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Rick Bieterman & Katy Welter, of Watershed Ranch, on adventure & leaps of faith, leadership & community, land conservation & historic preservation

(Publication Date: 7.11.23)

Rick Bieterman and Katy Welter. Katy and Rick are married partners in a life of ranching and historic renovation, and other adventures. They met on a 75-day outdoor leadership adventure in the mountains. They had come to that experience as individuals, strangers, who unwittingly had both traveled from Chicago to get there, and they left as a couple.

 

Adam talks with Katy and Rick about leaving behind careers as a lawyer and a teacher, respectively, in the Midwest and to, ultimately, take a leap of faith into buying an historic 180-acre ranch in the Arkansas River Valley in Colorado.

 

They talk about learning on the job at their Watershed Ranch, and the 50-year project they see in it. And about how they came to be owners of an historic renovation project of a 1936 gymnasium. They also talk about leadership, land conversation, and a passion for serving the community. Among other things.

SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT

The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.

 

Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.

 

Watershed

Watershed Ranch on Instagram: instagram.com/watershedbv

Watershed, Inc., on Facebook: facebook.com/WatershedInc

 

We Are Chaffee

Website: wearechaffee.org

Facebook: facebook.com/WeAreChaffee

Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffee

CREDITS

Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams

Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray

We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin

We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby

Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom

TRANSCRIPT

Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service. Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.

 

[Intro music, guitar instrumental]

 

Adam Williams (00:13): Welcome to We are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanist community and wellbeing based in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams.

 

Today, I'm talking with Rick Bieterman and Katy Welter. Katy and Rick are married partners in a life of ranching and historic renovation and other adventures.

 

We talk about when Rick and Katy met on a 75-day outdoor leadership adventure in the mountains. They had come to that experience as individuals, strangers, who unwittingly had both traveled from Chicago to get there, and they left as a couple bound for an amazing future together.

 

(00:48): We talk about what led them to leave behind careers as a teacher and a lawyer in the Midwest, and, ultimately, to make a leap of faith into buying an historic 180-acre ranch in the Arkansas River Valley in Colorado. We talk about learning on the job at their watershed ranch and the 50-year project that they see there, and about how they came to be owners of a historic renovation project of a 1936 gymnasium.

 

We talk about leadership, land conservation, and a passion for serving the community among other things. I think one thing this conversation makes very clear is the tremendous partnership between Katy and Rick in all the ways, their complimentary skills, their shared interests, and their energies for making their peace of the planet a better place.

 

(01:34): We are Chaffee: Looking Upstream is part of the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative. It's a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. As always, show notes and the transcript of today's conversation are on this episode's webpage at wearechaffee.org.

 

(01:55): Okay. Now, here we go, my conversation with Rick Bieterman and Katy Welter of Watershed Ranch.

 

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

 

(02:06): Rick and Katy, welcome to Looking Upstream. It's great to have you here. I've been looking forward to this and I really am glad to get to know a lot more about you.

 

Katy Welter (02:15): Thanks for having us. We're looking forward to it too.

 

Rick Bieterman (02:16): Yeah, I agree.

 

Adam Williams (02:18): So I think my opinion from afar has been that the two of you are adventurous people. I think you've done adventurous things, things that are compelling and interesting to me, and I want to start with an adventure from your own story because I think I have found, and you're going to let me know if I'm accurate here, that many years ago, the two of you had a nice backpacking adventure across and around the world, and when you returned to the states in San Francisco, it looks like you eloped. You got married at the courthouse, no friends, no family. Am I accurate?

 

Katy Welter (02:58): Up to the last part. It was San Francisco City Hall, and my sister Jen was our witness. She lived there at the time.

 

Adam Williams (03:09): How did this come to be? Was this a fairly spontaneous thing? Was this something you arrived at during this trip? What was the trip? How did you end up at the city hall getting married to cap this thing off and just start a whole new chapter together?

 

Rick Bieterman (03:27): Well, I think can start. It goes back to how we met, which was on the 75-day NOLS trip backpacking, rock climbing, and river travel. So we had met on a giant adventure and just kept craving it ever since. So when we drove back to Chicago together where we both happened to live, I went back to teaching for the year, Katy went back to doing law school, and after that year, we were craving more adventure.

 

So we said, "What can we do? How can we do it? How does it fit within the framework of our education and my job? Can we make it work?" So we derived this plan to take a little trip around mostly the eastern hemisphere. In doing so, we got engaged in Nepal at the top of a mountain and continued around on our travels and started talking deeper about, "How do you want to get married?"

 

(04:45): I think it took about two days of figuring out, "Oh, man, I don't want to do that. I don't want to do this. This is a lot of work to plan one day of our lives," versus thinking about the bigger picture, which is our lives and our future together forever. So on that trip, we decided, "Let's do what we want to do," and we said, "Let's get married the last day of this trip." Katy's sister was in San Francisco. We thought, "That's where our flight was going home. Let's do it and start our lives the way we want to."

