As Patrick Hamilton drives by a pond on his way to move a herd of cattle on Pinello Ranch, he spots a graceful bird with a curved, narrow beak and spindly legs, and immediately pulls over for a closer look.
“Oooh — it’s an ibis,” marvels Hamilton, the ranch’s caretaker. “I haven’t seen one this year.”
Such are the surprises that await nature lovers lucky enough to visit the 200-acre ranch, an oasis of pasture, ponds, cattle and wildlife where you’d least expect to find it: smack-dab in a busy area rimmed by Interstate 25 on the west, Academy Boulevard on the north and U.S. Highway 85-87 on the east.
Only its neighbor to the south, Venetucci Farm, is in synch with the bucolic nature of Pinello Ranch, and, in fact, the two parcels of land are linked. The nonprofit Pikes Peak Community Foundation owns and manages the better-known Venetucci Farm, but it also manages Pinello as part of a five-year lease agreement with its owner, Colorado Springs Utilities.
If all goes as PPCF officials hope, Pinello could one day rival Venetucci in popularity and become the go-to place for naturalists, especially birders. Ever so slowly, PPCF has been opening the land up to the public through occasional guided birding hikes, testing the waters to see if greater access is warranted and desired.
“We want to open it to the public, yes. But to what extent isn’t known,” says PPCF education coordinator David Rudin, who started slowly with four birding hikes in 2011 and has lined up several for this year, including one on June 30. “We’re trying to slowly get the word out to share it with the public, but we don’t want to love it to death.”
It’s all about the grasses
As Hamilton continues driving on Pinello, he points out a blue heron, and a mother goose and her babies floating on one of five ponds on the property, and talks about the other wildlife that shows up — attracted, in part, by Fountain Creek and the stands of cottonwood that trace its western edge.
“It’s just an unbelievable habitat for birds and deer,” he says. “We’ve spotted bear and bobcats, loons and geese.”
White-tailed deer, beaver, muskrats, two kinds of turtles and frogs are also seen from time to time.
But Hamilton’s primary focus isn’t the wildlife. He’s focused on improving the soil at Pinello and healing the land, and he continues driving until he reaches a pasture of alfalfa and weeds where 20 Angus cows graze lazily in the morning sun. Every day, three times a day, he moves the electric line that defines their eating space so they don’t stay in one area for too long. It allows the plants to grow back, and keeps the cows from trampling the ground.
“I call them my grounds-keepers,” says Hamilton, who, with his wife, also serves as caretaker and manager of Venetucci. “They are constantly mowing and fertilizing for me. They control the weeds for me.”
Their hooves also churn the soil, he said, which loosens it and allows the ground to better absorb water.
Soon enough, the cows will be butchered and sold to people who want grass-fed beef without antibiotics or hormones, but the ranching operation isn’t about raising food. It’s about managing the animals’ grazing area and allowing the grasses to grow back.
“It’s the grass that really heals the soil,” says Hamilton, whose ranching practices are guided by Holistic Management International, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit. “For me, I’m trying to grow grass to care for the ground to make the soil and land as healthy as possible. My hope is to reduce the weed pressure, open it up and have people enjoy the opportunity to see the birds.”
Undisturbed wildlife habitat
To a birder, it’s a piece of paradise. Sue Luenser, an avid birder, is one of two volunteers who signed up to help with a bird survey and Pinello, and they’ve identified about 145 species so far. Her favorite? The Northern Pintail duck. Or maybe it's the American avocets. Or the nesting activity, and the yellow warbler feeding its baby.
She recalls the first time she counted birds at Pinello. It was 2009, and she was helping the local Audubon chapter with its Christmas bird count.
“I had been to Fountain Creek Regional Park, so I kind of knew what to expect, but even so, I was just blown away at the variety of birds we saw at Pinello,” she said. “I was very impressed and excited.”
True enough, Fountain Creek park is about four miles due south of Pinello, and there are similarities between them — ponds, bullrushes, birds and the presence of Fountain Creek itself. But Rudin says Pikes Peak Community Foundation’s emphasis on improving the land and actively working on wildlife conservation distinguishes from its neighbor down the road. He and Hamilton are working with U.S. Fish & Wildlife to mine their expertise on wildlife conservation and learn more about grant sources.
