By Todd Hartman, Rocky Mountain News
Published November 21, 2008 at 7:10 p.m.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder © The Rocky
Jay Frost, left, and Randy Lewis separate calves to wean them in pens at Hanna Ranch south of Colorado Springs.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder © The Rocky
Kirk Hanna is remembered in one of many photos throughout the Hanna ranch home.
Ten years ago, for reasons both apparent and unknowable, the world crashed in on Renaissance rancher Kirk Hanna.
The dashing 43-year-old shot to stardom in the Colorado ranching community, combining earthy wisdom and persuasive charm with his cowboy prowess to push an environmental consciousness that shook up the old guard and bedazzled the new.
Resolved to repair battered grasslands, waterways and soils, Hanna was an eco-ranching visionary – preaching conservation ideals as ancient as American Indians a decade ahead of his time.
He set out to bridge the worlds of tradition- bound ranchers, city bureaucrats, environmental activists and land developers. He infiltrated school boards, cattle advocates, soil conservationists, green warriors and government panels. There was a better way to do business, Hanna said, than thoughtless growth that wrecks land and water, farms and ranches, flora and fauna.
He wanted ranchers to intensely rotate their cattle – mimicking now-vanished predators that kept animals moving and grasslands healthy. He thought people should capture rain from their roofs, using cisterns to slow the storm water eroding local creeks. He wanted to preserve an open prairie, saving ranchland stretching from Pikes Peak to the eastern plains.
"He really liked to shake s–t up," said Hanna’s half-brother, close friend, and neighboring rancher Jay Frost. "He was good at it."
But what Hanna’s determined personality could not ultimately do was ward off the chaotic forces working outside his control – those beyond his ranch, and the swirling, inner catastrophe unspooling in his mind.
The roads, power lines, pipes and suburbs south of Colorado Springs seemed to conspire to overtake his grass-and-cactus acreage. A calamitous creek overloaded with a sprawling city’s imported water was sweeping his land away.
A bitter feud with his only brother threatened his hold on the ranch. Repeated efforts to resolve it sapped his energy. He stopped sleeping. He stopped eating. He confided in a sister about the coming "death" of Hanna Ranch.
Overwhelming those crises: a spiraling depression, its depth largely unrecognized by friends and family – and largely hidden by Hanna himself. It had manifested in small bursts in years past. But now, a storm with hurricane force was gathering in his mind.
One frigid morning six days before Christmas, in 1998, Kirk left his squat old ranch house and walked west, to a spot near the relentless creek erasing his land.
There, with a rope and a tree, he put an end to his eventful life.
But not to his dreams.
The agonizing morning after Kirk’s suicide, his wife Ann and their two heartbroken daughters, Maggie, 9, and Emy, 7, cradled together, shocked and sobbing in the same bed. It was Maggie who took them on the first step down a long, sad and inspirational road.
"Mom," she said, "we have to be brave."
And resilient. A ranch doesn’t wait around for grieving. Chores don’t take a holiday. Cows can’t be put in the closet for a week.
After all, the world wouldn’t sit still for them. The challenges facing Kirk didn’t disappear with his death. All Ann had to do was look around.
Outside the windows of their oddball house – a cluttered, drafty and cozy wreck of a place that’s half ranch museum – and beyond their yucca-dotted pasture lands that sit just east of Interstate 25, halfway between Colorado Springs and Pueblo, there were signs of surging growth.
In the 1990s, a massive speedway was built just west of the ranch, the whine of race cars shattering the silence. Major housing developments are penciled in to the north. A big power plant was slated to the east, although plans have stalled.
Power lines and gas pipes cut through the ranch. Two sewage plants are proposed to the north. A gravel mine is on the way just to the west, near Fountain Creek. And plans to extend a major Colorado Springs thoroughfare called Powers Boulevard through the ranch – "through my living room" Kirk used to say – was one of his greatest worries before his death.
Battling all this had been Kirk’s project. Running the ranch was Kirk’s project. Building coalitions was Kirk’s project. Fixing the planet was Kirk’s project.
"Kirk," Ann said, recounting the early days of the past decade, "left me with a very long list."
The tears would roll for weeks and months, even years.
But Frost, the half-brother and uncle to the girls, said the Hannas knew what had to be done. So did a small universe of friends and fellow ranchers who descended on the Hanna family in a community embrace that lingers to this day.
"Ann was totally shattered" after losing Kirk, Frost said.
But she had her treasured girls, a career working with horses, her extended family, including Kirk’s and Jay’s mother, the social network Kirk had built.
She also had the ranch itself.
"She didn’t have any choice but to buck up and stay with it," Frost said.
She’s reluctant to give herself much credit for keeping the ranch alive, emphasizing so many who helped her. But others say Ann kept things together with her smarts, persistence and a love for Kirk that sustained his legacy.