 

Adam Williams (05:27): That's awesome, and getting engaged on top of a mountain in Nepal.

 

Katy Welter (05:31): A mountain pass. I don't want to oversell my mountaineering creds.

 

Rick Bieterman (05:39): It was 18,000 feet.

 

Adam Williams (05:39): Well, I think most of us around here will take it because we've not been up to that point.

 

Katy Welter (05:43): It was the Thorong La on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, which is a really incredible place, but yeah, I think it set the tone for our rest of our lives because we approached that decision the way I think we've approached a lot of decisions since, which is, "Life is short. Time is precious. How do we want to prioritize it?"

 

And we just said, like Rick was saying, I think we said, "One of us should really want to plan this wedding if we're going to have one." It was a one, two, three not it situation, and we realized, "Then let's not. Let's be married and put that time and, of course, other resources into other aspects of our lives."

 

Adam Williams (06:36): I can really appreciate that. I'm not going to go too far down my own story here, but there is some resonance with me and my wife, Becca. I proposed to her in India. We kept it really small, fewer than 10 people, and went away for that too. So I can really feel and vibe with what you're describing. What I'm curious about with you, Rick, is because of that engagement, was that something that you had already had in mind and prepared for, had a ring, had that thing when you went across the world or was this more of a spontaneous no ring needed moment?

 

Rick Bieterman (07:14): I think it was on my mind as we were planning the trip while living in Chicago, the what if, is this the right opportunity, does it make sense. A few months into our travels, we were in Thailand and we did a lot of neat classes in Thailand. One of those was jewelry making.

 

So as we were making jewelry with these local Thai, this local Thai man and company, I had made a necklace, Katy had made a ring, and I was just sitting there going, "Huh, well, maybe this is where I get a ring. Maybe we make it together with this guy, and that seems like an ideal way to tie the knot, make the knot." So that's what we did. We got our rings from the same guy that taught us how to make the jewelry.

 

Adam Williams (08:09): That's awesome. That's great. So you knew it was coming then?

 

Rick Bieterman (08:13): I hid the rings.

 

Katy Welter (08:16): I think we were on the same page. Let's just put it that way. I didn't know when, but yeah, that NOLS trip was really intense, again, 75 days, which we just always felt translated into more years in terms of hours spent together, and then the backpacking trip. I can really see the log from that. We moved to a different place an average of once every other day over six months. So just really intense, and I think that brought us together in a way that few other experiences could.

 

Adam Williams (09:00): Absolutely. You're talking about two kinds of experiences that really fast track the relationship in whichever direction or whatever direction it's going to go. It's like we either feel that this works and here's a lot of reasons why that are really clear right away.

 

If you think about being set up on a blind date, you know nothing about a person, that's one approach into dating, but the two of you meeting at this NOLS course, you already instantly know some common ground, a willingness for adventure, an interest. 75 days, we're not talking about a weekend. It's not just camping and sitting around the fire. In fact, well, tell me more about that because I only know so much. I've not experienced it myself.

 

Rick Bieterman (09:43): I think that we always look back at it and go, "We happen to live in Chicago, but met in Wyoming, didn't know each other in Chicago, and there was probably no way that we were going to meet in Chicago, had different interests there in the city."

 

Katy Welter (10:01): Lived on opposite ends of the city.

 

Rick Bieterman (10:06): When you just hide in the mountains for a couple months, where there actually is nowhere to hide from your peers that you're on the trip with, you really get to know each other. Katy and I happened to be about four or five years older than most of the other students. It was a group of 12. So there was some bonding over that being mom and dad, which at the time, I was 28, Katie was 26. We weren't at all thinking about mom and dad or children or anything like that, but through that experience combined with no substances, no alcohol, no nothing, you really get to know each other.

 

Katy Welter (10:50): There's a lot of adversity. It's inherently uncomfortable. It's physically challenging. It was unseasonably cold for that first 30-day backpack packing portion. We were post-holing every day. We didn't have snowshoes. We weren't prepared for several feet of snow, but that's what we got, serious river crossings up to waste level, rushing water, where it really brings you together and puts you through the ringer of a lot of different social, emotional, physical, environmental experiences that you feel like, "Okay. We've been through all these things that might have taken us years to go through in a relationship outside of that setting," and we felt like we evaluate each other pretty well.

 

Adam Williams (11:51): Well, you really get a chance to see how somebody reacts under stress with that kind of thing. Are they positive? Is this somebody who's going to bring that positivity and can-do spirit into my life or compliment me with it or add to it or do they react really badly? Well, I'm curious. So I'm approaching 50, right? I'm not in my 20s doing that. Is that something I could do, should do?

 

Katy Welter (12:18): For sure. There are NOLS courses for all ages. In fact, we know someone who went on those Outward Bound, but similar thing, dog sledding course for her 60th birthday and had a great time, and it was intense cold, Northern Minnesota, but yeah, NOLS, they do leadership. Leadership is the essence of the curriculum.

