Where the Deer and the Zillionaires Play
Outside magazine, October 1997
Where the Deer and the Zillionaires Play
A little door-to-door canvassing among America’s modern homesteaders
Chad Budge is driving as cautiously as he can, but his four-wheel-drive Suburban jackhammers up and down, in and out of gullies and sinkholes.
He centers his truck atop a thick carpet of freshly laid gravel winding through a primeval copse of Wyoming cottonwoods. After delicate negotiations over cell phones, I’ve been cleared to gaze upon a jewel, an item found at the end of this road and currently up for bid at Sotheby’s for $6 million. I try to take notes, but my pen keeps hopping around and at times violently
“It’s in my contract,” Budge says again and again. “I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to.” Contractually, I can’t know who owns what I am about to see. Contractually, I can’t know what he does or where he lives. Contractually, I can’t know what he paid for this masterpiece just last year.
The gravel peters out at a small creek where the cottonwoods are so fat the dense bark splits into slabs thick as sirloin. Budge halts the truck and on foot we tromp to a clearing beside a swollen oxbow off the Snake River. Just across the way and right in my face are the Tetons, rising in beer-commercial perfection of pure Jungian mountainness.
“A 66-acre ranch, with trout stream and pristine forest as God designed it,” says Budge, before adding a phrase that could only be spoken by a high-end real estate broker who specializes in selling multimillion-dollar ranches to billionaires. “And direct Teton views.” We stand together in manly silence, songbirds harmonizing in the fresh spring canopy above. For reasons way
I’m thinking: Standing as we are on what’s possibly the most expensive ranch land in the West — roughly $100,000 per acre for this spread just up the range from Jackson Hole — how much, theoretically, is my twig-snapping worth? Fifty, a hundred bucks? But I don’t ask Budge what he’s thinking, because I feel certain that, contractually, he couldn’t tell me if he
He does tell me that up the river as far as we can see are only half a dozen other spreads. “We call it Billionaire’s Row,” says Budge, and then he quickly goes silent, as if he’s spilled the beans. But he opens up again when I ask him how he would pitch this spread to me if I were a tycoon.
“Land like this just sells itself,” he says, hoisting himself back into the truck. “I tell people to forget everything they’ve learned about sales and just be real.” But not that real. “I have in my marketing materials,” he immediately adds, “a phrase I like to use a lot: ‘eighth wonder of the world.'”
Just then a deer bolts, ping, from the trees and stands in a clearing as still as…a deer in a clearing.
“Look,” I say, almost embarrassed for noticing, “a deer.” But Budge is still selling land to my hypothetical billionaire. “Oh, yes, now just look at that,” he replies, in a peppy tone I suspect he normally reserves for CEOs swaggering with IPO spoils or actors commanding big points off the gross. “You’d have to go to a zoo to see such a sight!”
The deer watches, deadpan, as we hiccup our way at two miles per hour back out to the highway.
