch Open Space Fund. AVLT was also before the Carbondale Town Board of Trustees Tuesday night with a request for $25,000.
A dedicated Coffman Ranch web page now lives on the AVLT website.
“There comes a time in life when you’ve got to start thinking about what you’re going to do at our age,” Rex Coffman said during a reflective moment while sitting with Jo on their back porch Tuesday morning.
“Both of us agreed we would like to put the ranch in a position where it would always be in ranching,” he said. “That’s pretty important for us to know that.”
Their three adult children and their families agreed, and the wheels were put in motion to work with AVLT to make it happen.
“It’s the best thing that could happen to us, really … for our future,” he said.
That not only speaks to their own future, but the future of agriculture and the preservation of natural open spaces in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“There’s just getting to be so many people here, causing congestion with our traveling, more cars on the highway,” Jo Coffman added. “I just think people enjoy seeing open space, rather than many, many houses. We’re happy we can do this.”
Time stands still
During a recent walking tour of the property led by AVLT staff, the expanse of irrigated pastures and hay fields, shrublands and old tree stands stretching toward the Roaring Fork River is like a stroll back to the middle of the 20th century.
Other than ranch improvements to aid in working the land, the Coffmans have maintained the riverfront property in much the same state as it was in when they acquired the ranch in 1958.
With the summer hay-growing season in full swing, the grassy fields are ankle-deep in water in places.
The ranch “boneyard,” as AVLT Philanthropy Director Jeff Davlyn refers to it, is the only real disturbance of the natural landscape to be seen other than the Coffman house, a couple of other adjacent residences, the old dairy barn and other outbuildings.
There are a few old pieces of machinery sitting amid a pile of scorched cottonwood trees — remnants from a brush fire that raced across the landscape in 2008 when a neighbor’s field burned out of control.
A pair of red-tailed hawks hover overhead, looking for a meal in the tall grass. Blue herons, cranes, bald eagles and various migratory birds frequent the property, along with deer, turkeys, bears, coyotes and even the occasional moose.
One lone ponderosa pine tree a few hundred yards north of the main ranch house is believed to be around 350 to 400 years old. Davlyn said an aerial photo of the property taken in the mid-1950s shows a stretch of ponderosa woodlands lining the river.
“With some time and effort, we could even see some of that restoration come back to life,” Davlyn said. “That’s just one of the many habitat improvements that are possible out here.”
The riverfront itself could be a real-life outdoor classroom to teach children — and adults — about the river ecosystem and riparian zones.
Across the river, the Ranch at Roaring Fork, when it was developed in the 1980s, decided to keep homes away from the river and protect that area. The result is one of the last truly undisturbed sections of the middle Roaring Fork River in the valley.
“The possibilities are endless when it comes to partnerships out here,” Davlyn said of the potential to partner with the Ranch at Roaring Fork homeowners and other neighboring landowners on various restoration projects.
Place to call home
The broader public education opportunities are endless, he said.
“One of the things we’re seeking to do is build connections to the land for people who don’t really have those opportunities to see working ag in action,” Davlyn said. “It’s just a great space to stop and breathe and have outdoor classes for kids who’ve never been exposed to this kind of thing.”
It’s also an opportunity to provide a permanent home for the Land Trust, which has worked with land owners since the late 1960s to preserve open space through conservation easements and other projects.
“We’re a land trust without our own land, so this will be an awesome demonstration ranch where we can have people come out and really connect with conservation and understand in a tangible way what our work really is,” said Carly Bolliger, communication manager for AVLT.
Added Suzanne Stephens, AVLT executive director, “This is a really important purchase for us. It is not every day we endeavor to buy land — and this ranch in particular is very special and will be special for the community.”
The scheduled closing is the culmination of a lot of hard work that involved developing partnerships, writing grants and doing the initial fundraising, Stephens said.
“Closing day will really kick off all the work and fundraising for what’s to come,” she said. “We are excited to put some elbow grease into the place, and intend to restore some of the historic structures, address fence and irrigation maintenance, and put together a robust resource management plan that will address the critical resources on the property and how to protect them while providing public and educational access for the community.”
Ultimately, Stephens said the project encapsulates all elements of AVLT’s strategic plan: protect and steward land, engage the community on the land and build an organization capable of sustaining its mission in perpetuity.
“This project does all that,” she said. “It’s not a be-all-end-all, it’s a catalyst, and it’s already opening doors to new partnerships and ways of envisioning and furthering our work.”
Ranching heritage preserved
Davlyn referred to Rex Coffman as a “walking Farmer’s Almanac.”
He has stories of the ranch and ranching life in the Roaring Fork Valley that go back decades. He still keeps stacks of calendars with all his irrigation data over the years, water levels and herd data.
The Coffmans were just the third owners of the ranch, after purchasing it from Albert Cerise in 1958.
Before that, Rex helped run the family ranch near Eagle before his father retired. And before that, they raised cattle in Nebraska, where Rex and Jo grew up.
The prospect of having irrigated land on the river was what attracted them to the river bottoms east of Carbondale.
“We were from Nebraska, which was pretty much dryland ranching,” Rex Coffman said. “So it was a big change for us going to the mountains and having irrigation water.”
When they first bought the ranch, there were maybe just four primary families that owned ranches in the Roaring Fork Valley, he said.
Not long after they came in, much of that land started getting parceled off for the many large-lot and in some cases even more dense subdivisions that now line the valley.
“Neighbors are very important on a ranch,” Rex said. “You help each other, and that’s always been the case with us.”
The setting and proximity to Carbondale provided a good place to raise their children, Jo Coffman said.
“It was close enough to town, and at the time the road was not very busy, so the kids could ride their bicycles into town for baseball practice or whatever,” she said.
Eventually, she went to work as a teacher in the Carbondale schools.
For a while, the Coffmans had dairy cattle, along with a handful of other ranchers in the valley.
“The milk went out to Glenwood Springs and then to Grand Junction,” Rex Coffman said. “That was a check every two weeks, which was pretty important back in that time.”
They also ran the cow and calf operation, and to this day the ranch supports longtime local rancher Bill Fales’ operation. Fales leases the Coffman Ranch for its hay production.
“It’s such an amazing property, so close to town and really good ag land,” Fales, who runs Cold Mountain Ranch south of Carbondale, said.
“It’s the only place where I’ve ever seen a sandhill crane’s nest in this entire valley,” he said. “It’s really fantastic what they’re doing, and I like seeing it preserved.”
Fales also is a supporter of AVLT, and has worked with the organization as well as the Cattlemen’s Land Trust to place conservation easements on his own property.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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