 

So they adapt that to whatever student they're teaching. They're known for they teach NASA, for example. NASA has relationship with NOLS where astronauts are doing NOLS courses in preparation for their missions as bonding and just trying out their skills in a whole new adverse setting. It's not quite Mars or the moon, but-

 

Rick Bieterman (13:18): I've been an instructor on and off with NOLS for the last 15 years. It's a great summer job. After school, got out as a teacher. I'd go out there to Wyoming or Montana mostly and work anything from a two-week to a four-week course. The whole range of kids, I did groups of kids that were in their 14 and 15-year-old, but also instructors and teachers who were wanting this skill would come, so anywhere from 22-year-olds on up to 70-year-olds. The neat thing about it is you don't need a lot of experience. So if you've only camped, car camped for a day or two, they will get you where you need to be.

 

Katy Welter (13:59): I had never camped.

 

Adam Williams (14:00): Oh, wow, okay.

 

Katy Welter (14:02): I'd never been to the mountains.

 

Adam Williams (14:04): I had, I think, just assumed that this was something you both had experienced and were into because 75 days, that's really leaping in.

 

Katy Welter (14:13): No. I had had a serious health issue that prior year, and then my summer work plans didn't work as I thought they would and had made a lot of bucket list items and was like, "I'm going to learn to camp. I'm going to do it right." NOLS definitely whipped me into shape, and all we wanted was to come back to that environment after that. That was how we fell in love with the mountains, at least I did. You had been to Montana in college and South Dakota.

 

Rick Bieterman (14:49): Yup. I was the road trip national park guy as a science teacher. I was always teaching about these beautiful places, but living in Chicago where you're limited in terms of geology and astronomy, and so every summer I would bounce around and getting that taste at car camping made me really want to figure out how do I go deeper into those woods and avoid the crowds and figure that out. 35 days was a lot of camping. At one time, I lost almost 30 pounds in those 35 days back there. When you don't shower for 35 days straight, you hit this moment after about a week where you're just like, "Oh, I thought I'd smell worse, but actually-"

 

Katy Welter (15:34): Equilibrium.

 

Rick Bieterman (15:35): "... something's happening here where it seems okay."

 

Adam Williams (15:39): Well, if you jump into a creek, make a river crossing, roll in the snow, whatever is relevant to the time, that takes the place of it.

 

Rick Bieterman (15:48): It sure did.

 

Adam Williams (15:49): It occurs to me that 75 days is comparable in time to the length of my basic training in the army, and that what you're talking about might well be a basic training on the civilian side and one that I probably would've preferred to do, honestly. So I'm just thinking about the skills and leadership in particular is a really important topic to me from corporate career type things, again, from the military.

 

I've had all these experiences and observations of what leadership means. For me, I tend to think toward, lead from where you are, that it's not so much about the title you hold or authority that you hold over other people, but it's about the mentality that you bring no matter where you are in an organization. I'm curious what was being taught or is taught in NOLS camps and courses.

 

Rick Bieterman (16:38): They have their own leadership curriculum, and I think one aspect of it that I really fell in love with, as you're describing, is anybody has the opportunity to be a leader, whether you are stated, "Today, you are the leader of the day," but they really push what's called active followership, where you're not just following the line and get into zombie mode.

 

You actually have different checks and accountabilities to make sure that on this 10-mile hike, you don't just tune it out. You're always fine tuning the group, whether it's safety officer or somebody in charge of hydration. It's all those little bits and pieces to keep the groups interconnected and-

 

Adam Williams (17:32): Active followership, that phrase is not one I've heard before, but I like that. I like the essence of that.

 

Rick Bieterman (17:37): Yup. My going on this trip was actually stimulated by one of my chemistry colleagues putting a NOLS catalog on my desk, and she said, "Did you know can get graduate school credit for going on this camping trip?" I looked at it and went, "Oh, my God, this would be so much fun rather than being trapped in a classroom in June, July, and August," and then looking at the curriculum and how much of it was leadership and having been a coach also at the high school level, I just thought, "Oh, this is perfect. This is really going to add to the repertoire and show me places I'd always wanted to see."

 

Adam Williams (18:18): What did you coach?

 

Rick Bieterman (18:20): Football, baseball, basketball, bass fishing, which is high school sport in Illinois, and badminton.

 

Adam Williams (18:29): Wow. That's quite a range.

 

Rick Bieterman (18:31): I was all over the place, but all of them were such unique experiences, and you really got to work with the whole gamut of students and student athletes, and that's what I really enjoyed.

 

Adam Williams (18:46): It sounds like it. What were you doing, Katy, I know Rick had said you were in law school at the time, and I know you're an attorney, you did finish law school, but what else was going on in your life around that time? So Rick was coaching every sport and teaching science.