It’s about 8 a.m. on a cool morning out on a clear mesa where the horizon is a good 60 miles off in any direction. I’m feeding cows owned by Don Kendall, the former CEO of Pepsi and the man who put the soft drink in the Soviet market before Coke knew what was happening, earning himself multimillions in shareholder gratitude. Kendall forms part of a high-and-mighty
They began arriving in the late eighties, when big western ranches became the elite emblem of Midases who otherwise spent most of their time scrabbling for position among the higher rungs of the Forbes list. Blazing the trail was Ted Turner, who now owns eight spreads in three states, a total land mass typically compared to Rhode Island. But he’s made some recent
But where it was once the occasional movie star or billionaire moseying into town, it’s now a land rush of lesser-knowns. This phenomenon is one of the more bizarre and unacknowledged side effects of Wall Street’s six-year bull market. So much money is being gathered up by financiers and entrepreneurs into such increasingly larger piles that the wealth is creating new
“My own theory,” says historian Patricia Nelson Limerick of the University of Colorado, “is that when these baby boomers were toddlers, they watched Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. So they were trained in consumerism around open ranches and big Western vistas. They bought the Gene Autry lunch box and the Roy Rogers chaps and the Hopalong crayons.” In time, Limerick
says, this forgotten youth became as sublimated as Citizen Kane’s sled. “When they were five years old, they had to ask their father and mother for these things,” she says. “Now that they’re 50, they don’t have to ask anyone anything. I’ve talked to a number of them and they’ll tell you they not only watched Roy Rogers, but they still have their leather vest and their Gene Autry
“A ranch in the West is what you buy after the yacht, after the G-4 jet,” says Zackary Wright, senior vice-president of Sotheby’s International Realty division, who without pause or irony calls these spreads “trophy ranches.” Based in Newport Beach, California, Wright oversees the 40 local affiliates that Sotheby’s uses to blanket the western United States in order to make the
“Our buyers come from all over the world, but mainly two areas: California and New York,” Wright explains. “In fact, you can be even more specific: Manhattan. Well, you can be even more specific: Wall Street. There is no place where you find a greater number of our buyers than there.” Hard numbers are difficult to gather, since land sales are recorded county by county. And no
Don Kendall, for example, owns two expansive spreads outside Pinedale — one for his cows and one for himself. His cattle manager, Kenny Becker, has agreed to let me tag along to find out what goes on on the “lower ranch,” roughly 1,650 acres of blue-green valley and mesa along the Green River. The “upper ranch” is about 30 miles away. Kendall doesn’t want me around there.
So Becker and I are hauling bags of phosphate from the bed of his pickup over to cow feeders stationed every other pasture or so and blending it with salt. Becker’s a 45-year-old redhead dressed in waders, since it’s snowmelt season, and a beat-up gray cowboy hat ringed in one funky stain. His cowboyness seems fairly solid, judging from one of our first exchanges. A big cloud
“Clear up to my ass is what I always say,” and Becker goes ahead and says it.
But as cowboy as Becker seems, it ain’t altogether so. As we drive the land emptying sacks, Becker’s language and description of the ranch never really achieve the color of his weather parlay. For example, he has convinced Kendall not to fertilize any of the hay pastures here, and he happily segues into an interesting lecture about the “cryptosphere,” that “magical area just an
Becker: How’s it going?
Gary (thinks for a good minute): There’s a badger right over thar on that little hill.
Becker (lets two minutes pass, almost out of courtesy): Yeah.
Gary (folds his arms and takes three or four minutes to ponder his next line of confab): I didn’t bring my rifle.
Becker (checks on the horizon for a few minutes): Welp.
Gary (spits, checks on Kenny’s horizon monitoring, spits, then spits again): I’ll shoot him tomorrow.
We climb back into the truck in a silence made awkward by such a scene so purely indicative of the old land ethic and the new. We feed another set of cows without comment and drive back to Becker’s bunkhouse. As we climb the steps, Becker looks at me.
“He’s a ranching man, so I’ll have to break it to him gently.”
Becker’s land ethic seems extremely progressive for a cowboy, not to mention costly. (The cows I was feeding haven’t broken even in a while, Becker admits. Cattle prices tanked two years ago, from more than a dollar a pound to now about 60 cents.) It’s one of the big changes the rich newcomers are effecting on these easy-going spreads that once were subsistence ranches. The
Well, there is one other thing, a rather significant thing: Kendall gets one of the biggest tax write-offs in America. It’s called a conservation easement. And while Bruce Babbitt and his cohorts are fanning passions between East and West with a lot of Crossfire bile about grazing fees, this single tax deduction is effectively underwriting the
resettling of the West by global capitalists.
