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Water Wars and Hidden Riches on Colorado's High Plains

Water Wars and Hidden Riches on Colorado's High Plains
Jay Vollmar

When Wes McKinley learned that he had a date for a contempt-of-court hearing and that he might be going to jail if found guilty, he knew that the situation called for something special. A barbecue, maybe?

Yes, a barbecue. McKinley lives about forty miles from the Baca County courthouse in Springfield, on land that his grandfather homesteaded more than a century ago. But many of his friends and supporters would be driving hundreds of miles, from places like Colorado Springs and Denver, and they would be arriving hungry. So McKinley arranged to grill burgers outside the courthouse before the afternoon hearing.

A 75-year-old widower, rancher and occasional gas-well minder, McKinley has always believed in doing things his own way. Thirty years ago, it was his ornery curiosity, as much as the luck of the draw, that drove him to become the foreman of the federal grand jury investigating safety violations at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant; the panel made international headlines by seeking stiffer charges against the plant operators and the Department of Energy than government prosecutors had in mind. After that experience, he rode a mule named Marvin across much of eastern Colorado, introducing himself to voters as an independent candidate for Congress. He drew only a small percentage of the vote, but Marvin won the endorsement of the Greeley Tribune. McKinley then got the Democrats to back him and served eight years in the Colorado Legislature.

As a state rep, McKinley tangled often with Front Range politicos who had little interest in the needs and aspirations of folks in the remote southeast corner of the state. His latest crusade, though, hasn’t endeared him to some of his neighbors. Over a period of several months, McKinley filed objections to dozens of applications for permits for new wells in Baca County. It’s his contention that the groundwater in his county is already over-appropriated; that under Colorado’s abstruse water laws, he’s entitled to object to new wells as a citizen concerned about the dwindling water table; and that it’s up to the state engineer to prove at a mandated hearing that the water is available.

But the Colorado Ground Water Commission, as well as the attorneys for the applicants, tends to interpret the applicable statutes a bit differently. Every one of McKinley’s objections was rejected without a hearing, on the basis that he lacks legal standing to object. He appealed those decisions to the CGWC and then to district court, only to be threatened with an assessment of thousands of dollars in legal costs, slapped with an injunction forbidding him from filing any more objections on his own, and yes, accused of contempt of court for his “vexatious” appeals and abuse of administrative processes.

All of which led to the cookout in the parking lot of the courthouse in Springfield a few weeks ago. The turnout included several current state lawmakers and other officials, but COVID-19 restrictions kept most of the crowd out of Judge Stanley Brinkley’s courtroom. Instead, they listened to the hearing on speakers rigged outside the building. The liveliest testimony came during a testy exchange between McKinley and Alan Curtis, an attorney representing several of the exasperated well applicants, about whether McKinley intended to persist in his vexatiousness, despite being shot down on every appeal.

“You’re conversant with the legal process,” Curtis said. “Is that accurate?”

“Well, I’ve read some legal books,” McKinley drawled. “I just finished a couple of good John Grisham books. Yeah, I know a little.”

“You’re also a former lawmaker,” Curtis continued. “It’s your position today that the law is what you say it is and not what Judge Brinkley says it is or this attorney says it is?”

“My position is the law as written,” McKinley replied. “If it doesn’t agree, then there’s a difference of opinion, and some of you are wrong.”

Former lawmaker and current rancher Wes McKinley.EXPAND
Former lawmaker and current rancher Wes McKinley.
Alan Prendergast

Despite Judge Brinkley’s injunction forbidding him from challenging new well permits, McKinley maintained that he had to file appeals to preserve his rights in cases that had been initiated before the judge’s order. Brinkley, who was once a student in a high school math class taught by McKinley, conceded that the rancher was “between a rock and a hard place.” But he still found his former teacher in contempt, sentenced him to ninety days in jail, then suspended the sentence, provided McKinley stops filing objections and appeals.

“You can’t keep hitting your head against the wall,” Brinkley said. “We need to stop this.”