 

Katy Welter (19:07): Yeah. Actually, the context that in a lot of ways brought us to our trip that you had brought up and then out here eventually is I think the defining thing of that period of my life other than law school is that my family was in the process of ...

 

Well, my family had owned a community bank in Indiana and I was deeply attached to it and very, very close to my father who ran the bank, but a majority of the shareholders of that bank had decided to sell the bank, and it was a time when high quality banks were worth a lot of money because a lot of banks were failing. It was that 2006, 2008 period.

 

(19:52): So that was all consuming for me. We were law suits, my dad and I, for it was about six years. In 2006, I had some serious medical issues that fortunately I was living in Hyde Park in Chicago, so it was treated by the University of Chicago, so that was wonderful, but without going into too much detail on those, both of those events in my life, I had spent my whole life never questioning that what I would do would be run the bank. That was always going to be my plan from a very young age.

 

(20:30): Then in 2006, that changed dramatically. So then that led to my dad and I tried to start another bank. Again, I don't want to get too much in the details, but we did receive a charter for a bank through the comptroller, the currency, but that was right amidst the financial crisis and the FDIC stopped put a moratorium on issuing insurance for new banks.

 

So the two government agencies not really communicating that well and one saying, "Yes, we want you to do this," and the other saying, "Hold up. We can't insure you and you can't have a bank without FDIC insurance." So that led to the trip that you had brought up earlier, which was the plan was go back to Indiana and start the new bank.

 

(21:28): FDIC said, "Can't do this," so we said, "Wow." I had taken the bar exam for Indiana. I was completely set on that plan. Rick had actually given notice at his job. So then here we were like, "Well, now what?" We tried to, I think in all instances in our lives together, have tried to leverage those situations into an opportunity to reflect and think about, "Well, what can we do at this time? It's not going the way we expected."

 

So we sublet where we were living and got out of Dodge and came back with a whole new perspective. I think that was when we really started thinking seriously about moving as well, although it took another, what, eight years.

 

Adam Williams (22:18): Are you talking about at that time that's when you took the big trip over to Asia and so on and ultimately would get married?

 

Katy Welter (22:24): Yes. So at that point, the plan had not been to take that trip, it had been to move to Indiana. I graduated law school and we were going to go into business. I was going to go into business with my dad, but again, because of the financial crisis and the fact that the FDIC just stopped insuring banks, we just had to completely pivot and say, "Now, what?" So we came back from that trip in 2010, early 2010. Rick went back to teaching at the same school. It was a wonderful school. I actually started working in systemic reform in Chicago, so specifically with court systems. A lot of that had to do with exposure in various instances in my life to the dysfunction of government and courts and justice systems in particular. So I spent seven years doing that.

 

Adam Williams (23:21): Isn't it amazing how life can turn out and attitude makes a difference too is when you run into issues or things or the rug gets pulled out from under you and you think, "Well, this is going to be my future, my life. This is where we're going to live," and now look where you all are and what you are doing and it's a very different life. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but would you change it? Do you love where you are? What's going on?

 

Rick Bieterman (23:44): Oh, man. I'd say absolutely. I think in a lot of ways, it was a blessing in disguise. Would you rather live in Colorado or Indiana?

 

Adam Williams (23:56): I know my answer.

 

Katy Welter (23:58): I'm ambivalent because I'm very happy here and I wouldn't trade it, and if I could go back, I wouldn't, but I was deeply invested in that path and-

 

Adam Williams (23:58): So that still hurts a bit.

 

Katy Welter (24:08): ... very much regret the way it went. So yeah, I can't say that I ... I certainly don't think other members of my family would feel that this all turned out for the best, necessarily, but yeah, I think we made the most of it, absolutely. I always feel like I wish I could live three or four lives because I want to do all the things, but yeah, we're very happy here. Don't miss understand that.

 

Adam Williams (24:37): I think a lot of times it is about, "We made the most of it." If we go back to the NOLS courses or things like that where a lot of those things, they are experiences and opportunities to test ourselves and learn how do we make something of this moment that otherwise could be very defeating.

 

Speaking of this spirit of adventure and risk tolerance, it sounds like, and a willingness to try new things in leap, you did make the move. You came out to Colorado. You bought a ranch that's, I'm thinking from what I have seen, somewhere around 180 acres, give or take. Is that right?

 

Katy Welter (25:14): Yeah.

 

Adam Williams (25:14): Nothing we've talked about yet says you were ranchers, you had ranching skills, ranching knowledge. How did you decide to jump into this and did you feel like this was a total leap? Did you have any sense of what you were doing at all?

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Katy Welter (25:27): Well, I think it's important to note that I do come from a long line of farmers. So I have that in my jeans and was raised. My dad, he would say he worked very hard to not be a farmer, but yet it's definitely part of my family. So that felt comfortable, but also a long line of crazy entrepreneurs. So the idea ... I lead with that because I feel like that's not your background, crazy entrepreneurs and farmers.

