The weathered one-room schoolhouse can be seen for miles, set down as it is on an endless prairie of grama grass, with the palest of blue skies as backdrop.
Inside, a dozen students are sitting elbow to elbow, soaking up a lecture on Colorado amphibians.
It could be a typical school day a century ago. But these students from the rural Karval High School are here at Chico Basic Ranch for two days of lessons, which they, in turn, will teach to Colorado Springs fourth-graders. You see, this working cattle ranch 35 miles southeast of Colorado Springs is not all get-along-little-doggies.
Sure, there are the requisite cattle, trusty roping horses and cow dogs and hardworking cowboys in chaps.
But Chico Basin Ranch also is home to the Ranchlands Learning and Research Center, a private nonprofit organization that provides universities with research opportunities and education to schoolchildren and others around the region.
And what a campus it is — 87,000 acres of shortgrass and sand-sage prairie, creeks, migratory birds and an abundance of wildlife.
Owned by the State of Colorado, Chico Basin has been managed by Duke Phillips’ family under a unique 25-year lease agreement with the Colorado State Land Board. As part of the partnership, the ranch is not only run in a traditional and ecologically sensitive manner, but also offers public recreation and educational programs.
Even kids who live on ranches are inspired by a visit. Karval student Max Logan, 15, said he learned a lot about conservation. And he was fascinated by how Chico Basin combines traditional ranching with public education.
“I want to stay on our ranch, but it’s sometimes hard to sell cows. This is the kind of operation I’d like to have someday,” he says.
The cornerstone of Chico Basin’s education program has been the banding station for migratory birds. Run by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, it’s one of just a few such licensed facilities in the state.
However, the education staff has been diversifying and expanding curriculum. Most school groups come to the ranch for a day, but it’s not a simple field trip. Students receive standards-based field experience.
Teachers who want to take their students to the ranch can work with staff to custom-build a lesson and line up lecturers, often state wildlife experts. They also can choose from a menu of subjects, such as aquatic invertebrates and fish, bird identification and migration, grasslands ecology, plants, cowboy life, animal physiology, nature journaling, art, ecosystem monitoring, pioneer history, conservation, and prairie dog and raptor studies.
The four staff members who work with schools were teachers and administrators themselves, explains Phillips.
Phillips grew up on a ranch and majored in creative writing at the University of Texas. He is as comfortable in a classroom as on horseback.
“My passion is to exchange ideas, which is what teaching is,” he says.
In December, the Phillips family was recipient of the Landowner of the Year award given by the Colorado Division of Wildlife for the ranch’s educational work as well as contributions to wildlife conservation, community service and innovative management.
Chico Basin is a model of what ranching can be — a diverse enterprise that includes public use. There is recreation such as hunting and fishing, hiking and birding. It is open to conservation and nonprofit groups for environmental clinics. Government agencies and universities conduct wildlife surveys and other research at the ranch. There also is a small-scale vacation program where visitors can work on the ranch and see large-scale cattle ranching up close.
Phillips says ranchers like himself are in a unique position to address the ecological woes of the West. “We live out here and have a stake in the ecosystem.” Ranchers need to raise public awareness of the important role ranching plays in environmental restoration, he says.
“Kids think we are cowboys on horses, whooping it up and shooting guns in the air. They don’t have a clue that we are caretakers of the land. Children are our future and we have to communicate that there is a purpose beyond the romance of being a cowboy.”
The Ranchlands Learning and Research Center at Chico Basin Ranch is a private, nonprofit organization that conducts research and provides education, outreach and volunteer opportunities pertaining to ranching, grasslands ecosystems and ranch-management practices. Here are some upcoming fundraising events.
• Saturday: Chico Days, a family-oriented field day with wagon rides, guided nature and bird walks, a petting zoo, horsemanship demonstrations and a fishing clinic. Fran Haas, of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, will talk about spiders, and entomologist Frank Krell will discuss dung beetles and their role in agriculture. Environmental consultant Ron Beane will offer a workshop on small mammals found at Chico.
Price for the day is $45 per adult, $80 per family with up to two children (ages 2-18), and $10 per additional child. Children under age 2 are free.
Lunch, served noon to 1 p.m., includes quarter-pound, grass-fed beef hamburger, bag of chips, fruit and dessert. Price: $8.
Check-in begins at 8 a.m. at Holmes Place. Follow signs as you enter the ranch. If weather is questionable, check website or call 1-719-683-7960.
• May 14-15: Rocky Mountain Back Country Horsemen and Chico Basin Ranch are sponsoring a dinner dance and trail ride.
The dinner dance is at 7 p.m. May 14. Dinner is at Belle Park, and dancing begins at 8:30 p.m. with music provided by Blue Mountain Ranch Hands. Price is $25, $20 for children younger than 12. Camping available for early arrivals, $15. Primitive sites with potable water. Corrals available, $15.
The Saddle Up for St. Jude trail ride on Chico Basin Ranch starts at 7 a.m. May 15 with registration. First group of participants will ride out at 9:30 a.m. There will be lunch after the ride for a minimal fee. Proceeds go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
For more information, call Michael BonDurant, of Rocky Mountain Back Country Horsemen, at 1-719-821-5149.
• June 12: Outdoor concert featuring Canadian singer and songwriter Cord Lund. Opening band Michael and Dawn Moon will play at 7 p.m. Price: $25 for adults, $15 for those younger than 18.
For questions about any of the events, call the ranch at 683-7960 or visit the ranch website: chicobasinranch.com.
The ranch is about 35 miles southeast of Colorado Springs at 22500 Peyton Highway S.
HISTORY OF CHICO BASIN RANCH
• Native Americans were on the land, dating to prehistoric times.
• In the 1800s, Charles Goodnight grazed cattle there, and a branch of the Santa Fe Trail crossed the ranch.
• By the 1870s, four cattle operations and several homesteads were on the ranch. Eventually 150,000 acres were consolidated by Emmert and Drinkard Company of Denver. In 1945 it was sold to Oscar Appelt, a Texas cattleman, then to the Arizona-Colorado Land and Cattle Company, which called it the Box T Ranch. Eventually it ended up with John Hancock Life Insurance Co. About 80,000 acres were leased to the U.S. government for the Pueblo Army Depot. Parcels on the west side were sold for possible development.
• In 1992, the State of Colorado bought the 87,000 acres because of its ecological importance, and holds it in trust.
• In 1999, the Duke Phillips family was awarded a unique 25-year lease to keep the land as a working ranch, and opening it to conservation eduction and other public use.
Source: Chico Basin Ranch history.