Although he had a court-appointed attorney to assist him at the hearing, McKinley was clearly outgunned. But concerns about the dwindling water resources in the semi-arid High Plains extend well beyond his one-man campaign. A southwest Kansas water official and other ranchers in Baca County also filed objections to some of the new well permits, only to be rebuffed as brusquely as McKinley was. Unlike the others, McKinley chose to doggedly persist in his opposition — a decision he doesn’t regret, he says now.

“Our wells are going dry,” McKinley declares. He cites instances of neighbors who’ve had to drill deeper wells at great expense to meet domestic needs, of irrigation wells producing at half or a third of the rate they once did, of stock wells drying up entirely. “Once we get to a certain point, we’re done.”

Water, or the absence of it, has always been the principal force shaping the history of the West. That’s particularly true in southeastern Colorado, which has seen a procession of climate-related disasters, from ancient droughts that may have prompted the exodus of Indigenous groups centuries before European settlement, to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, to more recent water wars and drought cycles, triggering costly diversion projects and lawsuits over interstate river compacts.

The water challenges facing McKinley’s neighbors receive scarce mention in Colorado’s major media outlets, except when some Front Range municipality announces a new acquisition of water rights, drying up more agricultural land in the Lower Arkansas River Valley. The area lacks political clout, cultural cachet and fancy restaurants; its seven sprawling, sparsely populated counties are among the poorest in per capita income in the state. Yet the communities that have hung on in Colorado’s most neglected corner may be more adaptable, with more to teach the rest of us, than you might expect. They are seeking to diversify an economy that’s been reliant on ranching and farming (and lots of water) for generations. They are drumming up tourism campaigns focusing on a wide array of heritage sites and the area’s little-known but astonishing canyon country, teeming with wildlife, rock art and dinosaur tracks. And in a time of pandemic, they have something to offer visitors that mountain towns don’t: low rates of reported infections, no lines and lots of solitude.

“We know all about social distancing,” McKinley says. “We’re used to it.”

Picketwire Canyon is known for its wildlife and archaeological treasures.EXPAND
Picketwire Canyon is known for its wildlife and archaeological treasures.
Alan Prendergast

To Spanish explorers, what is now southeastern Colorado was El Cuartelejo — the Far Quarter. It was a distant and forbidding place, an outpost of a far-flung empire. According to legend, an expedition of conquistadors dispatched into the heart of its treacherous, meandering canyons disappeared without a trace and without last rites, so the river that ran through the canyons was named El Río de Las Ánimas Perdidas en Purgatorio, the River of Lost Souls in Purgatory — now known simply as the Purgatoire or Picketwire, a tributary to the Arkansas.

In the early nineteenth century, the Arkansas served as the boundary between territories held by Spain and France, and then as the border between the United States and Mexico. The Mexican-American War changed that, but the region remained largely a no-man’s-land for people to pass through, usually in the well-worn ruts of the Santa Fe Trail, rather than a place to put down roots. Homesteading didn’t take off in the Far Quarter until the 1910s and 1920s, when a stampede of settlers from New Mexico, Kansas, Missouri and (of course) Texas arrived amid a flood of new post offices and school districts. Many of the newcomers were convinced that dry farming methods could have a beneficial effect on the harsh climate of the High Plains — that, in effect, “rain follows the plow.”

It didn’t. Crop prices plummeted, and then came the massive dust storms of the “Dirty Thirties,” the greatest ecological disaster in the nation’s history. By the mid-1930s, the Dust Bowl stretched across fifty million acres, from eastern Colorado and western Kansas to the Texas Panhandle. A single storm that began on May 9, 1934, stripped off an estimated 300 million tons of topsoil. People ate under their tablecloths; dirt blocked roads like snowdrifts and paralyzed train travel. And just when the wind seemed to let up, plagues of grasshoppers exploded across the plains, blacking out the sun and blanketing what remained of the crops. Many of the homesteaders moved on, sold out or went broke. Those that remained became reliant on irrigation to make the desert bloom, especially after another round of drought, wind and collapsing farm prices in the 1950s.

A dust storm in Baca County in 1935; many farming operations in southeast Colorado never recovered from the devastation of the “Dirty Thirties.”
A dust storm in Baca County in 1935; many farming operations in southeast Colorado never recovered from the devastation of the “Dirty Thirties.”
Courtesy of Library of Congress, Ward, J.H.