 

Adam Williams (26:05): No.

 

Katy Welter (26:06): When we would drive past ... We were living in Leadville and there was this for sale sign on the ranch and we would drive past it every day because we were working down here, and as many other people, many, many, many people have told us they saw that sign too, and we thought, "Why don't we call the number and find out about this place?" I think I hand it over to Rick because the next page of that story really comes through in our getting to know Franklin Springer who owned the ranch at that time.

 

Rick Bieterman (26:38): Yeah. I guess what I can say is I've always been somebody who has been up for the next adventure, who can I learn from, how can I find a mentor, who can help me understand how to solve this problem. I was a science teacher for 16 years at the same school, like you said, coaching multiple sports.

 

I thought that was going to be my career path forever till retirement. I think having met Katy opened this whole new window of adventure and a little bit of risk taking, but every time along the way, it's just intoxicating what we were able to do, the trips we've been able to take, the challenges we've been able to say yes to, and in a lot of cases, the success that we've been able to have.

 

(27:35): So the ranch is, we always call it this 50-year project. It's a project, and our mindset is it's going to take every bit of 50 years to figure it out and evolve and create something that we feel proud of, something that's sustainable. Conservation and preservation are two words that Katy and I use all the time, and it applies to the ranch, it applies to the McGinnis Gym project that we're working on, and it applies to the US Forest Service building that got us out here. So yeah, I love adventure, I do.

 

Katy Welter (28:17): With the ranch, to go from seeing it on the highway, from the highway to owning it and operating it, it took a lot. You probably spent, I don't know, at least 50 hours with Franklin before we bought it just like, "Show us how this works."

 

Adam Williams (28:42): How did he feel about that? Was that a weird request to him because he would've maybe expected a fellow rancher to buy it or what?

 

Katy Welter (28:49): No. His kids didn't want us to even meet him at first because they thought he'd kill the deal because he would reveal how complicated the place is because he had, but really it was also, Franklin was never going to sell to anyone who didn't get it.

 

This was his baby. Rick had to almost prove himself with Franklin because there's over six miles of buried underground pipeline, there's hydroelectric plants, there's obviously the hay with all the equipment that goes along with that. So Rick accompanied him. We made tons of videos, and I think over time Franklin saw that Rick could understand all of that, all of those operations, and then Franklin did it all himself, but I had to learn from him.

 

(29:42): The hydros regulated by FERC, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That's the same agency that regulates the Hoover Dam. It's a bit of overkill, but also all the relationships that he had with different property owners and hay buyers. There's a lot of legal, financial aspects, but also all the agricultural and scientific aspects of the property. So together, we just had an interview for the job with him, and I think we really loved him. He passed away two years ago and we say at least every couple weeks, "Man, I wish Franklin was still here."

 

Rick Bieterman (30:26): Even seven years later, I'm always uncovering or mystified by something that's happening like, "Why has this not happened in seven years and right now this pipe is just oozing water from the earth? What is going on here?" I used to always be able to call Franklin or, at the very least, go back to that 50 hours of video footage.

 

Thank God for iPhones when we were buying the place because I just said, "Tell me where the bodies are buried. Tell me how to fix this," and anytime I called him, even in his mid 80s, he had the answer and he knew what was going on from a thousand miles away. It was amazing.

 

Katy Welter (31:09): That was reassuring. On the other hand, a lot of people in town told us not to trust Franklin. He's known as a character. So we were overcoming some of that. So it was a huge risk. The week we went under contract, we found out we were pregnant, and that was also like, "I guess we're really doing this," but Rick has learned the farming operations beautifully. I almost think not having a specific agricultural background might have been to your benefit. Just being a physics teacher is almost what you need.

 

Rick Bieterman (31:49): Yeah. I would say that, sure, my education has helped, but the on-the-job training is really what gets you through every day. It is a complicated project, but I believe in the environment and protecting it, and so the work that goes into it is I am very proud of what it's becoming.

 

Adam Williams (32:17): I think your willingness to learn and have the patience and the long-term view, you mentioned a 50-year idea here, those all feel a little bit foreign to me personally, and it's admirable. If I have a repair at my house to make and I think, "I don't know how to do that one," it's going to get procrastinated and put off because I'm not even looking for YouTube videos to tell me how because it's already just like, "This is just going to take more time."

 

And you took on this huge ranch and all of these things that are beyond my understanding, certainly, with a willingness to say, "I'll learn what I need to learn on the job." That's often going to come through, I don't want to say mistake, it's through things happening, not necessarily of your doing. It's of things just happening that you didn't foresee.

 

Katy Welter (33:07): Yeah, that's every day.

 

Rick Bieterman (33:09): Well, I think something I've learned about farming is it can be lonely. You can be isolated out there working on your land, and every day something could break. Most of the farming out here is you're in a four to five-month irrigation window.

