Preservationists in Plain Sight: Steve Wooten and the Purgatoire River Region

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Steve Wooten herding cattle on the Beatty Canyon Ranch in southeast Colorado. Photo by Joy Wooten

I was fortunate to be mentored about the importance of our family history and the presence of significant historical assets on our family ranches in southeast Colorado. For 30 years I lived in compatibility with the history of our region but was not really educated about what really was present on the sites.

In 2006, I had the pleasure to sit down with Rebecca Goodwin (Colorado Preservation, Inc.’s Board Chair) and others who felt that the vast amount of cultural heritage and historical assets on private land warranted a study/inventory that could provide evidence of the fragility and uniqueness of the density of relevant sites in an area of up to 7 million acres that had been determined by the Defense Department to be transferred from private ownership to the Army, by 2025, for military training maneuvers. The Department of Defense and Fort Carson have owned 238,000 acres in Las Animas County since 1983 and in 2006 they had only inventoried approximately 60% of the site yet they continued to conduct training programs that damaged key historic and cultural sites without ramifications.

We developed a plan that mirrored the public outreach that was used in enlisting the participation of the ranching families of the three-county region to voluntarily participate in the largest ever private land biological inventory to date. Public scoping meetings were planned in local venues to allow the landowners to ask questions and hear from the scientific community about how a historical/archaeological inventory would take place. How the data would be protected so private property rights would be respected and how would the data be made public to promote the unique assets of the region. The biologists from the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at CSU attended the public meetings to help put a face on the team that would be accessing the ranches.

In some of the earliest scoping meetings the fear of loss of property rights due to the presence of significant historic sites that predate Native American and transition to modern homestead act and century farms and ranches, resulted in very heated questions and concerns to the study team. The assurances given to the landowners by the representatives of Colorado Preservation Inc., The National Trust for Historic Preservation, State Historic Preservation Office, and University professors eased the concerns and significantly swayed the opposition to participate.

I was fortunate to have the time to spend with the researchers as we inventoried our ranch as well as some of our neighbor’s ranches. Having never worked on a basic inventory and then subsequently a more intensive survey of nomination worthy sites I was totally unaware of the evidence that existed on the sites, that when compiled, provide a very good indication of the type of people who lived there and when, what their assets were or were not in most cases. It was fascinating to have what I originally thought was trash be explained to me had become rudimentary tools fashioned by these past inhabitants of Colorado. The level of poverty by those peoples was alarming, yet they willing chose to seek an opportunity to exist in the diverse ecology of south east Colorado and achieve the right of ownership to land by carving out sustenance from the wilderness. I now view the sites and often will pause, get off my horse and just spend some time in reflection at a site and consider if I would have been up to the task that those hardy souls who came 400 years or more before me had. It is quite a humbling experience.

We provide ranch vacations as an alternate enterprise to our cow calf production. We have always offered tours of the historical regions but prior to the inventories and title research by CPI we had only anecdotal stories to relay to our guests. Today our tours are much more relevant and exciting because of the greater understanding of the culture of the people who lived in our region over the different eras past. I often see our guests quietly observing and assimilating how to connect all the small pieces of evidence into an understanding about how far we have advanced mankind’s ability to control our environment but how important it is to respect and never forget what our ancestors challenged to help us get to where we are today.

Sincerely,

Steve Wooten

Learn More about the Beatty Canyon Ranch

Owned and operated by Steve & Joy Wooten and Brady & Arin Burnham
38700 C.R. 165.4
KIM, CO  81049
719-384-5813
wootensj@hotmail.com

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