Some of the distressed properties were purchased by the federal government and eventually became part of the Comanche National Grassland, encompassing 440,000 acres in southeastern Colorado. In the 1980s, the U.S. Army snapped up another 235,000 acres south of La Junta, using condemnation powers to strong-arm reluctant sellers, and established the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, where troops from Fort Carson engage in large-scale training exercises.

The takeover was an unmistakable declaration that the feds considered the area to be one big nowhere, best suited for war games. Yet the creation of the PCMS had some unexpected consequences. Federal regulations required a thorough review of the new training site’s environmental and archaeological resources — the first real inventory of what was hiding in the Far Quarter’s canyons and arroyos. Far from being a wasteland, the region turned out to be critical habitat for the bald eagle, the swift fox, the American peregrine falcon and other “species of concern,” as well as mountain lions, bighorn sheep and other animals usually associated with higher elevations. The canyons also contained a unique trove of historic and prehistoric artifacts: extensive dinosaur bones and tracks that were 150 million years old; petroglyphs pecked into the canyon walls thousands of years ago; and remnants of Native American and Hispanic settlements from well before the Anglo homesteaders arrived.

“It’s incredible country,” says Lawrence Loendorf, an anthropologist and archaeologist who assisted the Army in its assessment of PCMS resources. “Everyone goes to the western part of Colorado, and they pretty much ignore it. In some ways, that may be a good thing.”

Loendorf has written several books dealing with the rock art of the High Plains. One of his areas of expertise centers on the extensive petroglyph sites in the Piñon Canyon area associated with the Apishapa, a hunter-gatherer culture that thrived in the canyons a thousand years ago but vanished around 1400 A.D. The hunting scenes carved into the rocks are essential clues in a centuries-old mystery.

“When they built the PCMS, they referred to the canyonlands as ‘uneconomic remnants,’” Loendorf observes. “What that meant to the Army was they could not train with tank maneuvers there because they were too rugged. They had no idea of what they were going to find. It’s so rich — it’s not Mesa-Verde-type holdings, but it’s still incredible archaeology. There are Apishapa stone villages down there that have forty or fifty rooms.”

In 1991, federal legislation sponsored by then-Senator Tim Wirth shifted 16,000 acres of the most fragile and sensitive sections of the PCMS from the Army to the U.S. Forest Service, which administers the adjacent Comanche National Grassland. But a few years later, as the wars escalated in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army began to float a proposal to acquire another 418,000 acres for its maneuver site. Leaked documents revealed a long-range plan to acquire up to 6.9 million acres of southeast Colorado, roughly a tenth of the state, including numerous private ranches and chunks of the public grasslands — a move that could displace up to 17,000 people.

“The land is sparsely populated and eminently suitable for the type of extended operations envisioned,” reads one document. “Currently, this plan does not envision acquiring the towns scattered throughout this area, although some of the smaller towns may become available over time if PCMS obtains large adjoining tracts for training.”

This time the locals were better organized. They formed coalitions and lobbied state and federal lawmakers for legislation that would prevent any additional land purchases in the area for military purposes. They used the Army’s own surveys and environmental reports to argue that further expansion and more intensive use of the maneuver site would have profound ecological consequences and imperil archaeological sites. McKinley took city slickers from the Statehouse on trail rides through the canyons to show them what was at stake. In 2013, after years of congressional pressure, the Pentagon formally abandoned its efforts to expand the PCMS.

While several ranchers have been critical of the Army’s stewardship of the land, Loendorf believes that the military presence, with its passion for inventories and rules, may have helped preserve some important sites. “In a lot of ways, the Army was doing a better job of managing the resources than the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service,” he says. “They have a larger budget, and they’re able to control who’s doing what.”

It’s true that the most easily accessible archaeological sites are also most likely to be targets of vandalism and theft. Vogel Canyon, a popular hiking and petroglyph viewing area thirteen miles from La Junta, has become an object lesson in how easily precious rock art from another millennium can be defaced and obliterated by morons, compelled to scratch their own names over the funny pictures. The impulse is not new; some of the graffiti in Vogel Canyon appears to date back to the 1920s.

