My first encounter with the Cottonwood Ranch came several years ago while on a two-day hike across the O’Neil Basin in northern Nevada. In search of some drinking water on a warm September evening, I mistakenly entered a side door of the guest lodge and ended up in the kitchen. After asking a surprised cook permission to use an outdoor faucet, I filled my bottles and continued my journey.
Last month I returned to the same building with my wife on an arranged visit that felt much more settled. This time I walked through the front door after Vicki and Agee Smith invited us inside to sit down for a conversation.
We learned from the couple that much like the lodge, the ranch has undergone an evolution over the nearly one hundred years that the family has lived in this remote area.
In 1952 when Agee Smith was just one year old, the family added guided mule deer hunting to their traditional cattle business. An outpost on Camp Creek, a neighboring drainage that also empties from the Jarbidge Mountains, served as the base location for their big game enterprise. Shortly after a painstaking relocation in the 1960s to its current location on the banks of Cottonwood Creek, the structure burned down.
A new lodge was erected and the recreation business expanded over the next several decades. Guests could be packed through the Jarbidge Wilderness Area, the first one designated in Nevada, and end their trip in the town with the same name. Other horse-related opportunities gave visitors the feel of a classic western experience.
The transition to a guest ranch and a broader range of activities arose from needing to take on investors to keep Cottonwood Ranch operating. The new partners’ desire to improve the centerpiece structure resulted in an almost complete remodel.
The hunting enterprise also grew but that change was not foreseen. Vicki Smith noted that with the re-introduction of elk to the Jarbidge Mountains and those animals’ migration into the high desert, the increased number of hunters helped business.
“Hunting season around here now can run from August to January,” she said.
Since people visit the ranch for a variety of reasons, the Smiths employed a lot of outside help, and those individuals also benefited from the setting.
“I watched many young people come through here over the years,” Agee Smith said. “I saw the difference that this place made on their lives.”
Land management makeover
The ranch’s cattle operation began receiving attention in the early 1990s but the focus was not the kind that anyone wanted.
“Riparian issues came to the forefront of grazing management for everyone,” Agee Smith said. The poor condition of some of the ranch’s creek corridors came under scrutiny. “We were at odds with the Bureau of Land Management. They were reducing our cow numbers and wanted to completely fence off the creeks.”
A fresh approach involved inviting anyone who wanted to participate in the creation of a new management plan. Participants included personnel from the two federal land management agencies that provided grazing leases, the BLM and Forest Service, as well as other agencies, Elko County, universities, and individuals from the ranching and private sectors. The plan was given an experimental status, a federal environmental assessment was performed, and the ranch scrapped its old way of grazing.
The new system divided the ranch into over thirty informal pastures — not all were fenced — and focused on a higher number of cattle grazing for a shorter duration. The ranch took the extra step of utilizing riders to keep cattle moving within and between pastures.
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In addition to the holistic, intensive management that led Agee Smith to prioritize the land rather than the cattle, he began to value an unlikely animal often viewed as controversial by the ranching community.
“We quit fighting the beaver and let them do their thing,” he said.
The condition of the stream banks began to improve with managed grazing, and newly constructed beaver dams stood a better chance of remaining in place during those first few critical years. In addition to the creation of wetlands and increased wildlife habitat, along with additional feed for cows, the large reservoir of water stored underground allowed creeks to flow later in the summer.
“Even in extreme drought the creeks still ran,” Agee Smith said. “Before the beaver, they did not.”
A few years ago the Smith family decided to cut back on the outdoor activities, not including the guided hunts, offered to the general public. The Cottonwood Ranch is now what Agee Smith describes as a “specialty guest ranch” that offers a place for retreats, conferences, weddings, and other group gatherings.
The most significant change comes with the recent focus on post-war service members. Three years ago the ranch hosted five veterans.
“When they arrived they were quiet and tense,” Agee Smith said. “After staying here for a week they were smiling and talking to each other.”
As a Vietnam veteran who served in the Marine Corps and one who tries to stay informed about veterans’ issues, Agee understands the aspect of camaraderie that returning military men and women can have difficulty finding. The ranch’s open spaces, relaxed setting, and physical undertakings seemed to help enable that desired connection and trust within a group.
Trail maintenance in the wilderness proved to be a particularly effective activity for those initial visitors. The veterans also learned to ride horses. Future offerings will include camping trips, wildlife viewing and helping with chores like fixing fences, livestock care, and irrigating. The Smiths are also looking at incorporating equine therapy into their program.
Fundraising is a challenge for their nonprofit — the Veterans Ranch and Wilderness Retreat. They have hired an outside entity to produce promotional videos and help create awareness for their endeavor.
While everything might not quite be in place, Agee Smith is optimistic about the future. “I know that we have something to offer.”
Further information about the Cottonwood Ranch can be found at www.cottonwoodguestranch.com.
To learn more about the ranch’s transition to a holistic approach to land management watch the video at holisticmanagement.org/featured-blog-posts/holistic-management-riparian-areas/.