The James Ranch has become an iconic landmark in Durango, known for its lush pastures and fresh food. And now, the deeply rooted family has taken steps to ensure the bulk of the 420-acre property will remain that way for generations.
Recently, the Jameses placed a fourth and final parcel of their land in the north Animas Valley into a conservation easement, which secures limited development and a dedication to agricultural use for what the family says is “forever.”
It was a decision the 22-member family unanimously made almost a decade ago.
“It became very, very clear to all of us that this piece of land was precious to us and to the community and that we do not want to have it developed,” said Kay James, who purchased the land with her husband, David, in 1961.
“Now it’s always going to be agricultural land. That’s it.”
Started in the state of Colorado in the late 1990s, the conservation easement program is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a land trust government that holds permanent restrictions on development in turn for tax incentives.
Amy Schwarzbach, executive director of La Plata Open Space Conservancy, said not every property owner who applies for the easement is granted the designation. The land must hold significance to the community, she said.
“If there’s one resource that Durango has really realized we cherish, it’s the Animas River,” she said. “And that particular property is along the Animas River corridor, and it’s also in full view of the San Juan Scenic Byway.
“So it is a huge asset to keep that rural, pastoral, open space that people come here for.”
The ranch, over the years, has been threatened by high-density development, James said. And now the conservation easement, at least, puts some of those worries to rest.
Traveling aroundDavid and Kay James, California natives, were traveling around the West when they happened upon the land that would become their home. At the time, David was 21 and Kay 20.
“We had the goal of raising a large family in a rural setting, and we accomplished that,” said Kay James, who has five children and 10 grandchildren.
The family raised purebred cattle, but realizing the need to diversify, it started a real estate and landscaping business. But in the 1970s, when the cattle business tanked, the family was forced to sell 100-acres for The Ranch subdivision just to “survive,” she said.
Despite these efforts, the ranch was struggling financially. In the mid-1980s, the family was presented with another transformative proposal: a golf course. With most of the children finishing college, and the ranch’s future at stake, the Jameses called a family meeting.
“The kids said, ‘No way is our beautiful ranch going to be a golf course,” Kay James said.
Peace of mindJulie Ott, James’ daughter, said the concepts of horticulture management, direct marketing and grass-based agriculture came together in a crucial and cosmic way for the family.
Instead of returning to the old ways of cattle business, the ranch instead would be diversified among family members, each responsible for their own endeavors with the land.
“It brought peace of mind to my parents because the burden wasn’t just on their shoulders anymore,” Ott said.
Among the long list of successful operations at the ranch, Dan and Becca James head the dairy farm; Joe and Jennifer Wheeling are in charge of the gardens; Cynthia Stewart and her husband, Robert, operate The Harvest Grill and Greens; Julie and her husband, John, manage the pastured egg and tree farm, and David and Kay still run cattle. Their other son, Justin, is a co-owner Serious Texas Bar-B-Q.
In the mid-2000s, the family, questioning what the ranch should look like in the next hundred years, again came to an undivided consensus: The land should never be sold off and developed. The Jameses left a small parcel not under a conservation easement to leave open options that otherwise would be restricted by the designation.
“It brings me peace of mind that we’ve all come to that decision together,” Ott said. “And it’s a guarantee for our future kids to have a beautiful place to farm and live on. And for the community to have open space.”
Already, the next generation of Jameses is brimming with ideas for the land. Ott’s son, Gunther, 23, runs the pastured pig operation, and her other son, Abe, 19, is excited for what the future holds.
“What we have here is so unique,” he said. “Knowing that it’s going to be here forever is awesome.”
Kay James, 75, said she never thought when she and David purchased the land in an estate sale all those years ago, nearly all their children would return and work the land.
“We are just so grateful to all of the people who helped along the way,” she said. “The love of this valley and this land is in our hearts. We see ourselves as stewards of the land, to preserve it and enrich it.”