John Valentine, who befriended the Hannas through his longtime work with government conservation agencies, calls Ann the "Annie Oakley of the Front Range" and marveled at how she triumphed after Kirk’s death: "She’s not a victim. . . . She just blew right through and took care of it. She’s an amazing woman."
Ann set to work on Kirk’s projects. She organized a non- profit to complete a community park Kirk envisioned for the tiny, park-less area of Hanover, miles to the east of their ranch. Ann found his plans for it sketched out on a piece of cardboard left in his desk.
She found a way to get her girls into pricey Fountain Valley School, a private academy that attracts students worldwide. She took over the ailing horse program there, allowing her daughters to attend for a discount.
She soon brought the program national acclaim, with FVS students winning championships near and far. So impressed was one wealthy parent with Ann’s work, he donated around $1 million for a sleek new horse barn and riding arena.
Ann, 56, also saw through the painful split of the ranch with Kirk’s brother, Steve. The agreement gave Steve 45 percent of the land – which he now leases to a Hanna family friend – but brought a family battle with a dark history to a close, or so Ann hopes.
Kirk’s activism, "the list that never ended," daughter Emy called it, lives on through Ann and Jay, who remain engaged in his work.
One of his toughest fights was reining in flows on Fountain Creek, the ruinous waterway spilling over with Colorado Springs’ runoff that has taken away so much of the highly erosive ranch land to the south.
Kirk was one of the earliest to sound alarms about the effect of poor city planning on the creek’s flows. His drumbeat helped fuel a regionwide effort. Pueblo joined the fight, and Colorado Springs finally imposed a stormwater fee on construction to better manage storm flows.
Ann is working to place part of the ranch into a conservation easement, fulfilling another of Kirk’s goals. Such easements allow ranching to continue but prevent more intense development. Frost has protected more than 900 acres and will likely set aside more.
Their efforts are part a vision Kirk developed long ago – what’s now dubbed the Peak to Prairie initiative. It includes big hitters such as The Nature Conservancy working to create a massive open space buffer zone south of Colorado Springs much like the famed Greenland Ranch separating the Springs from Castle Rock.
"That’s what Kirk wanted," Valentine said, "to make that an agricultural and wildlife community where large ranchers and traditional ranchers could operate and take care of the land and pass on the legacy. . . . It’s moving that way."
A ‘weak link’
Not a single thing has been easy for Kirk’s close family and friends, not the grinding years of therapy, sickening guilt, the loneliness, the crushing mystery of it all.
In hindsight, there were flashes of Kirk’s fragile mental health. But no one could get a handle on the idea that Kirk – affable, ambitious, charming, schmoozing Kirk – could just walk out the door of his ranch house one morning with no plans to come back for lunch.
Kirk declined rapidly in his final days. He was losing confidence in his abilities. He was resigning from community boards. Ann said he saw himself as the "weak link" in the ranch, much as cowboys learn to see cows that don’t get pregnant or care for their calves, or grow weakest in a drought.
"You identify the weak links and remove them," she said. "In the end, Kirk saw himself that way."
Ann wanted him hospitalized. Doctors diagnosed him with "irrational thoughts" but thought it might be a lack of sleep. Kirk was afraid any psychological care would show up in a record somewhere. Friends and family were told to keep a close eye on him.
On the morning of his death, Ann was sick in bed with the flu, and Kirk said he needed to go feed the bulls. She asked him to crawl under the covers with her. He wouldn’t. It was bitterly cold outside, and she put a stocking cap on his head. She told him to get into bed with her when he got back.
Even after years of counseling, Ann still blames herself for not going outside with him, even though it appeared he was simply going about the morning chores.
A doctor "said he fooled me," Ann recalled. "He spent 44 years fooling everybody."
That a decade has passed, and Kirk can still be the center of conversation at local gatherings reflects his still-echoing impact on family and community.
His daughters remember him hauling them around the ranch as toddlers for chores and roundups. The girls soaked up his genes and his knowledge. They make better cowgirls than mom, Ann said.
Both daughters see ranching in their future, either on their parents’ land or somewhere else. They talk admiringly of their dad’s environmental ethic, and of their mom’s perseverance.
Maggie’s studying history at Trinity University in San Antonio, with plans to study environmental law. Emy’s a junior at FVS, hoping to enroll at Texas Christian University to study law, business and agricultural sciences.
Maggie recalls how interested her dad was in everything, and "how free everything was. . . . I have this image of my sister and I standing on the back of the four-wheeler ripping through the pasture."
Emy tears up thinking about how hard her father worked on so many community groups, his "progressive way of thinking" and what she took away at such a young age.
For Ann, the decision to stick it out wasn’t as hard as some people seem to think it was. She had chances to leave. Some thought she was crazy to remain. She could sell out, start over, shed all the stress.
When the economy was hot, she’d find notes on her door offering six times the land’s value. Now, with the economy in the tank, pressure for her to sell and surrounding development have, for now, subsided. For her, that’s a relief.
"I was married here, my kids were born here, my husband is buried here," she said. "I can’t imagine anywhere else to live."