"And so I became a public lands sportsman"

Editor's note: This post is part of an ongoing series on the importance of public lands to sportsmen and women.

By Tom Reed

She was the oldest of three remarkable women, all of whom in their own way had a profound impact on my life.

She first rattled west in a 1914 Cadillac. I think about them sometimes; all crammed into that open car, the hot, oppressive Iowa wind in their hair. The cool sweet mountain air of Colorado must have seemed like heaven to her. She dreamed of owning her little piece of heaven. One day when she was in her late 50s, she accomplished just that, purchasing a ranch with insurance money from her husband’s suicide a decade before. She had been looking a long time, but when she and my uncle set foot on the place, they turned to each other in the cold autumn air and steamed out: “This is it.”

We knew everything on the place by a name: the Big Spring, the Upper Forty, the Beaver Ponds, the Ridge, the Southeast Meadow, the Lumber Camp. These were places I explored and came to love as deeply as one loves a lifelong companion, a good bird dog or a fine mountain horse.

The place was 360 acres of Colorado high country and prairie. Vista and close woods. Aspens and huge Engleman spruce. Some called it The Ranch, but I knew it simply as Ginna's.

Most kids when they grow up know their grandmothers by simply the tag, Grandma. But Ginna insisted on being called Ginna, short for Virginia. My mother's mother was a short little bit of piss and vinegar, probably in her 60s when she made the biggest impression on me. She loved the land, loved the high country.

I spent my summers at Ginna’s. I killed my first deer there. I camped out alone for the first time there. Hunted elk there. Went fishing often. I saw my first wild turkey, first bobcat, first nighthawk. In many ways, I am still there, although I haven’t been back in decades.

I can never go back physically. I cannot bear to see the land as it is now, for this private ranch in some of the prettiest high country in the prettiest state in the Rockies is bound to have changed. In the late 1970s, when my attention was turned to things like muscle cars and fishing and hunting and girls, I lost that family ranch and I lost my connection to my own private hunting and fishing preserve. One day, late in that decade, I became a public lands sportsman. It wasn’t my choice.

Ginna did not own the mineral rights to what lay beneath all of those aspens and fairy slipper orchids and Doug fir stands. One day in late summer, I can remember how shocked we were to see pickup trucks emblazoned with big company logos bouncing up the two-track onto the ranch. She had gotten a notice in the mail: there would be some company men on her land looking for uranium to mine and she couldn’t stop them. Hell, all she could do was basically hold the gate open for them.

So they staked out the land, those company men. Laid claims. In the years before Three Mile Island, uranium was going to save us from our oil greed and strip mining was how to get at it. I think when Ginna looked out across that land, and when bulldozers later came in and “improved” the two track so bigger equipment could come onto that private ranch, she could not bear to see what was coming. The company back-hoed and drilled and scraped. And Ginna sold the ranch.

There would be no more big buck mule deer stotting through the aspens for me. There would be no more hunting elk sheds. No more blue grouse hunts. No more dreams of fishing the little creek on the ranch. It was gone. Gone was my private access.

And so I became a public lands sportsman. I was off at college in Arizona then and two buddies with kindred souls and I would take off every Friday night with a case of beer, shotguns and bird dogs. We hunted raw public land north of our university for Gambel quail and in December, when finals were over, we headed toward the southeastern corner of the state, stomping the same soil as Geronimo and Cochise, chasing Coues whitetail bucks up against Christmas. And javelina. And elk up on the Mogollon Rim.

The rent in my heart from losing the ranch began to heal. I healed it with a shotgun and a rifle and a fly rod, all on land that was owned not by my dear little grandmother, but by everyone in this country who paid taxes. That included me. I came to realize that since I owned a part of it, I could actually have a say in how things happened on that ground. If I didn’t own those mineral rights, as Ginna had not, then I was helpless and caseless. But if I owned something, even a very, very small part of something—mineral rights included—then I could have a say.

Since that time so many years ago when our family lost the ranch, I have never had the chance to hunt big game on private land again. But since that time, I’ve killed an elk almost every year, many of them bulls that anyone would be proud to display in a home’s trophy room. I’ve killed mule deer and blue grouse and antelope. Hungarian and chukar partridge. Mearns, Gambel, California, mountain and blue quail. Ruffed, sharptail and spruce grouse. I’ve caught bull and brook trout in water so clear you could read the print of a newspaper ten feet down. I’ve caught Rio Grande, Apache, Bonneville, Yellowstone, Snake River, Colorado River, Redband, Greenback and Westslope trout. Browns and rainbows. Grayling and whitefish. Public land. Public water.

Our family lost the ranch in 1979. But my soul and my thirst for hunting and fishing did not die that year. Instead, I shifted, thrived and flourished.



said on Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Thank you for the wonderful story, and thank you, too, for your tireless work to maintain and improve our public land opportunities to hunt and fish!  

said on Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Powerful piece, Tom. Thanks for sharing.


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