2020 feels apocalyptic. It’s not just the pandemic; there’s also drought, mega-fires, melting glaciers. Meanwhile, the ultra-wealthy are stockpiling land, buying up small family ranches across the Mountain West. It makes you wonder, is it really a good idea to put that much environmental control in the hands of so few?
[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
My dad Jay and I were sitting on a patio under the pines in the tiny town of Gould, a few miles from Walden. You could call it a ghost town. Both its post office and school closed years ago. But it’s a lovely place to sit. Hummingbirds whizzed by. The Rawah Mountains loomed overhead, all the snow melted off. Much of the mountainside is standing dead from a pine beetle infestation.
We were lounging next to the Powderhorn Cabins with the owner, Dick Clark. He’s run the place now for 53 years. And by his side was his good friend, Rick Corneilson. You’ll remember him–our tour guide of the Teller City ghost town and a lifelong North Parker. We chatted about North Park history for a while. And then, like it almost always does, the conversation turned to the impacts of the super-wealthy in the community. Rick said one billionaire, in particular, changed the way of life here–the telecommunications magnate John Malone.
“Before Malone came in here we had about 360 kids in our school system,” Rick explained. “When Malone came in and bought those 12 big ranches, we dropped down to 108 students. That’s when they moved the grade school down into one building.”
“And when I was up here, that elementary school was full,” added Dick, who retired from a long career as an elementary school principal. Intuitively, he understands that ghost town rule about schools and post offices.
“With all these ranches gone by the wayside, you lose kids there too. And every year it seems like there’s less and less kids in school. And you lose your school, and you lose the heart of your community,” he said.
On his fingers, Rick counted up how many small family ranches are left in the valley since the club of 26 moved in. There used to be over fifty. Now there’s only seven or eight. It doesn’t make sense to these guys, why someone would want that much land. Malone monopolizes a full quarter of North Park now. But Rick has a theory.
“One reason Malone bought all that property is, back in 1935, they decided they were going to build a dam on the North Platte River and flood that whole west side as a water storage for Denver. Now Malone owns all that land and if that ever happened, he’s going to be even more megabucks,” he said.
“Before it’s over,” Dick said, “Denver and the Front Range will dry up just about every stream in the state.”
Okay, that probably sounds wild. A rich guy stockpiling land so he can sell its water. But actually, Colorado’s population is expected to double by 2050 and most of that will happen on the Front Range around Fort Collins and Denver. That’s just over the mountain from North Park. And these mountains just happen to be the headwaters of the great North Platte River. There’s a heck of a lot of water here, above and below ground.
And the Front Range is going to need it, especially with climate change. As a kid in the 80s, I remember playing on snow piles next to my house as high as my six foot fence. You could just walk right over it. Now Colorado’s snowpack is often half as deep as it was in the 50’s. And it was way colder. So whether Malone wants to sell all the water he owns or protect it, the real question is whether, as Americans, we want to put that much environmental control in one man’s hands. Especially right now.
But John Malone doesn’t just own North Park land. He also has bought a large number of the small ranches just across the state line in the Platte Valley of Wyoming as well.
Maggie Mullen grew up in Wyoming and spent a lot of her twenties visiting that valley. She’s seen the area change over the years. She decided to try and find out how the consolidation of all those family ranches is affecting this place she loves.
Doomscrolling and Doomsday Maps
Here’s how I’ve been spending a lot of time recently–looking at my phone.
Just thumbing through one piece of bad news after the other. This thing actually has a name. It’s doom scrolling. Just an endless scroll through social media and the firehose of information that has become our news cycle. And somehow very little of it actually makes me want to put down my phone. Instead, it’s like this compulsion to read more and more news.
On one of these particular bouts of doom scrolling, this was a while ago actually, I came across some reporting in Forbes Magazine: The Shocking Doomsday Maps of the World and the Billionaire Escape Plans. So here’s the gist: the super, duper rich are buying up huge swaths of land to basically prepare for climate-change-induced end times. It really grabbed my attention. Sure, the prepping part was an interesting take. But really, I wondered who are these people, and what does it really mean to have your name on that much land? Plus there was one particular person mentioned that I’d never heard of before.