 

So if you don't use your tractor for three months straight, you go to that thing, you're crossing your fingers going, "Oh, I hope this thing fires up like it did three months ago." There is a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong, but at the same time, unlimited opportunity to say, "How do I fix this?" Along with Franklin, our neighbor to the south was a tremendous mentor-

 

Katy Welter (33:54): Ron and Kathy Haug.

 

Rick Bieterman (33:55): ... in the farming industry, Ron and Kathy Haug, who recently moved to Kansas back home to their home states. I sure do miss them because-

 

Katy Welter (34:05): See, they went to Kansas. It wouldn't be so bad to go back to Indiana. I'm defensive of Indiana.

 

Rick Bieterman (34:11): No. I will say one thing that I hope comes across is that I could not do the ranch without Katy, Katy couldn't do the ranch without me. We have these skills that really compliment each other. I think that's also what's allowed us to say, "Oh, well, maybe we can try this other project. How do we use our skills together?" If one of us goes, it'll be hard to run anything to get by ourselves.

 

Katy Welter (34:11): Yeah, it will be a challenge.

 

Adam Williams (34:41): I would imagine that solitude out there that you described as being tough, which, of course, it can be. It can feel isolating and you can feel alone in trying to solve a problem or whatever, but I think that's also what appeals to a lot of people who prefer the idea, "I'd rather be outdoors. I'd rather be working with my hands, doing my own work, my own day rather than in an office in a cubicle with a bus sitting on my shoulder." So I imagine it's a good balance of days where you feel, well, maybe the whole range of emotions. I don't know. It depends on what pops up, right?

 

Rick Bieterman (35:14): Yup. I can be all over the place. I do miss teaching and I've had a number of part-time teaching jobs here in Colorado since we moved, and those have been hugely satisfying and gratifying. So when I have a little bit of that connecting with kids, teaching science and a little bit of the farming, I feel like that that variety is what I truly thrive on. So that's always what I'm looking for is this crazy yet balanced combination.

 

Adam Williams (35:50): Let's talk conservation. You mentioned water. You mentioned only this modest window out here for when there's enough irrigation or water available. Obviously, we know in the west it's a growing issue and it has been. Is that the top priority for you two with conservation and just care and how you view the future possibilities for this ranch? Is it fire mitigation? What are the leading concerns as you look into the future of this 50-year idea?

 

Rick Bieterman (36:26): I think it's evolving. I think we are, in a lot of ways, planning and reacting to what the environment throws at us. I'm not sure this was the best place to start a farming operation when you're side by side with all kinds of cactus. So when you see that there's some perspective out there going, "Are we doing the right thing? What are some other options? Is there a way to subtly transition fields from what they are now to something new and unique? How do we play that out?"

But you have to learn about the land first and the machinery and everything else to understand, "Okay. What is the next step?" and then-

 

Katy Welter (37:12): Yeah. It's just been really we're just through phase one, which has really been a study of the property, the water, the soil, the forest, but also the historic buildings on the property and the history of the property. I think we're just now transitioning to what do we do about with all this. I will say one of our top concerns is that the property remain in some states similar to what it's in today in the sense that it acts like a nature preserve.

 

I think that even in the time we've been there, that's only increased, meaning we perceive that we see more wildlife than ever. We think that is maybe due to the fact that their habitats are stressed everywhere else. So increasing numbers of whether it's owls or elk or moose, bobcats, mountain lions, bears, all of which we're seeing in higher numbers either on game cams or just with our eyes.

 

(38:20): We feel good about it being a place like that, but we also want it to be a place that our children, but other children and other people will enjoy forever. So figuring out ... It's like, "Okay. We understand the property. We know we have this big goal, which is that it be protected."

 

Finding the right vehicle to accomplish that is now the challenge. So we've explored conservation easements. We've explored charitable trusts. We're looking at potentially converting one of the lower fields to be a natural burial preserve, which would be an example of, "Look, it's going to be protected forever, but it has some revenue coming in from it."

 

Adam Williams (39:05): What would that be? I'm sorry. What is a burial preserve?

 

Katy Welter (39:07): It's like a cemetery where anybody can be buried there, but they just can't be embalmed, so people who either want their cremains to be buried or their body in a natural state. It's a cemetery.

 

That's really what we would explore, but that's a permanent decision similar to a conservation easement, where it's like there's no going back from being a cemetery, but we know that, for example, watering hay for horses and cows, that's probably not the best in highest use of water today, and seems almost certainly not the best and highest use water 20, 50 years from now. Yet the legal framework around water in Colorado is so complex that any change of use of your water entails an expensive, lengthy, and contentious process.

 

(40:07): So in this second phase it's like, "Okay. What is the best use of the water? Could it be we use a fraction of what we currently use and then grow more native plants? Well, how would that affect the elk who love the hay?" There's trade offs to different approaches, but ultimately, it's our hope that what we pass on is protected.

