Ride a horse, study gas wells too

DE BEQUE (AP) – A western Garfield County guest ranch that sits in the middle of the region’s gas patch is looking to expand its growing focus on scientific research aimed at protecting the area’s natural environment.

The proposed Cottonwoods/High Lonesome Institute project received a comprehensive plan amendment approval and sketch plan review by the Garfield County Planning Commission in February.

A formal application detailing plans for a scientific research facility, including an auditorium, classrooms, laboratories, dormitory accommodations for graduate students and living quarters for staff, is expected to be submitted later this year, said Scott Stewart, general manager at The High Lonesome Ranch.

Located about 10 miles north of De Beque just over the Mesa-Garfield county line, The High Lonesome Ranch encompasses about 350 acres at the confluence of Roan and Kimball creeks.

The 19-year-old commercial operation includes a guest-dude ranch, retreat and event center, and hunting and fishing grounds, with a mix of private and permitted backcountry acreage.

But another major focus for the ranch in recent years has been in the areas of conservation, scientific research and education, Stewart said.

In partnership with organizations such as the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Wildlands Network, the ranch has been doing extensive research including cataloging of the area’s wildlife habitat, studying forest health and researching water resources.

“We have an incredible, mixed-use landscape here where there is a lot of human recreation, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, bird-watching, hunting, you name it,” Stewart said.

The ranch also hopes to develop partnerships with some of the oil and gas companies operating in the area on the various research projects, Stewart said.

“We also have a certain amount of mineral interests, and we understand the responsibility to do the right thing with mineral policy,” he said. “This side of Roan Creek has really not been heavily developed yet, and we have a good chance to do more research before any real mineral development takes place.”

The baseline studies will cover air, soil and water quality, as well as wildlife habitat, including the greater sage grouse, Stewart said.

The sage grouse and various habitat impacts are currently being studied by federal wildlife officials and land management agencies as the bird is considered for endangered species listing.

The High Lonesome Ranch already has a five-person science and conservation education staff, including retired Oregon State University forestry professor Hal Salwasser, who is serving as the institute’s interim director.

Scientific advisers from various organizations, including Trinity University and Murray State University, are also involved with the ranch’s research.

Another proposed feature of the larger facility will be the so-called Cottonwoods project, billed as an eco-friendly wastewater treatment operation.

“This state-of-the-art facility will return water to the groundwater table at a drinkable quality level,” according to information filed with the county planning department. “The intention of the Cottonwoods project is to elevate the care of water in the environment and show that this precious resource can be extracted, used and returned to our environment without exploitation or abuse.”

The ranch already received a favorable county comprehensive plan amendment recommendation from the planning commission designating it as a “community/neighborhood center.”

That would allow for institutional and educational uses related to a campus-style research and educational facility, according to the preliminary proposal.