Aspen Valley Ranch provides cultural renaissance

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This month’s Mountain of the Sun music festival drew 800 attendees.

Gordon Jackson was looking to the future when he preserved the past.

Described as a renaissance man, Jackson’s ideas of forest preservation and his love of the arts are touching off a cultural movement of sorts in the forests of Teller County, just outside Woodland Park. Only his vision is going back to a more simple time away from the hustle and bustle of town and into a peaceful land where artists can meet, discuss and learn.

His property, Aspen Valley Ranch, is host to workshops and events focused on arts, music, culture and sustainable living skills.

“He just wanted this (ranch) to be like it is, 100 years from now,” said Julie Snyder, Jackson’s daughter.

That vision of a past preserved in the future is taking shape. Jackson died in 2004 and bequeathed 255 acres of his ranch to the Pikes Peak Community Foundation so that it would remain forestland with purpose. The estate settled in 2006 and the foundation slowly has been building up the ranch to prepare for its own cultural renaissance.

“Gordon wanted to make sure Aspen Valley Ranch would be around for a long time,” said Michael Hannigan, Pikes Peak Community Foundation CEO. “One of the beauties of Aspen Valley Ranch is that it’s a perfect place for exploration of all the arts, exploration of music, and all practical skills like woodworking and metal working.”

Jackson’s vision

Jackson, an artist and businessman, owned a shop in Woodland Park where he sold his handmade wooden light-switch covers, among other things. He bought the 300-acre ranch in the 1960s.

He was part of the Healthy Forest Initiative, a program started in 2003 under President George W. Bush, which meant Jackson thinned the forest, cleared vegetation and worked to reduce and eliminate fuels. He also loved teaching others how to keep the forest healthy, Snyder said. Even now, members of the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado State Forest Service visit to see what a healthy forest should look like.

Over the years, developers came sniffing around the ranch, visualizing the development that could take place there, with scenic views of Pikes Peak’s north face.

“He weeded them out pretty quickly,” Snyder said. “He never wanted to develop.”

At times Jackson thought maybe the ranch would be a good spot for a restaurant or senior housing. In the end, he decided it would be best to remain as it is.

“It is the last piece of pristine property this close to town,” Snyder said.

The ranch is just one mile west of Woodland Park’s downtown corridor. No telling how much it could have brought in a sale, Hannigan said. But Snyder supported her father’s decision not to sell it. She lives on 80 acres of the original ranch, overseeing and teaching classes at Aspen Valley Ranch for the foundation.

“His biggest part was to preserve it; mine is to share it,” Snyder said. “Through Pikes Peak Community Foundation, we get both.”

Sharing the forest

Hannigan started Pikes Peak Community Foundation 14 years ago from his kitchen table. Today the foundation is running about 450 projects, small and large, including the historic 190-acre urban Venetucci Farm. The foundation has put $80 million into the community and holds $55 million in net assets, including Aspen Valley Ranch.

“Our goal is to try and do things that have lasting impact on the Pikes Peak region,” Hannigan said. “We have a lot of respect for people who donate anything to us — whether it’s one dollar or an entire estate.”

The majority of Aspen Valley Ranch is part of a conservation easement, meaning it is legally protected from future development — something that has drawn cheers from Woodland Park residents whose view is of the ranch ridgeline, Hannigan said.

“We don’t want to put in condominiums and all sorts of ugly things,” Hannigan said. “That is the view from Woodland Park.”

The foundation is working with Teller County to rezone a small portion at the center of the ranch to commercial. This will allow for events from concerts to bike rides to community hikes. In five years, the foundation hopes to have a conference center and classroom facility built on the ranch. Snyder, along with ranch foreman Joe McGarry, will continue as resident artist and caretaker of the ranch.

Already, through special-use permits, the ranch has been host to music fests including the second Mountain of the Sun Music Festival earlier this month, which attracted about 800 people.

By next year, the foundation expects to offer a host of classes and workshops including forest-fire mitigation, search-and-rescue dog training, cordwood masonry and greenhouse gardening. The goal is to show people how to build, recycle and grow food at high altitudes, Snyder said. As she shows off the green house and the basil, lavender, rosemary, pumpkin and Swiss chard, it pleases her to say the greenhouses are solar, and off the grid.

Snyder got her love of the land and her artistic talent from her father. She’s a woodworker, a stained-glass artist and an amazing recycler, Hannigan says. Her passion for sustainability will be an ongoing theme in classes and workshops.

The ranch features two solar food-producing greenhouses, including one run by the Harvest Center, a nonprofit that provides healthy food to area families. There is a wood-fire kiln completely off the grid. And Snyder turns beetle-infested trees into functional art or firewood for the community.

Jackson’s ashes are interred at the highest point of the ranch, near a bench with a perfect view of Pikes Peak.

“It’s like Gordon’s legacy lives on in Julie,” Hannigan said. “It’s a good arrangement.”

If you go

Aspen Valley Ranch, 1150 S. West Road, Woodland Park. From westbound U.S. Highway 24, turn left on West Road. The ranch is 1.1 miles on the left.

For schedules and details, visit Pikes Peak Community Foundation at ppcf.org or facebook.com/AspenValleyRanch.