 

(40:33): Then I think hand-in-hand with that, we want it protected, we also want our children to not be so burdened by it. We hope, of course, like any parents that our children want to stay and it is a very special place that they love, but they shouldn't have to choose between ... They shouldn't have to devote their entire lives, as Rick does, to maintaining, and I devote a lot of time to maintaining that property. They ought to be able to pursue their own livelihood while we hope still having some connection with the ranch.

 

(41:09): So we want to be realistic about all those things, and we're not quite sure. There's a mix of ... We have to figure out the right mix of preserving it, also generating some income. We also have many neighbors in a subdivision that surrounds the ranch. So it's not going to become a concert venue. We probably wouldn't do that anyway, but we're cognizant that that's not an appropriate use given that there are many neighbors nearby, but just we've vetted so many different ideas for it while learning about the property, but I think we can definitely say conclusively that the goal is to protect it.

 

Adam Williams (41:53): A word coming to my mind is investment. If we can put this back to this idea of a 50-year investment, vision, the willingness and the patience to work through all of these things you're talking about, the legal and bureaucratic matters, the actual hands-on and the field matters, you're investing yourselves in such big ways and with such a long vision. I want to talk about community because you're also investing, you mentioned, Rick, the McGinnis gym.

 

There are ways that you are investing off your ranch so much in community and being part of this community, and now I'm hearing through all of this conversation there's really a long view on your being here and doing that. So what does community mean to the two of you?

 

Rick Bieterman (42:46): I think community is everything to us. I think we've ... Well, going back to Katy's story about her dad and her and community banks, I think a lot of what we're trying to do here does go back to that vision of what did a community bank do for the community. Katy can speak more to that too, but we're looking to invest in this community. I hate that word investment. It sounds so corporate to me, but-

 

Adam Williams (42:46): Yeah, it does.

 

Katy Welter (43:17): It resonates with me, but I'm a banker.

 

Adam Williams (43:19): Well, I'm glad I could split the difference by throwing it out there.

 

Rick Bieterman (43:23): Getting involved in the ways that we know how to get involved, whether that's through youth and through schools or whether that's through old buildings. The old buildings that we have worked on and brought us here, they have all been community-oriented. Even the ranch that we have right now, it's a longstanding, one of the oldest in the county. Though the community doesn't use it daily like we do, it is open to a number of community organizations to utilize.

 

(44:04): These old buildings, as Katy will say, they tell stories and the people that have been a part of those buildings, whether building them or working in them or going to school in them, those stories are really important to us because they transcend generations.

 

They help us understand where we came from or where this town once was and where it is now. So in a world of change, which is what we're seeing here in the valley, lots of new homes being put up, lots of people coming in, us being one of those seven years ago, eight years ago-

 

Adam Williams (44:45): In my household too.

 

Rick Bieterman (44:46): Yeah, we want to make sure that some of those reasons we came out here aren't lost, be it environment and conservation or be it history.

 

Adam Williams (45:01): Katy?

 

Katy Welter (45:02): Yeah. Definitely that long view, that's something I was raised with, even indoctrinated with through my family and the bank, which it was an investment of our time. The people who worked there were my family and I really saw the way a stable organization that collects deposits and reinvests them in the community, simple, simple concept, but it really transformed our schools. It gave people a stable livelihood in an area that was affected by the volatility of the steel industry and automotive industry. So it was just a stable thing. I think the vision was always that that be around forever.

 

(45:55): So without a doubt, I think everything I do involves big decisions. I try to do right by the people who worked in the bank, especially those who lost their jobs when it was sold, the community that lost as a result of that. So out here, really, I think it's a think globally, act locally kind of a thing, at least for me. We're in really, really challenging times, the planet, the people on the planet. My sister lives in Turkey, in Istanbul, and seeing the chaos that they've experienced, for example. It's not just here, it's around the world.

 

(46:43): I believe, and I think we both believe strongly that the things our children and we'll all need to endure and cope with what's ahead for us, those are fortunately things that they don't have to cost a lot, things like nature, things like history, music, art, and buildings, and physical places, they're the most tangible representation of those ideas and they bring people together to enjoy those things.

 

These crazy times were in, they're not without precedent because we look back to when the gym was built, for example, 1936. It was the height of the Great Depression, the Nazis. Nazi Germany hosted the Olympics that year. That's dark, dark times, and yet America's response was, "Let's invest everything we've got in public buildings, public arts, in our rural communities, in our urban communities. Let's get urban and rural together working."

 

(47:56): We feel like there's a need now more than ever for those kinds of investments. We hope that the ones we're picking are winners not for us. I don't know that we need that per se ourselves, but we want to return these assets to especially children, working families, seniors, and our community, who they need these things. They need places to play, they need places to enjoy art, and they need places to do that together.

 

Rick Bieterman (48:32): The gym, for example, about 20 years ago, it was condemned for storage purposes only. Our main goal and the whole reason we're doing it is so that it does go back to the school system and that that gym will be inhabited by kids ages three to adults in their hundreds utilizing the space 14, 16 hours a day. That is the feel good that we're going to get from this experience. We want to bring that back to what it was in the '30s, which was a community gathering space of all ages and all kinds.