By contrast, some of the best-maintained sites and wildlife habitat in the region can be found on working ranches that have remained in private hands for generations. In 2015, the Nature Conservancy paid $21 million for the JE Canyon Ranch, a 50,000-acre spread along the Purgatoire River that boasts a wildlife preserve, including one of the largest bighorn sheep populations in the state. After establishing conservation easements that would protect the property from future development, the group recently sold it to Texas millionaire Bobby Hill, who owns several other Colorado ranches.

The ranch has rock art estimated to be 3,000 years old and dinosaur tracks older than the 150-million-year-old tracks found in Picketwire Canyon, which lies on the edge of the PCMS. It also has miles of sandstone canyons and rich grasslands that attract the swift fox, the ladder-backed woodpecker, peregrine falcons, the Texas horned lizard, the hepatic tanager (a colorful songbird not generally seen in Colorado) and even a subspecies of hog-nosed skunk, rarely seen anywhere since the 1940s, according to Chris Pague, a conservation ecologist with the Nature Conservancy.

“It’s another piece of evidence that there are some rare species that are still hidden away in these relatively undisturbed lands out there,” Pague notes.

Still, not all of the hidden gems of the canyon country are on private lands or the PCMS. Picketwire Canyon has become a popular destination for the rock-art-and-dino set, despite its remoteness and restrictions (no cars allowed, except for weekend four-wheel-drive guided tours, which are currently suspended because of the pandemic). Even more remote, but open to a determined public, are Picture Canyon and Carrizo Canyon, which also offer abundant hiking, birding and petroglyph viewing. Or you can take a cue from the conquistadors, like Doug Holdread did.

A Trinidad artist who was deeply involved in the effort opposing expansion of the PCMS, Holdread decided a few years ago to hike along the Purgatoire upstream from its confluence with the Arkansas, following the river’s path — parched and placid, sometimes rapid and turbulent — through the canyons and plains roughly 150 miles to its headwaters west of Trinidad. He did it in stages and mostly solo, taking time out for a wedding ceremony with his wife, Lori, at the river’s edge.

“I love the fact that there weren’t interpretive signs everywhere,” Holdread says. “But every place I would take time to look, I found rock art.”

Canyons in southestern Colorado hide rock art created by long-vanished Indigenous groups, such as this panel in Carrizo Canyon.EXPAND
Canyons in southestern Colorado hide rock art created by long-vanished Indigenous groups, such as this panel in Carrizo Canyon.
Alan Prendergast

Wes McKinley sees a common theme in the chronicle found in the rock art in the canyons and his family’s own odyssey across the prairie. In the most basic, Maslovian kind of terms, they were all after the same things.

“There have been lots of people through the canyons, for two reasons,” he says. “Water and shelter.”

In 1910, Percy McKinley, Wes’s grandfather, said adios to his brother’s place in Oklahoma and headed for Colorado. “He came in the wintertime, so he must have been desperate to get out of there,” Wes says. “He set up a teepee, dug a hole and homesteaded right here.”

In his youth, Wes moved around a bit, from Colorado to Oklahoma and Kansas and then back again, as his family tried to stay ahead of the severe drought of the 1950s and went in search of better land, better jobs, a better deal. After college, he taught school for a while, then worked in the oil fields and ran cattle, eventually taking over his grandfather’s ranch.

“I never had much ambition,” he says. “All I ever wanted to do was be a cowboy. My life was complete at fourteen. I had a good horse, a rifle that shot straight, and a dog that came when I called it. Then a beautiful woman come into my life, and I added that. Never needed anything else.”

The woman was Janice Louise Hardy, his high school sweetheart and wife for 46 years. She died of breast cancer in 2011, at the age of 64. Long before that loss, McKinley discovered that settling down to a life of cowboying wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought. A 1989 jury summons to the federal courthouse in Denver put him on a different path entirely. He became the most visible figure in a runaway grand jury that broke away from its handlers in a gutsy effort to hold corporate and government officials responsible for environmental crimes at Rocky Flats. And he rode that notoriety — and Marvin the mule — into a career in politics.