John Malone–the largest individual private landowner in the entire U.S. He’s what some call the king of the billionaire land grabbers. According to The Land Report 100, he owns more than 2.2 million acres of land. And some of that is just in the next county over from me in Wyoming. Silver Spur Ranches. It’s got operations in New Mexico, Nebraska, and Colorado, but its headquarters are just outside Saratoga–a small town of 1600 in southeast Wyoming. It’s out there that Malone’s got his name on 50,000 acres of the Platte Valley.
This billionaire land grab that Malone is leading the charge on, some set it as simply the rich’s new favorite way to invest. It’s tangible, generates a lot of income, and isn’t susceptible to rising and falling like stocks are. And then some people say it’s about prepping for end times. We’re talking setting up shop on land far from sinking coastlines, where there’s soil, water, and the kind of weather where you can grow your own food. Plus resources, like a lot of sunshine or coal to produce electricity. Of course, that’s speculation. Malone has never said–or even hinted at–that climate prepping is behind his land accumulation.
The Cable Cowboy
I wanted to know more about this guy. Of course, some of this curiosity had to do with just my general nosiness. But I really was struck by the fact that I’d missed his name completely. To go under the radar at this scale–I thought, how? When people throw a lot of money around, especially on land in my neck of the woods, you tend to know their name. Or to have at least heard of them. They get streets, schools, and parks named after them, usually. Like John D. Rockefeller, for example. His name has basically become a noun for this kind of behavior.
So I started sleuthing where most people do. I Googled him. And one of the first things I learned about Malone was his nickname: The Cable Cowboy. He earned that right around the time he took over the media giant TCI (Tele-Communications, Inc.) in the early ’70s, which he built into the biggest cable company in the world. Along the way, he struck some serious deals that have landed him a new worth that is currently estimated at 6.7 billion dollars.
In 2017, Malone was named the Citizen of the West by the National Western Stock Show. In a clip from the event where Malone was honored, you can see hundreds of people in some kind of arena. While it’s definitely black tie, there are lots of cowboy hats too. And rhinestones! And rodeo queens! There’s even at least one Arabian horse that escorts Malone down a red carpet that goes right down the middle of the room.
I hadn’t heard of this award before now, but from what I can tell it’s prestigious and it’s usually given to very wealthy, white men, who “embody the spirit and determination of the Western pioneer and perpetuate the West’s agricultural heritage and ideals.”
There’s a lot to unpack there. Like, who gets to be a pioneer? And whose ideals are we talking about here? I was hoping to actually do some of that in conversation with John Malone. But, he wouldn’t talk to me for this episode. Which was a letdown. His people told me his schedule was busy right now and would be that way for the next few months. And of the interviews with him that I can find online, they only have to do with his major business dealings–so maybe a public radio reporter in Wyoming didn’t rise to the level of importance.
Still, I wanted to know more about his land dealings. It sounded like the kind of thing that his neighbors would notice–especially at this size! Imagine looking over your fence and the person living next door suddenly owns everything as far as you can see. If I were them, I’d have questions. Like, what’s this person buying next and will it be the very plot of land I live on? I’d also want to know how they plan to take care of it. Can a billionaire be trusted to conserve open spaces? And what’s that mean for those towns in the surrounding area and the people who live there?
The Town of Saratoga
So I took a trip. One of my favorite drives in Wyoming, actually. I left my town of Laramie and headed west. The first part is across the second-largest wind-eroded depression in the world. Sure, it’s windy, but on a clear day, you really can see forever. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, is this alpine mountain range, topped by Medicine Bow Peak, which is snowy most of the year and sees some pretty serious thunderstorms in the summer. From there, it’s cottonwood groves tucked into the prairie.
And then I arrived in Saratoga. My first stop: the Saratoga Museum. That’s where I met local historian, Sherry Mackay. “Well, I was born in the house that I’m living in,” she told me. “My mother was born in the house that I’m taking care of while she’s in the nursing home. So yeah, we’ve been here since about 1910.”
