Ranch Visits Vermejo
By Carol Rawle
Photos by Dave Skogberg

This past week twenty SFTR residents were invited to tour the Vermejo Park Ranch, our nextdoor neighbor to the south.  The visit was coordinated by ranch residents Diana Novacek and Dave Skogberg with Vermejo general manager Marv Jensen and head forester Scott Chase. 
Scott Chase & Marv Jensen general manager of Vermejo Ranch in restored meadow
The rest of the group from the ranch included Bill Wenstrom, Carol Rawle, Vaughn Roundy, John and Jeanie Albert, Peggy Obrey, Karen and Eddie Gieske, Bob and Ann Scott, Joyce Wolff and Walt's daughter Judy Trujillo, Betty and Jerry Withington, Mary and Bob Dye, and Betty and Don Ruward.

The group was met at the Vermejo Park Ranch by Marv and Scott where we were given an overview of the massive restoration project currently underway.

Scott has been at Vermejo since 1996 when Ted Turner became the owner, putting his son Beau Turner in charge.  The primary goal of the restoration is to restore the 588,000 acre ranch to its original vegetative state.  This is being accomplished in stages and may take 100 years to complete.

Our first stop was to see a recently thinned forest area that had been accomplished with a "hydro-ax", a mower-type machine with a four foot wide blade.  This clears out scrub oak and sapplings, leaving 120 to 200 trees per acre.  The removed vegetation is piled up into enormous slash piles that are then burned come winter.  This is the source of most of the smoke that drifts over our ranch at certain times.  Then every six years thereafter, a prescribed burn keeps regrowth under control and stimulates the growth of native grasses.

There is no one "formula" for thinning a forest, Scott told us.  A low wet area may be able to support as many as 120 trees per acre, while a dry ridge can only sustain 50 trees per acre.  And the older the trees, the fewer the number.  The plan is to shoot for a "mosaic" effect for appearance, for fire mitigation, and for forest health. 
Scott Chase Vermejo forester with SFTR group
One objective is to have cleared areas strategically located perpendicular to the prevailing winds in order to interrupt the forward progress of a wildfire.

As we continued on to the next stop, we saw that there were no cattle on Vermejo, just elk and other game.  We learned that there are 1400 miles of roadways on the ranch, 450 methane gas wells and double that in the works.

Vermejo has some of the most stringent agreements with the gas drilling company (El Paso Oil and Gas) of any private property owner.  All pumps are powered by electricity for silence, and all extracted water is reinjected into a lower strata.  There are 33 permanent employees and 50 seasonals working on Vermejo, most of whom live on the ranch.  Jobs vary from managing the grounds and resources to lodge staff to hunting and fishing guides.  Many of the staff double as wildland fire fighters come fire season, and have actually aided our own fire fighters on wildfires.

Next we stopped at a vast meadow that had been reclaimed.  Usually clear-cutting is avoided at all costs, but in this case it was necessary in order to restore the meadow.  After the growth was removed and burned in slash piles (when the ground was frozen to avoid sterilizing the soil) the ground was scarified and grass seed planted.  The timber was sold off to offset the enormous cost of the project.  In fact, wherever possible, the trees are sold to the post and pole industry to help fund this endeavor.

Feller/Buncher
At the third stop we were treated to a first hand look at the operation in progress.  It was a logging operation quite unlike anything any of us had ever seen.  The most unique feature was the complete absence of chain saws.

Instead, there was a machine called a "Feller/Buncher", a computer controlled boom with grabbing arms and built-in giant chain saw operated by a single operator.  This machine can manuever on almost any terrain, select and cut one to three trees at a time, and then place them in a neat pile to be dragged off later by a skidder.  The danger of having a tree fall where it isn't wanted and damaging remaining trees is virtually eliminated, and so is the danger of having it fall on the tree cutter.  There wasn't a single SFTR person who wasn't drooling with envy.  Here we could see the stark comparison between the overgrown forest and the thinned forest where the remaining trees were 20 to 30 feet apart, and it looked terrific!

After the trees are cut down, the skidder drags them over to another machine called a "Whole-Tree Processor". 
Whole tree processor
It was fascinating to watch the single operator work the "joy sticks" that direct the computer controlled head at the end of the boom to grab a tree, and seemingly in one motion, scrape off all the branches and cut it into precise fence post lengths, then stack them neatly in a growing pile.  The virtuoso at the controls just happened to be a young kid who had just graduated from high school.

We had all worked up a huge appetite watching all this hard work, so the next stop was the lodge where we were treated to a buffet lunch.  Vermejo operates a private resort and conducts guided big game hunts and fishing trips.  If you have $8,000 to $12,000, you can get in on either an archery or rifle elk hunt in the fall.  (Yeah, right!)

After lunch, Scott wasn't quite sick of us yet, so we piled back into our vehicles and we drove out on some challenging 4x4 roads to see some prescribed burn areas.  The most striking feature of a post burn area is being able to see the ground and skyline through the forest of trees.  For us SFTR folks, to see a forest naked of scrub oak is like seeing a lake in the desert.  It was the most beautiful thing most of us have seen in a long time.

There was some minor scorching of the tree trunks, but the grass was already growing in thick and strong.  It was natural and healthy and beautiful.

It was a terrific trip.  We all learned a lot, much that we could apply to our own land, and we gained new admiration and appreciation for our neighbor to the south.

Historic charcoal kilns on Vermejo

Elk herd

This is what a healthy forest should look like