“If you are a third-generation cattle rancher,” explains Keith Lenard of the Wyoming branch of the Nature Conservancy, “and your father dies, you are going to find that the $100,000 ranch he bought is now appraised at full development value for $10 million.” As a result, the young rancher is asked to pay estate taxes on $9.9 million-roughly $5.5 million. This at a time when
“We get a phone call a week from some rancher who has about one nostril out of water and is looking for the Nature Conservancy to buy them out,” Lenard says. “You have to understand just how desperate that is. The only thing worse than calling the Nature Conservancy is chopping up the land.” Rarely, he adds, do sales go to another local rancher. So unless the rancher wants to
The tax break comes when the new rich owner writes the conservation easement into the deed. In effect he pledges not to develop the land at all or to allow, say, only three houses on 5,000 acres. The more restrictive the easement, the bigger the write-off. The IRS gives this “diminution of value” a monetary amount, typically between 40 and 60 percent of the purchase price. The
Which is dandy, as far as many environmentalists are concerned. The other alternatives for protecting land aren’t that attractive: Public parks have to accommodate thousands of obese Americans grinding through in their Winnebagos and ORVs. And traditional ranching — which Lenard is careful not to disparage — can’t really compete with the luxurious eco-pampering of
“People are starting to pay a premium for these lands,” Lenard notes. “Subsequent resales of easement properties aren’t suffering that big a loss. That’s good and bad for us — good because we can say that to people who might otherwise be queasy about giving up that much value — and bad because it means that the window will snap shut in a few years when the IRS
“The land,” Lenard admits, “doesn’t really care whether the owner is chewing Copenhagen or not.”
Having a list of names, though, is not enough. Bringing the financially melancholic son of a third-generation ranching family together with a global entrepreneur intoxicated on Wild West dreams is a difficult and obscure art form, but one Sotheby’s seems to have mastered.
In Jackson, I meet with Zackary Wright, tan and blond, just in from Newport Beach, wearing beautiful pointed cowboy boots and a creamy sports jacket. Today he’s taking me out to lunch with his local Wyoming sales staff. Chad Budge is here, sporting a casual L.L. Bean look, along with Richard Lewis, a long drop of water in clean jeans and crisp cowboy hat, and Scott Shepherd,
We wind up at the Silverdollar. “What I love about Jackson,” Wright tells me as we go inside, “is that it’s still western and authentic.”
I’m stunned by his earnestness. I had just assumed that everyone, from the most leathery Wyomingite to the most bronzed Beverly Hills transplant, would agree that Jackson is to the West what, say, the Pirates of the Caribbean is to sailing. But I realize that the remark is plainly meant and that the West and its ranches are suffering from the national malady described by
At no time during the meal will the Sotheby’s team talk openly about their buyers. It’s hard to find a real estate broker — or anyone in a middle-class service job — who doesn’t make nervous noises about being unable to discuss the “clients.” The powerful rich people moving in are like ancient lords taking over feudal estates. They inspire fear and dread in the
“When we sell a ranch,” Budge says, “well, it depends on what you mean by a ranch. Sometimes you end up selling them five acres and they think that’s a ranch.”
The trick, the brokers explain, is to figure out which clichë is playing in the revival theater of the buyer’s mind: Trout streams? Elk herds? Grazing cows? Cowboy bunkhouses? Once that’s defined, the brokers work as a team to exploit the mogul’s desires, but they have specialties. If the buyer’s a fishing fanatic, then Scott Shepherd is important because he can talk a
No matter what kind of ranch a baron buys, the brokers will help him straight through the other side of his vision. If he buys for trout, then Shepherd can help with stream rehabilitation, relying on an entire infrastructure of environmental consultants — local firms such as Headwaters Ecology or Biota — that will assist in turning a used-up old ranch into
It’s the same with cows. Some of the wealthy, Lewis says, buy the ranch and then lease it back to the owner to continue the operation. Since the burden of actually making money has been lifted, the former rancher, his former cowboys, and his former cows more or less serve as living lawn ornaments on a vast front yard stretching out before the picture window in the
Some buyers prefer to start from scratch. “We can help them find a ranch manager, if that’s what they want,” Shepherd says. “Heck, we’ll handpick the cows and get them to market. We’ll do the whole thing.”
As we step back into the street and the sun glints off the Pink Garter Plaza with its Espresso West coffeehouse around the corner from the Jolly Jumbuck Leather and Sheepskin shop, Lewis sums up the dream of the West’s new homesteaders: “What they want is to wake up feeling like Ben Cartwright, but they don’t want his day job.”