For the last three or four years, Sherry’s volunteered her time here at the museum. It’s on the south end of town, right off the main drag and situated right between the town’s sole grocery store and its downtown area. The museum’s got all kinds of stuff here, from antique tools white homesteaders used to survive long winters to their black and white photographs. Even the building itself is an artifact–it originally functioned as the Saratoga-Encampment Railroad Depot.
Before this, Sherry MacKay was a teacher. And before that, she was a teenager deadset on leaving Wyoming. “When I left in ’66 and graduated, I wasn’t coming back, as the kids say,” she said with a laugh.
I know this story. I grew up in Casper, population 50 or so thousand–which by Wyoming measure is a city. Nonetheless, I was determined to eventually live pretty much anywhere but this state. Though I didn’t go to college in the “real world,” i.e., anywhere but Wyoming, I imagined getting my degree, and then a job somewhere else.
But then, of course, here I am. Much of it having to do with a job and the fact that my family’s here. They’ve actually been here for a while. My great-great-grandparents came here from Iowa to homestead and farm. Eventually, they switched to working on the railroad since the money was better. Later on, some went to work in the public education system.
Sherry says that’s also where she made her living.
“They called up and needed a teacher out in the country school 90 miles from anywhere,” she said. “And they talked me into coming back. I retired from teaching here about four years ago. I spent about 23, 24 years teaching here.”
Part of this place’s draw on Sherry those many decades ago is that her family has been here in the Platte Valley for a long time. For instance, near the front door of the museum is a table with an open copy of a book called “Saratoga and Encampment: an Album of Family Histories.” It’s an old book with thinned pages and a mint green cover. Sherry flipped through it and pointed out her mom, dad, aunts, and uncles. I realized it was basically her own family album. Sherry’s family weren’t ranchers or railroaders, like a lot of their neighbors. Instead, they were rodeo and timber people. Take her great-grandfather, for instance.
“They found him under a tree and ladder with an ax across his lap. He just finished cutting a tree and sat down and died,” she said.
Sherry’s family has long stuck around, through boom and bust, and watched as Saratoga changed. Other times, Sherry says they watched it stay about the same.
“It’s the same buildings. Our buildings never change. If you look at my pictures and stuff, we just changed facades and relabeled,” she said. At the same time, there was at least one thing that stuck out to her right now. She explained how she could count on one hand the number of small ranching operations run by single families. She said most of it has gone into bigger ranches, like John Malone’s.
“I’ve never met the man,” she told me. “I have no idea if he spends much time here.”
When I asked her what the community makes of one guy owning that much land in the valley, she politely declined to gossip. But she did tell me one thing.
“I don’t get the feeling that they’re really wanting us to go in and help support them or go to their place to eat or whatever. I mean, it was kind of like when Old Baldy was first started. You know, you weren’t allowed in. Valley people weren’t allowed membership.”
I hadn’t heard of Old Baldy, but Sherry described it as “a big fancy resort that sits on the top of the hill east of town.” It’s been a members-only club since it opened in 1962. Sherry worked there for several summers in college. She said back then, townspeople like her couldn’t get a membership, and couldn’t eat there either.
“You were just help,” she explained.
To get a look for myself, I later checked out its website where there were photos of a pristine 18-hole golf course. It’s an oddly lush and green thing to see in the middle of a landscape that spends most of its time either covered in snow or parched for moisture. And from what I can tell, it also has some really good fishing, where the North Platte and Encampment Rivers snake across the property. But even more than that, its website says it offers “A True Western Experience.” And, like Sherry said, it’s one that will cost you. The price isn’t listed online, which to me says, if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it. Sherry said the resort is maybe not what it once was, especially compared to Brush Creek–which she described as “the rising star.”
I’d heard of Brush Creek, though it’s not one I’ve personally stepped foot on. Just a few virtual glimpses here and there through the Instagram accounts of several celebrities that vacation there. Not to mention, it’s hard not to notice the mile marker after mile marker as you drive across Carbon County that are marked with their ranch signs on the side of the road. It’s huge! And these huge parcels of land were once smaller operations run by families. Families with kids that filled the local school. Families that did eat at the local restaurants and shop at the local stores. But, as Sherry said, not so much anymore. And while most of it has gone into bigger ranchers, Sherry said that’s the history of the valley.