“They’ll help us develop best practices over time,” says Rudin, who also leads kids’ tours from Venetucci to teach them about the delicate ecosystem at Pinello.
Luenser also notices other differences: It’s easier to spot wildlife at Pinello, which is more open, and it’s harder to gain access to Pinello.
“Fountain Creek is essentially open to the public year-round, all the time,” she says. “Pinello, at this point, is restricted access, and that’s probably a benefit for the animals, because there’s just less disturbance.”
Public access down the road
Eric Cefus, director of philanthropic services for PPCF, says the foundation hopes to provide greater public access one day, but it could be way down the road.
“We would love to, but we really can’t put too much time and effort into the property, because it’s not our asset,” he says.
Still, Rudin plans to do a bird-banding program next year, using funds Pinello collects as a new beneficiary of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Quarters for Conservation Program. Also on tap is the construction of blinds, structures that allow people to view wildlife without disturbing the animals. Rudin also hopes to add wildlife photography classes and other naturalist classes for the public.
From the perspective of Colorado Springs Utilities, such plans are fine, with a caveat. Utilities has the water rights on the property, and although it doesn’t often need to get to the water, it wants to make sure it can when needed.
“We do feel strongly about providing a community benefit, but this is an operations facility,” says Andy Funchess, CSU’s field operations manager. “As long as those operational concerns and considerations are met, and it doesn’t impede those operations, then that’s a great thing. So knock yourselves out, as far as we’re concerned.”
So far, Funchess says, the lease — created in 2007 and rewritten in 2010 — has worked out to the advantage of both groups.
“They’ve been able to get the property cleaned up, and they’re doing a lot of great things out there,” says Funchess. “It looks much better than it did in 2007, when we signed the lease. They’ve got someone there keeping an eye on things. Vandalism has greatly diminished.”
Even if the foundation doesn’t do more than provide a few birding classes a year, Luenser is happy the public has some opportunity to see all it has to offer.
“Imagine a nice, beautiful morning and this backdrop of Pikes Peak, and a pond with a blue heron at one end and blue-wing teal at the other,” she says. “It doesn’t get too much better than that.”
OTHER DETAILS: PINELLO PLAYERS
Pinello Ranch: According to the 1995 book “Here Lies Colorado Springs,” edited by Denise R.W. Oldach, Pinello Ranch became operational in 1912, after brothers and Italian immigrants Angelo and Alphonso Pinello bought what was known as the Skinner Ranch from the El Paso National Bank. Three years later, Angelo sold his half to Alphonso, who raised cattle and planted corn, hay and pinto beans. His wife, Blanche Venetucci Pinello, cooked and helped milk the dairy cows. Milk from the cows was sold door-to-door. After Alphonso died in 1933, Blanche lived on the ranch for another 35 or so years. Colorado Springs Utilities bought the property in 1972 for its water rights.
Colorado Springs Utilities: Pinello isn’t considered a “critical asset” that provides water for daily use, says Andy Funchess, CSU field operations manager. It’s a backup water source for droughts and emergencies, and the ponds are used to refill Fountain Creek if water has to be diverted to a CSU retention pond on Pinello because of a wastewater spill. Utilities also uses buildings on Pinello to store equipment. Over the years, CSU had leased the land “for a pittance” to hay and alfalfa farmers, Funchess said. Pikes Peak Community Foundation approached CSU to lease the land, and signed its first agreement in 2007.
Pikes Peak Community Foundation: An outgrowth of the Colorado Springs Community Trust, Pikes Peak Community Foundation was started in 1995 to improve the area and foster philanthropy. It oversees a number of high-profile operations, including Venetucci Farm, Pikes Peak Urban Gardens and the outdoor recreational/adventure program UpaDowna; manages several funds, including the Pikes Peak Conservation Fund and Mary Starsmore Fund; provides information and resources to people who want to create charitable gift funds or memorial funds; and helps people with their charitable donations.