Wherever one goes now in the West, it’s easy to hear stories about the remarkable habits and schemes of the billionaire cowboys. Philip Anschutz, an oil and railroad man with a 32,000-acre spread north of Denver, has security men dressed in boots and ten-gallon hats. As the owner of a large private collection of Remington art, Anschutz employs a full-time curator whose job,
“There were a couple of checkpoints we had to clear just to get inside,” says one former employee who requests that I not give his name, a blacksmith who made Anschutz’s furniture and wrought-iron doors. “Everywhere you looked were these cowboys carrying shooting irons but who weren’t doing nothing except every once in a while talking into the air or at their lapels.”
In New Mexico, Ted Turner and his squad of biodiversity consultants are responsible for bringing back the black-tailed prairie dog and upping the ranks of endangered bighorn sheep. In Montana, he almost single-handedly revived the North American population of bison. During one of his many interviews on the topic of his concern for the land, Turner said he was interested in
So everybody is happy in the New West, even the land. The old spreads can relax after two centuries of subsistence ranching that strained flora and fauna to the crashing point. The old cowboys can move into their Florida condos or retire to classy exurban ranchettes. The real estate brokers can invest their commissions in no-load mutual funds. And the magnates can prowl their
For me, it happens in Pinedale after I spend some time in a saloon called the Cowboy Bar, whose sign offers the helpful ministrations of the Pinedale Thinking Service. Run by the town’s cordial mixologist, Courtney Davis, the PTS gives customers the luxury of letting someone else do their thinking so they can get completely hosed. In short order, I’m discussing ranching with
“They were going to send our kids to college,” one says, sounding like your average microserf complaining about his benefits package. “You had to work there for four years for that. Then one day they said, ‘Deal’s over.’ But the manager’s kids, they went.”
He looks at me, as if to put it in terms the media can comprehend. “I think it was a little bit of discrimination,” he says.
“Then there was our health insurance plan,” the other cowboy says, ticked-off. “They upped our deductible to $1,500.”
I think I’ve struck it rich to find two cowboys willing to dish on one of the town’s mogul ranchers. But as it turns out, these old hands had worked for Leon Hirsch, the surgical staple guy (whose office would not return my calls). In time, I find that I can stop almost any man on the street with a gnarly hat and odds are good that he’s quit on Hirsch or has been fired by him.
“He didn’t understand cows, and he didn’t understand cowboys,” he says. “He expected you to work from eight to five, but if you’re moving cows 40 miles, you don’t stop in the middle because it’s five o’clock.”
Meanwhile, the perks kept frittering away. The manager cut the ranch hands’ gas allowance (devastating to people who work 40 or 50 miles outside of town), ended the free-beef policy, and discontinued one of the most important ranching traditions: allowing the hands to run their own cows among the owner’s cattle.
“Basically the only retirement a ranch hand gets is a cow,” says the cowboy. “We were told we could run up to 25 head. Well, it come down one day from Hirsch that we lost that. No old-timer would do that. But to a corporation it don’t matter, because if their numbers don’t come out on paper, well, that’s just tough shit.”
Late one afternoon, I speed down the most beautiful three hours of highway in America at 95 mph, alongside the Continental Divide, to Lander. At a little store, I spy a sign that reads, scented nightcrawlers: large-baby, and I feel that maybe I am entering a more authentic part of the West.
Before coming to Wyoming I called a friend of mine, a former rancher who got out in the eighties when it was difficult to give a ranch away. He reminded me that while the rest of the country struggles between regional myth and reality, the West has always been a bit different.
“It’s more a tension between myth and people struggling to live up to that myth,” he said. “Reality’s never been of much use out here.”