 

Adam Williams (49:12): Can you explain, either of you, in a nutshell form here with the time that we have left? We're talking about you and ranching, but then we're also talking about this gym and restoration. So for anybody who's not familiar with anything of your story beyond what they're hearing right now, can you help us just connect those dots and, if it's even possible, a nutshell way of how are you involved in renovating a gym in the community?

 

Katy Welter (49:37): Well, the school needed help. Two years ago they said, "We need to expand. We need to make a number of facilities improvements." One of the things they offered up for sale in order to advance that goal was the McGinnis Gym, and the gym they also needed help with. We have young children.

 

Rick's been a public school teacher. I grew up attending public schools, and we felt like, "Hey, we've had experience with preservation of historic buildings." The ranch has 11 buildings, I think, and nine of them are on the National Register of Historic Places. I've served on the Historic Preservation Commission for six years, so I've benefited from enormous training and networking in those areas.

 

We knew the right people, including our neighbor, John O'Brien, who's been indispensable, but I think, really, just the experience with the ranch prepared us for this idea that, "Yeah, it is a lost cause."

 

(50:46): Everybody had written off the gym. The school really has just been trying to find a way to safely demolish it, and we said, "Well, what if we could restore it and we could do it for the school district for the price of demolishing it?" and they said, "Go for it." We closed September 1st last year, so we haven't had it that long and we're going to start construction here this summer.

 

(51:19): So I think the common thread between the two is that both require a lot of different skill sets. The ranching, which we don't have any cattle, so it's not ... I don't know, but the ranch requires all the things that you've shared, Rick, but all the farming aspects, but also legal and financial. The gym also has been just an enormous partnership.

 

We could list all the names, but just off the top, the school district superintendent, Lisa Yates, absolutely could not do this without their trust and support. History Colorado, which is the state's preservation agency, unbelievably, they've committed over a million dollars to the project and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which just gave the project another million dollars to clean the building, but pulling all those things together is the common thread.

 

Rick Bieterman (52:21): I think speaking on that, I would have to say, again, this is Katy's specialty. She speaks government. She loves working with government, not many people do, and it's something she's been doing for a very long time. She has a skillset like no other to bring people together. It's part of our origin story out here. It's how we got out here. We purchased a government-owned building, the US Forest Service-

 

Katy Welter (52:56): Ranger Station.

 

Rick Bieterman (52:56): ... building on Main Street, which is now on the National Historic Register, and it was through a government auction, and those-

 

Katy Welter (53:06): Which was quite complicated to navigate.

 

Rick Bieterman (53:08): Most people would say, "I don't know. I'm not going to do that," but having the skillset to navigate that world has really allowed us to dive into some of these.

 

Katy Welter (53:18): Well, it had had problems too, at a mobile home sitting behind it with no VIN and no title, with the hitch touching the building, just stuff. We just like to take on projects where there's huge potential impact, and then you figure out, why has no one done this yet, and the reasons are like, "Oh, it's legally complicated. It's physically demanding," which I think Rick has never shied away from hard work, physical work, and that's what all these projects have in common.

 

(53:55): People have mentioned us, other projects like the [inaudible 00:53:58], for example, where we definitely want to do more of this. We also have the ranch to always come back to, to say, "Well, if there's a lull in hopeless complicated projects-"

 

Rick Bieterman (54:14): There's 11 hopeless complicated barns and cabins on the ranch to fix.

 

Adam Williams (54:20): You have no shortage of work, no shortage of vision. I really appreciate getting to talk with you. I feel like this only scratches the surface of so many things. I love that about this podcast. I feel like I say it in almost every conversation is that, "Oh, I want to keep going," but I hope that this shines light on something of your story for anybody who hasn't met you shines light on more of your story, for people who think they know you, it's been wonderful to sit and talk with you, both of you. Katy, Rick, thank you.

 

Rick Bieterman (54:20): Thank you for the opportunity.

 

Katy Welter (54:51): Yeah, it's really our privilege to be here and to be out here.

 

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

 

Adam Williams (55:05): All right. That was Rick Bieterman and Katy Welter. If our conversation here today sparks curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode's show notes at wearechaffee.org. If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at info@wearechaffee.org.

 

We invite you to rate and review that We are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple, Spotify or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also encourage you to tell others about the Looking Upstream podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversations like these.

 

(55:38): Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer, and photographer. John Prey is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN 106.9 FM, our community radio partner in Salida, Colorado, to Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Andrea Carlstrom, Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment, and to Lisa Martin, Community Advocacy Coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative.

 

The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority. It's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org and on Instagram and Facebook at We Are Chaffee.

 

Lastly, thank you for listening, and remember, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, share stories, make change.

 

[Outro music, horns guitar instrumental]

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