She described it as a kind of rotation. Sometimes the valley is dotted by smaller, individual family operations. Two or three get bought up by the same person and they’re consolidated into one ranch. Then, a portion of that larger operation is sold off, creating a small ranch once again. But in the case of Silver Spur, dozens of ranches got bought up during the telecommunications boom of the late ’80s and ’90s and have remained under the same operations since. That’s John Malone’s place. And those decades since have marked a long time to be in just one person’s hands. And that’s not likely to change. That cycle that Sherry described probably won’t begin again. That’s because it’s been said John Malone intends to leave the land as a trust.
Another part of the consolidation has to do with management, like hiring on the previous owners or managers to work the land. Malone did that too. So, that’s where I headed to next, to have a talk with his right-hand man.
When I hit the road for Silver Spur, it was a rainy July afternoon. I’d been told it was about 13 miles outside of Saratoga, as if you’re driving to Encampment. Out there on the road, the spaces were wide open enough to see where exactly the storm began and ended, and where it was headed. I almost missed the turn, despite the huge overhead gate that said Silver Spur Ranches. Some outbuildings and the usual ranch equipment lined the dirt road that ended at headquarters, a longer, single-level building that looked more like a house.
Inside was a common area with leather couches and photos of the ranch and cowboys up on the wall. There I met Thad York, the manager for Silver Spur. He wore a cowboy hat and had a long peppery beard. Just like Sherry back at the museum, Thad and his family have been at this for a while. He’s third generation, in fact.
“I grew up on the ranch. I started cowboying on the ranch when I was eight years old in the summers,” he said.
Cowboying is really demanding work. I know this from the ranch kids I grew up with. You’re up way before the rest of the world to do hard, physical labor in all kinds of weather, and then you usually don’t get home until after dark. Or during calving season, you don’t go home at all because you’ve gotta keep eyes around the clock on heifers waiting to give birth.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, that must have been awful to have to work at that young age.’ That was the best time of my life,” he said. “I look back with great fondness of those years. I mean, the guys that I rode with were like my big brothers. Growing up on this ranch was incredible.”
But despite that connection to the people and the land, when Thad was a teenager headed off to college, he had different ideas for his future.
“I’ll be real honest. When I left here, when I graduated from high school, I had no intention of coming back to the ranch,” he explained, in the same vein as the small-town Wyoming kid that hits the road with one direction in mind. And for Thad in particular, that meant visions of becoming a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He got a couple of degrees and then he spent some time in the corporate world.
But then, his father passed away and everything changed. He ended up right back at the ranch.
“Basically packed everything up and got up here as quickly as I could. The people that own the Silver Spur asked me to stay on. I will say I have a very close relationship with the people that own these ranches, and have had that relationship for a long time,” said Thad.
Thad was just a 12-year-old kid when John Malone bought the Silver Spur. So when Thad came home decades later and took over for his dad on a ranch they didn’t own, it didn’t feel like he was working for the Man. He described it more like carrying on a tradition, a kind of passing of the torch.
“I had a lot of family on this ranch at that point, you know, my mom was still here. I had a brother here, uncle, grandfather, that were all part of this operation. I felt it was my responsibility if I was going to be asked to come back, that I give that an opportunity, give that a chance,” he said.
The whole setup behind Silver Spur made me think of what we’re seeing with ranches across the country. A lot of them are in trouble. Margins are razor-thin. And more than that, fewer people my age are interested in taking over their family’s operation. In fact, in 2012 only 6 percent of farmers were under 35. This generation is off doing other work, including the kinds of jobs that Thad would probably be doing if Malone hadn’t offered him a job. It struck me that maybe this kind of setup is a lifeline for these younger generations of ranchers. And in that way, a lifeline for towns like Saratoga too. If young folks stick around, it’s not as likely to turn into a ghost town. When I asked Thad what he made of that impression, he agreed, and said it’s hard on a small operation to make it work these days.