On the highway, I find myself cruising right in the midst of the current attempt to embrace that myth as I pass one utility vehicle after another — Silverado, Bronco, Sierra, Blazer, Ranger, Cherokee, Pathfinder, Pioneer, Dakota. In so many ways, this recent shift in land ownership is not new but the same old same old that has always plagued the West. “There’s a pretty
Another way to look at it is this: The West has always relied on outside help to maintain life in these beautiful but unforgiving landscapes — cavalries to remove Indians, New York bank money to float big loans, federal ag programs to stabilize yo-yo markets, army engineers to redirect water flow. Now that the West has exhausted these sources, it’s time to woo the next
And that’s why I’m heading to Lander. There one finds the Red Canyon Ranch, bought a few years back by the Nature Conservancy and then handed over to Bob Budd, a progressive rancher, to serve as a kind of laboratory. Budd is trying to find out if the values of environmentalism can coexist with a real cattle ranch worked to make a profit. Or, as Budd puts it, “to take good
Budd’s a 41-year-old Wyoming native wearing rubber knee-boots and covered in mud. Ranching has preserved the thin muscular body of a high school senior. Besides working with a couple of other cowboys to run 850 head of cattle on the 35,000 acres of the ranch, he also shows the place off to some 2,000 people a year. Most are schoolkids, but a few hundred are other ranchers, some
He shows me a pasture whose grazing schedule he has altered to attract “neotropical songbirds, western tanagers, and orioles.” I ask him if managing the land for wildlife values must sound nice to some superstore magnate whose idea of the West was formed from reruns of F Troop but certainly must sound like liberal environmental hooey to a traditional cowboy. Budd stuffs a pinch
“Now I ain’t saying that an old cowboy is gonna go into the local saloon and say, ‘I saw me a warbler today,'” he says. “But a cowboy might share that knowledge with his daughter or his grandson. It’s a mistake to think that ranchers, as a rule, are unconcerned about the land. We wouldn’t have what we have if they hadn’t been such good stewards.”
Late in the afternoon, Budd invites me to drive over to Riverton for a visit to his chiropractor. He gets a good drubbing a couple of times a year to help with his aching back. On the way home, we stop at a drive-through liquor window and buy a six-pack. Drinking and driving is legal in Wyoming, a frontier attitude not of individual lawlessness but of community trust. The law
So that’s what we do. As we cruise the back roads, we pass a ranch owned by a local Budd knows is having financial trouble. He pops another brew, and suddenly it feels like the top has come off more than a bottle.
“These conservation easements only forestall development, you know,” he says. “They don’t get at the root problem, which is the economics of ranching and the new pressures on these guys. Easements work just fine for people like Ted Turner and the folks who’ve got beaucoup bucks and a big tax problem. But not for my neighbor who netted $4,200 last year. Oh, he’s got a tax
I ask him if these two kinds of ranchers ever met or socialized at the cattlemen’s association or the grange hall.
“They don’t mingle,” Budd says, and recounts what was clearly a seminal moment in his life as a progressive rancher. When the Nature Conservancy first bought the ranch, he was widely disrespected and given the cold shoulder. Then one day he was talking to an old rancher who mocked the sellout ranch hands who go to work for the rich guys. Budd hesitated, not knowing where that
Just then, we pass a scruffy hill, bald for the most part with an exhausted, dusty pasture below.
“See that there?” Budd says, taking a long slug on his beer. “That’s a rich doctor who owns that ranch — no names, now. But just look at the land. That’s fucking disgusting. He doesn’t maintain it. He doesn’t even see it. He can’t see it. He’s got that big fancy house down there and all that shit. But the land’s just not integral to him.
“I don’t know Ted Turner,” Budd continues, “but I wonder if he really knows his land. I wonder if he’s ever been out there under a cloudburst while it washed out his gol-durned dam.”
We drive in silence for a while, and Budd’s naturally forgiving nature takes over. Oh, he understands the longing of the rich guys to come out here — the land, the people, the warm sense of local community and interdependence that defines the West as much as the more salable myth of rugged individualism. The paradox is that these latest immigrants are so rich they only
“One of the funny truths about all this is that if a rich guy buys a ranch owned by somebody none of us likes, no one cares,” says Budd. “The big problem is when we lose a real neighbor. Then part of the community is shot. One of my new neighbors spent as much money on gravel for his road so he wouldn’t get his Cadillac stuck as we spent on everything we’ve done out here. And
We crunch to a halt beside Budd’s house and, having obeyed the letter of Wyoming’s drinking law, step inside to obey the spirit.
Photographs by Ted Wood