The Duke of the Prairie: Chico Basin Ranch

Duke Phillips is one of the most creative guys I have ever met. He is able to juggle several businesses, give to his community, and have quality, and quantity time to his family. That’s because family and business coexist in a healthy and positive way.

He is a rugged man, about six feet tall, handle-bar mustache and jet black hair. He looks as though he stepped out of a Charles Russell Cowboy print -and that would be appropriate, since Duke Phillips has been a cowboy from the day he was born.

I met Duke Phillips at the ranch he leases and manages from the State of Colorado. The Chico Basin Ranch is about 35 southeast of Colorado Springs and spans 87,000 acres from El Paso County to a good portion of Pueblo County. He is by all accounts a steward of the land. That goes hand in hand with the published mission statement at Chico Basin Ranch, “Working together to live with the land.” This just isn’t a neat little statement to attract investors- this is serious business. Duke Phillips lives out his life for this mission. Phillips goes farther than that, ” It’s to preserve a lifestyle, that I’ve known since I was a boy.” Duke’s parents owned and managed a ranch in Northern Mexico for fifty years. He grew up working with cattle, riding bareback, and learning the ropes-literally. He is a throwback from the dusty roads and the campfire to the branding system that has been part of the cattle business for hundreds of years.

He may be a throwback, yet he has the savvy to use technology, networking, and business diversification that make the ranch more of a hybrid than nostalgia. There are many attempts, and good ones at that, to make people think about the old ranching days. There are living history ranches throughout the country that bring the old traditions back in an entertaining, yet educational way. Actors going through the traditions to show us-“This is the way people use to live.” Phillips and family live history with one foot in tradition and both eyes of the future. Duke knows that he can’t do it without working with urban neighbors.

Duke Phillips has always been a good listener. He learned the family business from a Dad who was always there and has carried that tradition on. Today he is listening to the urbanites who drive Buick’s to brainstorm ideas on helping ranchers who ranch on the prairie. Businessmen, homemakers, writers and artists sit on bales of hay as Duke addresses the troops. A map is shown of the areas from Canadian, Texas to Northern Colorado of pristine ranches. The big question to the urbanites is how to prevent those ranchers to stick with preserving the ranch and not to sell property in 100 acre parcels. This has been the scourge that has made the rancher on the prairie as rare as the Burrowing Owl.

Phillips is as adept in speaking to this group as he is talking to his ranch hands. He talks. He listens and he asks thoughtful questions of his guests. It is apparent that this isn’t about Duke-it’s about the other ranchers, the lifestyle, and the backbone of our food chain. Duke rattles off these facts: “Agriculture and ranching contributes 16 Billion dollars to the Colorado economy every year.” “Agriculture land accounts for 32.5 million acres in Colorado.” “Agriculture is the nation’s largest employer,” and “Farmers and ranchers provide food and habitat for 75 percent of the nation’s wildlife.” Duke is one of those rare individuals who thinks of others before he thinks of himself. And he’s learned one major lesson about that philosophy-“It rarely comes back to bite me.”

After the morning meeting, the group is transferred to a truck where the hay bales are transferred. Besides the talk the Phillips family is leading the group on a tour of the ranch. We view the operation, the barns, the sheds, the fields from a Ford one ton truck that has three trailers with the thirty urban dwellers, a guide from Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and a guy from the US Bureau of Land Management. The birding people are there because Phillips has availed the ranch as a birding station where birds are tracked and banded. Birding, a guest business, grass fed beef, and agriculture are evident across the vast landscape. The Prairie eco-system is varied much to the surprise of the urbanites. Duke points out the springs and lakes of the wetlands. We travel a few miles and view the dessert prairie where cattle are rotated on saltlick that grows naturally. The third is agricultural. It is soil that grows hay, western gourds and other crops that are sold and distributed in the United States. At every stop there is a bird watch-from Scaled Quail to Burrowing Owl, the bird watchers had a field day. Duke and family have kept and updated a bird checklist since December 1999 with hundreds of birds listed and spotted.

The other thing you wouldn’t expect from this cowboy, is his appreciation of the arts. “For the last few years we have hosted a group of artists from all over the country to spend a week at the ranch.” And they come with their pallets and their easels, canvas and their artistic viewpoints. “The fun is every night the artists bring their work to supper and we get a view of what they’re working on,” Duke says with a laugh. We all are in awe of how well these artists capture not only the ranch but the life of ranchers. At the end of the week an art show and a community potluck is thrown. It is a demonstration that there can be high culture on the prairie.

Duke and his wife Janet, are perfect hosts. They mix easily with the “city group.” There is an authenticity you feel but it is evident more in their own relationships. They are family through and through. I observed a genuine affection between father and son as Duke walked with his son-Duke Junior, with an arm around the teen. The boy didn’t flinch. I watched my daughters play with the Phillips daughter, Grace. They ran, they danced and laughed, in that wholesome way family’s share. There is a feeling that is somewhat troublesome as you watch, yet hopeful too, between the wildlife, the land, ranching and the family. Duke Phillips seems like a lone ranger slowly trying to save and preserve existence.

Duke and Janet are as schmoozer friendly as a veteran public relations team. Shaking hands, looking each person in the eye that makes individuals feel worthwhile. But there is an authentic low-keyed, genuine, grace that had nothing to do with a sales pitch. I wondered- “What do they need us for?” Then it hit me- without community support, the land, the wildlife, and the family lifestyle could become extinct-and although I’m convinced that Duke could survive and do anything he wanted to do-he was made for ranching, and we need ranchers.

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