A Democrat in a heavily Republican district, McKinley vowed to represent his constituents rather than a particular ideology. He rejected party leaders’ insistence that he work phones and walk precincts several hours a week to raise campaign funds, preferring his own low-key hobnobbing over cookouts and cowboy-guitar sessions. “There isn’t a door I could knock on within fifty miles that would make a bit of difference,” he says. “They would know who I was, and they would already have their mind made up whether they were going to vote for me or not.”

His current battle over drilling new wells in Baca County has a similar improvisational quality. His own wells aren’t tapped out yet, but they’re sputtering. He can’t afford a high-priced water attorney, but what’s wrong with asking the Ground Water Commission to explain itself? The threat of being assessed costs from the other side for contesting well permits doesn’t worry him too much, he says; having turned over much of what he owned to his children some time ago, he’s practically judgment-proof.

If nothing else, McKinley’s crusade has brought attention to the profound disconnect between the emerging water crisis in eastern Colorado and a state policy that encourages total depletion of the resource. The surface water in virtually all of the state’s major river basins, from the Colorado, Arkansas and Rio Grande rivers to the humblest creeks, has been over-appropriated for decades. The major source of non-tributary water in the Far Quarter is the High Plains Aquifer, also known as the Ogallala Aquifer. Farms and ranches have been draining the aquifer, a vast underground reservoir of fresh water stretching across eight states, at an accelerating rate, despite warnings that the overpumping is likely to have catastrophic effects on fish habitat, interstate compact agreements and the sustainability of the aquifer itself, which requires centuries to recharge.

An aerial view of an irrigated crop circle along the Cimarron River in southeast Colorado.EXPAND
An aerial view of an irrigated crop circle along the Cimarron River in southeast Colorado.
Alan Prendergast

The warnings have been trickling through Baca County for more than fifty years. A 1966 study of groundwater in the area of the Cimarron River, which cuts across the southeast corner of Colorado and then vacillates between Kansas and Oklahoma, concluded that “the most serious problem in the Cimarron Basin appears to be the extreme decline of water levels from pumping.” A 2001 report prepared for the Southern High Plains Groundwater Management District noted that groundwater levels in the district had dropped a hundred feet in the past half-century; the report recommended a moratorium on all new and replacement wells in the High Plains Aquifer, except for domestic wells with a modest pumping rate of 15 gallons per minute.

Yet no moratorium was ever put in place. Instead, the Colorado Ground Water Commission has continued to issue large-capacity well permits like they were gimme caps. Data provided by the Colorado Division of Water Resources indicates that the commission granted 64 permits for new wells in the Southern High Plains in the last 21 months — a rate that’s more than triple the average number for the previous five years.

“Colorado does not have a statutory directive that impact to an aquifer needs to be considered when issuing a well permit,” says Kevin Rein, the state engineer, who also serves as executive director of the groundwater commission.

Long-range studies about climate change and dwindling aquifers don’t figure in the permitting process, which is preoccupied with mundane questions of how many other wells are operating within half a mile of the new well and whether an immediate neighbor would suffer “material damage” from additional pumping. McKinley contends that the rules as currently written don’t adequately protect the resource and shift the burden of proof to the opponents, who have to show that their own water rights would be adversely impacted by a new well. But Rein points out that some groundwater management districts have successfully petitioned the commission for a declaration that their area is over-appropriated, a finding that prevents the issuance of new well permits.

“That has happened in many of the basins, but it hasn’t happened in the Southern High Plains,” Rein observes. It isn’t the commission’s place to get involved in promoting such prohibitions or seeking changes in the law that would protect the High Plains Aquifer from more wells, he adds: “As the state engineer, I don’t have the charge to bring that sort of policy discussion.”

Water attorney Curtis estimates that McKinley’s objections cost his clients $200,000 in legal expenses and delays. McKinley’s time would have been better spent, he suggests, gathering the required technical data to petition the commission to close the district to new wells.

“Water rights are vested property rights, and you can’t strip someone of those rights without a proper basis,” Curtis says. “He knows the process. Either he doesn’t have the energy to do it the right way or he doesn’t care. But he never presented a single piece of relevant evidence to support his position.”