I also asked him if he thought Saratoga is in danger of becoming a ghost town. Because that’s the thing — Saratoga isn’t a ghost town! It’s a happening little town in Wyoming. It has a thriving tourism industry thanks to its world-famous fly fishing and hot springs.
“Small towns are based on the employment that exists around them. We’re an active part of the community, we’re involved in a lot of different things,” Thad said. For instance, back in 2014, Saratoga’s Chamber of Commerce awarded Silver Spur the business of the year for doing things like employing over 120 full-time workers in Carbon County and doing their purchasing from local merchants. Plus when it came to building a community center, the Spur helped fund that too.
“It’s not just about the Silver Spur, it’s about the area that the Silver Spur’s in and what we can do to benefit the people in this area,” Thad said.
However, Malone’s dealings look a little different south of the Wyoming border, down in Melodie’s hometown of Walden, about 70 miles away. Folks down there say the Silver Spur hasn’t been so supportive of the community. Take Walden’s Mayor Jim Dustin, for example.
“John Malone, he contributes very little to the county. He brought in a bunch of Peruvian workers. Nothing against Peru, but it’s cheap labor. And they don’t come into town hardly at all,” Jim said.
Melodie’s mom Carol felt similarly. “I was teaching English as a second language to the Peruvians that John Malone brought up here from Peru. He let go all the local cowboys, people who were cowboying on the ranches. Let ‘em go. Because he could pay the Peruvians so much cheaper. And they resented it too. I mean they would comment about it. They didn’t speak English hardly at all, but I got the gist of what they were saying. They resented the fact that they were getting paid half,” she said.
It might be worth pointing out that Walden doesn’t have the hot springs or several posh clubs that Saratoga does. It’s rougher around the edges. But is that because the man who owns most of the land there is playing favorites? Showering Saratoga with community centers and hiring locals while leaving Walden to sink deeper and deeper into decline?
The North Platte
I can’t say what kind of responsibility Malone feels for this place. But I know other people who do feel that responsibility. Like a friend of mine I’ve heard go on and on about this valley and its North Platte River.
“I will never leave. I love Wyoming,” said Cole Sherard, who was born and raised in another rural part of the state. A little town called Wheatland.
Cole was a fishing guide in Saratoga back in the late 90s. He’s a very obsessed fly fisherman, to say the least. “That’s my life. Keep me on a river. That’s my church.”
But the North Platte isn’t an easy river to access. That’s because of a whole bunch of private land–Malone’s included. A lot of rivers in the West have public put-ins and take-outs. The North Platte does too, but around here they are fewer and far between. That makes it hard to get to.
But Cole said it also makes it a quiet and secluded river to be on. He doesn’t guide anymore. And like a lot of old guides that now work behind a desk, it’s pretty easy to get him to wax poetic about this place.
“The North Platte has this epic kind of tea color. It’s different from a lot of rivers. And again part of that because it’s not dam controlled, but part of it’s the sediment that runs through North Park, Colorado. It was just always kind of this mystical color. It’s just one of these magical places, and I’ve been really fortunate to be able to fish all over the West, but I will always come–this is my place,” he said.
Cole said early June is when everything starts to green up again from a long-fought winter. And that’s when you start “looking through the willows to see if you can see the salmon flies that are starting to molt and come out of the bottom of the river.”
And as soon as the sun starts heating things up, the bugs begin to fly and do their mating ritual. After that first cast, Cole said it’s about waiting for those fish to come up and bite, “and when it all comes together, It’s really a magical magical moment. One of the coolest things you’ll ever see.”
But like I said before, experiencing that magic depends on access. The land around the North Platte is owned by the few, so it’s largely enjoyed by the few. Of course, that means it’s not overcrowded, which can be a good thing for, say, wildlife. And some argue a landscape with fewer humans is one that’s wilder.
But what about more ordinary folks? What’s this kind of conservation-by-privatization method mean for them?
Conservation, But For Whom?
It’s the kind of quandary that is right up Justin Farrell’s alley — remember him? He’s the sociologist Melodie spoke with in the last episode.
“Who benefits from conservation?” he asked. “That’s something that I think we need to reconsider.”
