Newfangled Ranch Hands: WSC students working closely with city in developing plan for Van Tuyl Ranch
Nov. 18. 2009 -- Last spring, Steve Westbay, Gunnison’s director of community development, wanted to reach out to Western State College for assistance in developing a management plan for the city's 460-acre Van Tuyl Ranch, located on the north and western flanks of town, under the afternoon shadow of the Palisades rock formation. So he started knocking on some doors.
Brittany Perkins displaying the object of her research while conducting a small mammal study at the Van Tuyl Ranch. Photo by: Julia Fitting
Now, less than a year later, several academic departments are involved with various projects at the ranch. Involvement ranges from performing hands-on academic exercises to those providing valuable services and data as the city decides on exactly how the land will be used in the future.
Ray Van Tuyl, the namesake for the area and Gunnison native, bought the property in the 1960s and used it as a working ranch. The city bought the ranch from Van Tuyl in 1993 in the interest of protecting the important water aquifer that flows beneath the area. Van Tuyl continued agricultural operations on the property. (Currently, Parker Pastures is leasing the land for similar purposes).
“When Van Tuyl passed away in 2008 it became the city’s responsibility to manage the land,” Westbay said. “We decided that the best way to move forward was to create a management plan for the ranch.”
When the city received a $50,000 Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) grant to develop the plan, in-kind partnerships were necessary to receive the funds. This is when Westbay started reaching out to professors and administrators at Western.
Jonathan Coop, visiting professor of biology, is one of those who Westbay connected with at Western. This semester Coop is co-teaching environmental monitoring with Jessica Young, professor of biology. The two ended up using the Van Tuyl Ranch as the main focus for their course.
The students in the class are contributing to the understanding of what is out there, for both the city and for the Parker family that currently ranches out there,” Coop said.
At the beginning of the semester, the class studied small mammals, important to the area because many larger birds such as hawks and eagles prey on the critters. After that initial study, the class took on group projects, which included studying the waterfowls on the property, water quality tests, river channelization, species composition and measuring soil carbon in the areas where cows are grazing.
Cait Enright, a senior at Western, is a student in the environmental applications course and has been out to the property to do field work nearly every week since the beginning of the fall semester. Enright also has gained insight to the ranch in another course, quantitative sociology, where the class conducted a study on how the public would like to see the area used.
Enright, who continued to work with the survey in her senior capstone project, has enjoyed the real-life experience of working with the ranch.
“The survey allowed me to work with a complicated computer system and a client, while the monitoring project allowed me to get my hands dirty,” she said.
Tyler Patrick, a senior at Western, is another student who has gotten his hands dirty at the ranch. His advisor, David Marchetti, assistant professor of geology, is another person to whom Westbay reached out. The city needed more wells on the ranch so that they could test the groundwater conditions to understand the rate at which water flows through the area. Patrick, who was a student in one of Marchetti’s upper-level hydrology courses, was a perfect fit for the project.
“I was pleased to have Patrick do this work in conjunction with the city,” Marchetti said. “He learned a great deal about city governance and community planning in addition to the groundwater hydrology of the ranch.”
Patrick worked with the city extensively, and received an extra boost via the Bartleson-Prather scholarship funded by the geology department. Local hydrologist Susan Wyman of Whetstone Associates also assisted Patrick in his efforts to coordinate the drilling and instillation of the new wells.
The city also got a hand from the geography department at Western. An upper-level Geographic Information Systems (GIS) geography course created 12 different maps of the area. Phil Crossley, professor of geography, shared that the maps would be useful for the city, complementing the aerial maps that the city already has on file.
“I also believe that my students increased their investment in their GIS maps because they were creating them for a real-world client,” Crossley said.
Crossley’s belief was confirmed at last week’s Van Tuyl Ranch public charrette hosted by the City of Gunnison, filling the City Hall Council Chambers. Community members, city officials, and WSC students divided into small groups and poured over maps of the area that contained information that Crossley’s class provided. The purpose of charrette was to begin serious brainstorming for the management plan. Ideas were discussed in the many ways the land could possibly be used, and how to protect the land to ensure that the agriculture can continue to thrive alongside public recreation and groundwater protection.
For Westbay, the Van Tuyl Ranch has become a living laboratory in a public process.
“The opportunities are endless, and I’ve never seen such collaboration between the City of Gunnison and Western State College.”
Story by: Luke Mehall, assistant director of public relations and communications