A major factor in the recent surge of permits in Baca County is a ramping up of irrigation wells on the Cimarron Valley Ranch, a 45,000-acre cattle ranch that stretches along 22 miles of the Cimarron River in Oklahoma and Colorado. Owned by Georgia-based LGS Holding Group, the property is for sale for $39,900,000, reduced from $45 million. An online real estate listing touts “some of the best hunting in the country,” including the ranch’s resident elk herd, as well as “incredible diversity in regard to terrain, wildlife, livestock grazing, income opportunities and more.” Also prominently mentioned is the ranch’s ample water supply and new well permits, which will allow the operation to double its number of irrigation pivots.

The 45,000-acre CImarron Valley Ranch is for sale; the price has just been reduced to $39,900,000.
The 45,000-acre CImarron Valley Ranch is for sale; the price has just been reduced to $39,900,000.
Hayden Outdoors

The mega-ranch’s wells account for nearly half of the permits the commission has issued in the Southern High Plains over the past two years. That rankles local rancher Dan Caldwell, a longtime friend of McKinley’s, whose property lies just across the state line from the Oklahoma stretch of the Cimarron Valley Ranch. Caldwell says that he, too, filed an objection to the LGS permits, but was told he hadn’t proved material damage — and that he could be liable for legal fees if he persisted. He knew his objection wasn’t going anywhere, he says, when he learned a representative of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office was joining the case —representing the groundwater commission, not the citizens of Baca County.

“We have no recourse,” Caldwell says. “We are nothing to them. There’s no reason to give our water away so freely, but they’re doing it.”

The Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District also protested the LGS applications, on the grounds that new pumping along the Cimarron River was bound to diminish supplies downstream. A few years ago, Kansas won a long-running lawsuit concerning Colorado’s excessive water use under the Arkansas River Compact, but no such compact exists regarding the Cimarron.

“Colorado has a presumption that there’s water available for any application unless there’s a hearing,” notes Mark Rude, executive director of the district. “We had to become an opposer of the application in order to be involved in the hearing process. We’ve since discovered that Colorado works to not have a hearing process.”

Like Caldwell and McKinley, Rude was told there wouldn’t be a hearing because he lacked the legal standing to object. Southwest Kansas no longer permits new wells that would draw upon the High Plains Aquifer out of concern over the falling water table. But neither Colorado nor Oklahoma has followed suit.

“We have tools in Kansas to propose reductions in allocations, just to make the water last a little longer,” Rude says. “But it’s hard to have those conversations locally when people say, ‘Well, it’s unrestricted in Colorado and the Oklahoma Panhandle.’”

Rein calls the recent spike in permits in Baca County “anomalous” and doesn’t see any particular cause for concern in the recent water enhancements at a 45,000-acre ranch. “Certainly, some people in the basin are alarmed,” he says. “Is the commission alarmed? I don’t think we’ve had open discussion about that.”

McKinley doesn’t know what his objections might have accomplished, but he hopes more people will ask questions about where the water is going. “You don’t know what works and what don’t,” he says. “I’ve always thought there’s nothing wasted; it’s an experience gained. Sometimes, though, you pay a lot of tuition and wonder what you’ve learned.”

The remote canyons of southeast Colorado contain the largest collection of dinosaur tracks in North America.
The remote canyons of southeast Colorado contain the largest collection of dinosaur tracks in North America.
Colorado.com

The only public access to the dinosaur tracks in Picketwire Canyon is by way of the Withers Canyon trailhead, an eleven-mile round trip. With the guided four-wheel tours suspended, you have three choices for mode of transport: mountain bike, horseback or on foot.

Bikers might think twice, after watching a few cautionary YouTube videos about the many, many goat’s head stickers and opportunities for flat tires. The horse option has some drawbacks, too; although most of the path is a level stroll along the canyon floor, the steep descent into the canyon on a rock-strewn trail and the purgatorial ascent at the end may not be something you want to do on top of a thousand-pound animal.