Justin called it the new Rockefeller Paradigm where conservation is simplified and reduced down to basically one idea: purchase up land and conserve it somehow. He said these new Rockefellers are looking to make a pretty big splash. And that could mean in those very communities where they own the land, or at some cocktail party in San Francisco or New York. Either way, it’s trying to build on a legacy that is in the West’s public history. You see it on the names of highways and in national parks.
There’s also this moment Farrell describes in his book, Billionaire Wilderness, where one of the wealthy people he’s interviewing has loosened up and he tells Justin a pretty fitting joke. Here’s how it went: what’s the definition of an environmentalist? The guy who bought this place last year.
I remembered laughing out loud when I read that. Probably because there’s some truth to it. When a millionaire or billionaire’s wealth is tied to the conservation of land, it’s suddenly in the better interest of their money to preserve it. But despite the possibility of perhaps being motivated by increasing or protecting one’s wealth, conservation is often thought of in a positive light, with little criticism.
“It’s an easy concept to latch on to if you don’t want to really dig any deeper into what conservation could and should do, which involves all sorts of things, beginning with climate change,” Justin said.
In the town of Saratoga, climate change means more flooding. A lot of the small businesses are right on the river, and many others are on the floodplain. It might take just one of those summers that Cole Sherard described, where the river gets blown out, to wipe out a business. And remember the town’s sole grocery store? It may not be in a high-risk area for wildfire, but it does sit right on the edge of town. But fires could cut off supply routes to a place like Saratoga. That almost happened to Walden just this summer!
Every year these mountains burn bigger and brighter. Both Wyoming and Colorado saw huge ones this season–some of the biggest in their recorded histories. John Malone could fly out if he needed to. That’s not an option for locals. It’s not that the Silver Spur property is invincible to these threats, but it’s worth pointing out that the stakes are higher for other townspeople. Their businesses aren’t hobbies, but their livelihoods.
I asked Thad York what he imagines for the future of Silver Spur. He said he hopes these ranches will be ranches 100 years from now.
“Hopefully we’ll always be able to kind of navigate the landmines as they come and keep these operations much as they are into the foreseeable future,” Thad said, and also confirmed to me the Malones plan to leave the land they own into a trust.
“The owners don’t want to see development, they don’t want to see these ranches change, they want to see this wildlife continue and they want to see the land preserved in its natural form.”
Which is great, but also means it won’t cycle back to small family-owned ranching, either. That last bit–the idea of the land in its natural form–brings me back to that Citizen of the West award. The one given to John Malone back in 2017. The National Stock Growers Association gives the award to someone who “perpetuates the West’s agricultural heritage and ideals.”
I’ve been thinking about that word–perpetuate. One definition is to make something continue indefinitely. Maybe I shouldn’t get hung up on one little word, but it’s just something I’ve been thinking about in all of this. Perpetuate isn’t the kind of word that looks ahead at the future. It’s also not the kind of word that lends itself to imagining something different or beyond a monopolization of open spaces. It makes me think of the many times I’ve found myself driving down a Wyoming highway, and caught my eye on a mountainside or a butte or some kind of desert-looking expanse, and thought–man, that looks cool! I’d like to go walk around over there, do some hiking, maybe some climbing, and I wonder what the view is like? And then I spot a fence line and those kinds of fantasies are quickly squashed.
When I spoke with Justin Farrell, we also talked about this ongoing tension. If you look at population growth in the West, he said a good deal of that is the wealthy moving in. We ought to pay attention to that, he said. He calls it a kind of sleeping giant.
“I do think people undersell it because they’re hesitant to take seriously wealth in a rural area. They sort of just see it as like, ‘Oh, Ted Turner’s out there in the middle of nowhere doing his thing.’ There aren’t a lot of Ted Turners but there are a lot of wealthy people who I do think are going to have an impact as we move forward,” Justin said.
What that sleeping giant means for the open spaces, how they get conserved, what they look like in five, 10, 100 years from now, and whether the communities nearby are thriving or just props for the seasonal wealthy–it might just come down to what makes the most financial sense for the people with their name on it.
Ghost Town(ing) episode art by John McNamis
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