Water connects us to each other, to our natural surroundings, and to life. The beautiful Upper Gunnison River Valley boasts numerous rivers, creeks, lakes and more that support this basin’s community and beyond. This piece on ranching continues a series of stories on our local people, their connection to water, and how we can be good stewards to protect it.
Swells and folds of sagebrush mounts stretch on mile after mile. Nearby Signal Peak rises to keep watch over the Gunnison River valley, looking out across to the ragged Anthracite range and solitary Carbon Peak that shimmer white in the northwestern distance. From the base of these shrubbed arid hills, rich, green fields of hay reach out towards the Gunnison River. Furry brown bodies, furry black ones, some solid, some their faces splotched with white, dot the land as they nibble down the hay. Here sits Cranor Ranch, home to Hannah Cranor, a third-generation rancher.
Hannah grew up here in Gunnison, helping her family on the ranch, falling in love with both the land and animals. She was a 4-H member for 11 years, showing chickens, steers and more. You can almost feel the warmth as Hannah glowingly talks about her work, “I love working with the animals. I also love that everyone is so willing to help each other. You can’t find people more willing to help than fellow ranchers!”
In 2016, Hannah was the Gunnison Cattlemen’s Days Queen, with hardworking spirit and love for the ranching community, it’s easy to see why. It is a strong tie between Hannah and the land she grew up on. After receiving a degree in Farm and Ranch Management from the University of Wyoming, Hannah returned to Gunnison to continue working on her family’s ranch, explaining “Staying in agriculture was a natural choice for me.” This is the case for many ranchers in the Upper Gunnison River Valley; they grew up here, their fathers and grandmothers bled and thrived here. They understand the land, they understand the forces that act upon it: rain, snow, erosion, drought and more. Ranchers, farmers are invested in the land, not just monetarily, but generationally and relationally.
In the late 1800s, gold mining and the resulting railroads in Gunnison gave rise to white settlements, which relied on European agricultural practices, but the short growing season and limited rainfall were bad for farming. The climate was (and is) cold as Gunnison sits in the mountains in just such a way that keeps the valley one of the coldest areas in Colorado. This leads to more snowfall than rainfall, about 90% of annual precipitation arrives in the form of snowfall. Cattle and haying became the crops of choice, and ranching in the Gunnison River Valley took hold. Ditches were dug to bring water from the snowmelt-rich Gunnison River to the surrounding hay fields to support the cattle crop.
Today, ranching remains one of the major forms of industry in the valley. As in the days of old, the Cranor Ranch raises cattle and hay. Hannah explains, “We raise cattle and hay, so to me, water is everything. We used it all summer to produce both our cattle and our hay. The water we have in this valley is what makes it amazing and helps us keep the wide-open views that attract so many visitors.” Ranchers have become a common-sense kind of people, they have to be with the way the land has taught them. They know the value of water, what it can do, and what the lack of it will also do.
Agriculture is a contentious topic in water policy and conservation, almost dangerous to bring up around one group or another. Of consumptive use, Upper Gunnison agriculture soaks up 92% of water resources, whereas agriculture statewide uses 85%. When it comes to talking about reducing water use, it is easy to see why farming and ranching might ‘have a target on their back.” Yet it is apparently easy to forget where our food comes from as well.
For a rancher like Hannah, it is clear to see what is truly important: “I think there needs to be a focus on truly considering the water use between municipalities and agriculture. It is important to consider how our water can best be used – especially in a drought situation. We need to bring our focus to what is truly important – do we focus on green lawns in a municipality or do we focus on producing food for our neighbors. It is hard to limit anyone’s water, but I think we need to fully look at the big picture in years with limited water, or even in areas with limited water.”
Municipal water use is not as demanding as agriculture, yet many municipal uses can be ascribed to aesthetic purposes such as green lawns. Lawns seem like folly during a period of prolonged drought. The key is getting different users together to understand each other better and make better long-term choices, something that Hannah deeply hopes for, “I believe all water users need to sit down and talk! It is so important to understand the other side of anything and to sit down and discuss the pros and cons. I think it would help all water users understand other users.”
In 2018, the Cranor family decided to protect their land through a conservation easement with the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy. A conservation easement preserves land, water and/or other resources to specified conservation objectives, such as maintaining water quality, improving wildlife habitat, ensuring the prospect for sustainable agriculture and more. Most often if prohibits land development for real estate or subdivision. Once designated, the easement remains with the land, regardless of change of title. It does not restrain current of future landowners from land-use, though practices must be kept within the conservation objectives. The Cranor Ranch is still a working ranch, their easement protects that work, while at the same time protecting for Gunnison Sage-grouse habitat.
The Cranor family is intimately aware of environmental issues on their ranch and challenges that face the watershed with prolonged drought and climate change. “My dad and I work together to ensure that our irrigating does the most good possible. Flood irrigating is so beneficial to the watershed, and ensuring we move sets and use that water as efficiently as possible is one of our biggest concerns.”
Hannah Cranor and her family know this land, have lived here many generations, and are concerned for its well-being. Whether environmentalist, farmer, recreationist, tourist, or rancher, we all want to see this landscape preserved into the future. All we have to do it talk, listen, and respect another’s point of view. Agriculture doesn’t have to be contentious, it is an opportunity to work together for a better future.