That leaves the third option, a six-hour hike in rugged and largely exposed country. Since temperatures in the canyon can be intense from late spring until early fall, reaching as high as 110 degrees in July and August, the Forest Service advises visitors to carry “at least” a gallon of water per person. (In 2017, two summer hikers died in separate heat-related incidents.) But on a temperate fall day, the startling, shifting environment of the canyon — from juniper-and-piñon prairie to meadows lined with cottonwoods to bright fields of yarrow and cacti in bloom — can make you forget you’re wandering through the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.

For most visitors, the highlight of the journey is crossing the Purgatoire to arrive at a vast limestone plain, the stamping ground of monsters. The giant paw prints embedded in the ancient lake shore, back when the canyon was a lush, steamy tropical retreat, tell a story about lumbering, plant-eating apatosauruses traveling in gregarious herds, and the three-toed carnivores who stalked them. This quarter-mile stretch of the river is the most extensive set of dinosaur tracks in North America, yet it’s just a small portion of the Jurassic riches in the area; numerous fossils have been painstakingly unearthed by volunteers under the supervision of a Forest Service paleontologist.

The bones and tracks may be the main draw, but they’re hardly the only one. In 1988, a University of Wisconsin student on a field trip headed down from the west rim of the canyon to check out the dinosaur tracks. On the way down, he came across a petroglyph panel in a shallow alcove and snapped a picture of it. He assumed the panel was already well known to researchers. It wasn’t. According to Loendorf’s account in his book Thunder & Herds: Rock Art of the High Plains, when a wildlife biologist familiar with the canyon saw the photo, “he realized that he was looking at a significant and previously unknown site.”

The panel features a single human figure in the center, surrounded by three dozen quadrupeds — some with elaborate antlers, some suggestive of bison and sheep. The central figure holds an object in its right hand, possibly a net or snare, indicating a form of control over the animals. Loendorf regards the Zookeeper, as the panel has become known, as one of several key rock-art sites in the area that provide glimpses into the hunter-gatherer culture that once flourished there. He believes a climatic event more than 600 years ago, one that ruined crops and drove the game away, may have been responsible for its abrupt disappearance.

“You have these obvious hunt scenes, driving animals — antelope, probably — into nets, and then it just ends,” he notes. “It pretty much suggests that the Apishapa were affected, like all of the Southwest, by drought. I personally think at least some of the Apishapa people were seasonal and pulled back to the mountains in the wintertime. And the drought period ended that; then they stayed close to the mountains year-round. Then came the Apache and the Comanche. They weren’t dependent on trying to grow corn.”

With virtually all of Colorado in a state of severe to exceptional drought this year, many planners are taking a good look at the writing (or pecking) on the wall. In the Far Quarter, that means trying to figure out how to be less dependent on growing corn and other water-intensive crops, developing more sustainable ranching practices, and diversifying the local economy.

“This year is definitely far more challenging than last,” says Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “It’s been an extremely tough year. The ranchers are short on good pasture, irrigation canals went dry, and they didn’t produce nearly the alfalfa they have in past years. Some people say this is the best ‘next year’ country they’ve ever been in.”

But Long, a former Bent County commissioner, sees some positives, too. Although the pandemic shutdown cost businesses in his area as it did everywhere else, the long-term effect seems to be less dramatic than it has been in more populous areas. And last month state, federal and local officials held a groundbreaking for the long-awaited Arkansas Valley Conduit, a 130-mile, $600 million pipeline project that will improve drinking-water quality for 50,000 people in southeastern Colorado, from Boone to Lamar. First proposed more than forty years ago but stalled because of a lack of funding, the conduit has finally received enough first-stage state and federal money to begin to replace local “hard” water, high in salts and radionuclides, with fresh water from Lake Pueblo. The move doesn’t increase the communities’ water supply, but should aid with economic-development efforts.

“We always feel shortchanged out here on the plains, but in this case the state really stepped up,” Long says. “Had it not been for the state, I’m fairly certain we would not have gotten the federal funds we did.”

Farmers in the Arkansas Valley, like agricultural interests across the West, are on the lookout for crops that are growing in demand and use less water; right now the buzzword is hemp, even though the competition is formidable and the market uncertain. “I think there are enough uses for hemp products, and we have a lot of land down here,” says Jim Rizzuto, a former state lawmaker and president of Otero Junior College in La Junta. “It could help the ag industry to utilize acres they may not have the water for.”

