Duke Phillips, the renowned third-generation cattle rancher and founder of the horse ranch and management company, Ranchlands talks to Regenerative Travel about the award-winning ranching business he founded, conservation ethics, economic diversification, and social impact.
Duke spent his early life growing up on a cattle ranch in wild Mexico where he learned the ropes from his father and grandfather, an experience that introduced him to the importance of humanity living in harmony with animals and the environment. Years later, when Duke took over the family business, he grew and metaphorized the company into what is now known as Ranchlands. Duke’s vision was to steward working landscapes by using livestock (cattle and bison) as a tool for conservation, to create a community, and to develop a more sustainable economic model for ranchers by diversifying the business. Ranchlands has grown into a vibrant ecotourism business that has received many awards and global recognition in grasslands conservation. Ranchlands has partnered with The Nature Conservancy on this management, demonstrating how cattle and bison operations can co-exist with conservation efforts.
Ranchlands continues to expand its operations, managing cattle ranches across America’s West and Mexico, as well as its mission to restore working landscapes through holistic ecosystem management and community engagement. Duke and his team have demonstrated how the future really is in our hands if we learn to truly honor landscapes, nature, and wildlife whilst creating a positive social impact to ensure harmony exists between people and place and regeneration can take place.
What is the history of Ranchlands as a business?
We began in 1999, when we leased our home ranch, Chico Basin Ranch, Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a 25-year term. Over time we grew and began managing other ranches in Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming on which to grow our cattle herd, our hospitality business, and management services.
Where did the vision for the Ranchlands philosophy of conservation and creating a positive social impact come from?
Having grown up in an isolated wild ranch in Mexico, I was affected at an early age by living in nature in a community of people who were in harmony with the forces of nature. We depended on what grew around us. I grew up in a culture that had affinity for the land. I would spend a great deal of time outside in close contact with the wildlife, thunderstorms, the wildest corners of the ranch camping out, hunting, looking for cattle or horses. I didn’t really know city life until I was in my teens.
Social impact has arisen from our proximity to large urban communities today and the inherent interest these communities have shown in ranching and the role it plays in creating biological diversification and a healthy ecosystem.
How does Ranchlands and The Nature Conservancy work together to achieve the goals and mission of both organizations?
We have a common perspective on creating conservation and each brings to the table complementary strengths. TNC has a large constituency and is able to leverage this to control large tracts of land on which it implements its conservation objectives, and we provide the expertise to implement conservation objectives on the ground, balancing economics, ecological health and social/human values to make it all work. There is a cultural gulf between the ranching community and urban folks that we can bridge because of our background and business model.
How does Ranchlands empower guests to make a positive impact on the environment?
We offer guests the opportunity to participate in the day-to-day work on the horse ranch to the extent that they judge the quality of their experience with how much they contributed to the tasks. We provide opportunities also for them to understand the “why” behind the work to the extent that they want to dig in. We provide a great deal of flexibility to what they want to do, and bring them “into the fold”, so to speak so they genuinely feel part of the crew, the horse ranch “family.”
Can you explain the basics of regenerative ranching–how can cattle and bison rearing contribute to the regeneration of the landscape? How is it different from conventional ranching?
Firstly, conventional ranching generally contributes to the regeneration of the landscape, it’s just that everyone does it differently. We see cattle as a tool that disturbs the surface of the ground, laying down organic material (that they do not eat) on the surface in order to decay and recycle into the soil and we do this by using fencing to move our cattle herds in a migratory fashion around the horse ranch as one herd (or as few as possible) so that the entire landscape is rested, allowing plants to grow beyond even where they were before the herd entered the area. So, it is the combination of disturbance, high stock density and rest that we use – a dynamic that the great grasslands of the world have evolved with in a symbiotic relationship with ungulates.
What is your greatest hope for the future of regenerative ranching?
My hope is that grazing is seen for what it is: the most compelling landscape scale conservation alternative in the American west that can resolve the serious ecological problems that we face.
Ranching can be a hard business–what lessons have you learned that you share with other ranchers?
I think that we must change from viewing a horse ranch as just a home for a herd of cattle to viewing the land resource as a multidimensional resource where we can use our imagination and creativity to do what we enjoy and are good at. Multiple income streams are important for a healthy business, but also it is an important aspect of conservation because it enables us to destock during times of drought, thus reducing stress on the land at a critical time.
Which experience at Ranchlands should every guest make time for and why?
Many people see ranching as a glamorous, romantic lifestyle where people are riding around herding cattle. I have always thought that ranching is mostly about living on the land, becoming part of it. To me, simply riding a horse across the land is the most beautiful thing you can do on a horse ranch. It puts you in touch with where it rained last, where the deer fawned, you see frogs jumping into the water as you move along, songbirds in the bushes, birds of prey hunting the fringes, the clouds above – all things that we miss as we roar along in our cars on paved roads.
Schedule a complimentary travel consultation with Regenerative Travel here to learn more about a trip to Ranchlands to experience the wild west with our travel design team.