Politically, the region doesn’t have the kind of leverage it had in the sixteen years Rizzuto was in the Statehouse; for much of that time, the House speaker was Carl “Bev” Bledsoe, a no-nonsense rancher from Hugo. “There’s a continual struggle here as farming becomes more difficult,” Rizzuto acknowledges. “What we need to do is not only grow the hemp, but try to get production plants. The local economic-development people have tried to work with different groups. At the same time, we don’t have the infrastructure that cities do to bring in other industries.”

Bicycling the canyons has become more popular in recent years, despite the hazards.EXPAND
Bicycling the canyons has become more popular in recent years, despite the hazards.
Alan Prendergast

The need to do more with less has also encouraged innovation in ranching. Growing up in Wheat Ridge, Grady Grissom always knew he wanted to live on a ranch, as his parents had when they were young, but he took what he calls “a sort of roundabout path” to the business — undergraduate degree from Princeton, doctorate in geology at Stanford, then some time shoeing horses before he and a partner found the right place near Fowler, a 14,000-acre spread of grassland and canyons. For the first few years, he tried to follow standard ranching efficiency practices, only to realize he had too many cows competing for too little forage.

“It was kind of a disaster,” he says. “I spent ten years poking a stick at a complex system, learning how to make cattle part of the ecosystem.”

Grissom’s Rancho Largo now follows a rotational grazing process that claims to promote healthier cows in a more sustainable environment. The beef is pasture-raised, hormone-free and grass-fed (albeit finished on organic corn) — and his custom sales business is booming, thanks in part to pandemic-related meat shortages in grocery stores. While there hasn’t been a stampede among his neighbors to replicate his low-impact methods, Grissom says he’s found the community very receptive to his ideas.

“There were people who took notice of what I was doing, for sure,” he says. “It’s a culture where, if you keep your mouth shut and do what you’re going to do, people watch your actions and realize pretty quickly if you’re going to make it or not. When they see you’re committed to the lifestyle, they’re very welcoming.”

Perhaps the greatest shift in the local economy in recent years stems from setting up a regional task force to promote tourism. The Canyons & Plains campaign urges visitors to explore “Colorado’s outback,” from the boating and fishing at John Martin Reservoir State Park to biking the grasslands to the solitude and wildlife of the canyon country. Videos promote the area’s heritage sites, from the Santa Fe Trail and Bent’s Fort (30,000 visitors a year and rising) to darker aspects of western history, including the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and Camp Amache, the internment camp for thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

Tracesof wagons traveling the Santa Fe Trail are still visible in the Far Quarter; events marking the 200th anniversary of the trail are being planned for next year.EXPAND
Tracesof wagons traveling the Santa Fe Trail are still visible in the Far Quarter; events marking the 200th anniversary of the trail are being planned for next year.
Alan Prendergast

“We defined our niche market as cultural-history buffs,” explains Rick Wallner, the president of the task force board and former chief of interpretation at Bent’s Fort. “The governments down here don’t have a lot of money to push it, but we do have some incredible resources.”

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Wallner says the area is seeing more retirees, lured by real estate prices that are a fraction of those found along the Front Range. A surprising number of visitors also showed up in late summer this year to observe the annual migration of tarantulas, a chance to see hordes of the furry critters crossing roadways outside La Junta. There’s talk of a future tarantula festival, as well as major events planned next year to mark the 200th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail.

Tarantulas are known for their sensitivity to vibrations in the ground that signal the approach of prey or danger. That makes them the perfect mascot for the Far Quarter, where survival can depend on being attuned to the lessons of the past and impending peril.

Alan Curtis says his clients haven’t recovered a single dime of the tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs he’s sought as a result of Wes McKinley’s objections and appeals. McKinley says he fully intends to pay the $288.16 he was assessed in costs by a hearing officer, but he plans to do it on the installment plan — a check for nine dollars and change per month for thirty months. He is thinking about filing an appeal of the court order that prevents him from filing appeals.

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