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Steamboat Magazine

The New and Conserved Home Ranch

08/27/2021 11:06AM ● By Jennie Lay

Ranch horses help push herds of cattle, sort first-time heifers during calving season and walk fence lines at the Home Ranch.

Story by Jennie Lay
Photography by Steve Glass

– Last year a noteworthy shock rippled through the lush hay meadows bound by craggy wilderness peaks in the upper Elk River Valley. The Home Ranch, a mainstay of luxury dude ranch tourism in the hamlet of Clark, became the McFarlane family home. The ranch’s focus is no longer on trail riding excursions for city slickers; these days the mission is to build a cutting-edge cattle operation alongside its agricultural neighbors.

Located at the epicenter of a concentration of conservation easements, with views from Sand Mountain to Hahns Peak to Big Agnes, the Home Ranch’s new owners, Scott McFarlane and his family, voluntarily surrendered in perpetuity the development rights on their private property. No matter who owns the ranch, whether it be his kids or another future buyer, the option to subdivide or expansively build out those acres has been extinguished. 

McFarlane is taking his lead into conservation ranching from ranch manager Michael Moon – a local cowboy with an auspicious resume.

Courtney McFarlane-Kennedy rides alongside her father, Scott, who purchased the Home Ranch from the Stranahan family in 2019.


Moon’s specialty is holistic range management, and his background was custom tailored for this gig. “I’m really excited that Scott’s interested in what he’s interested in,” Moon says during a morning walk around the Home Ranch headquarters. He’s the storybook vision of a cowboy donning a weathered hat, vest and bandana at his neck.

Moon first landed at the Home Ranch in 1992. He came as a wrangler and farrier and met his wife on the ranch, too. He went on to work for a neighboring cattle operation, then ranched on the other side of Rabbit Ears Pass in Kremmling, before moving on to ranches in Montana, New Mexico and southeast of Colorado Springs. He managed a ranch for The Nature Conservancy in Montana and worked one for the progressive Quivira Coalition in New Mexico, where they operate under the concept that “well-managed working rangelands and forests are two of the most effective, efficient and immediately viable paths to remedy the devastating impacts of climate change.” At the 90,000-acre Chico Basin Ranch, Moon focused on the idea of ranching in nature’s image on the shortgrass prairie.

Moon returned to North Routt in 2015. And while McFarlane says he didn’t buy the Home Ranch with the intent of running a progressive cattle operation, Moon’s knowledge and enthusiasm sucked him in and jump-started the process. “Michael knows a bunch. He’s excited about this and I can get excited about stuff pretty easily,” McFarlane says. 

And so an invigorated philosophy of holistic land and livestock management has dawned on the Home Ranch.

Scott McFarlane’s daughter, Courtney McFarlane- Kennedy, herds cattle on the Home Ranch.


It started with placing a conservation easement on 407 acres of the property, including just under a mile of the Elk River, at the end of 2020. Development rights surrendered on the acreage were a full donation – no Routt County Purchase of Development Rights funds were used. Megan Knott with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust helped the McFarlanes navigate the process.

“It was a record conservation easement closing,” says Knott, the land trust’s stewardship director. “We did it in two months. Scott called us in October. He was like, ‘I’m ready,’ and I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’”

Conservation easements are typically a drawn-out process. It’s not unusual for a family to spend a decade doing a deal. But the McFarlanes bought the Home Ranch with conservation as a top priority. 

Knott comes to the table with a personal ag perspective. Her kids will be the fifth generation on her family’s South Routt ranch. They own and operate a local lamb and beef business, Trout Creek Meats, where 1,900 of their 2,400 acres operate with a conservation easement in the shadow of the Flat Tops. “I look at conservation easements from the landowner perspective because my kids will have one and have to sort of navigate those complexities as they get older,” Knott says. “I think that background helps me when doing these transactions. Just kind of understanding both sides and looking at it as how we can make this a cooperative thing.”

“The big picture in the Elk River Valley is huge,” Knott says with reverence for past conservation easements that dominate the watershed. “Our conservation easements don’t require agriculture, but adding to that protective land base gives agriculture a shot in the future, especially in areas like Clark, where landscape level conservation is a real thing. There’s a huge protected land base that further lends itself to a thriving ag community.” Conserved landscapes also support commercial uses like fishing, hunting and other rural enterprises that help keep towns like Clark with a functioning recreation, tourism and outfitting economy.

Knott says she worked a lot of late nights to get the Home Ranch project done by the end of the year – it was as much a passion project for her as it was for the McFarlanes. “I just really like that valley up there. I started my conservation career doing conservation easements up there. I’ve watched it grow for the past 15 years, and now I’m really committed to it,” Knott says. “I didn’t want to turn this opportunity down.”

Michael Moon is the conservation- minded manager at the Home Ranch.


Of course, the Clark community is witnessing some new things rise from the rustic Home Ranch they’ve long known and loved – including an imposing new gate along County Road 129 that is surely the most visible and snarked-upon addition. Behind the gate, there’s a lot going on. A 120-year-old barn got a stunning historic stabilization and renovation that included beetle-kill timbers to replace the rotten logs and the addition of a foundation. The old “Welcome to Clark” sign hangs there in the loft. A horse barn remodel and expansion will eventually include enough solar panels on the roof to run the whole headquarters. One cabin gained a kitchen. And in addition to the existing greenhouse and poultry house, the McFarlanes are building a four-season greenhouse with a climate battery, similar to the one at Elkstone Farm in Strawberry Park, to boost the existing Home Ranch CSA program. At press time, the main lodge logs were being marked and carefully deconstructed in order to be reassembled with modern updates on the old foundation. This will be the McFarlane family home. 

This year there are active changes on the land, too. “We’re in this startup phase right now, but the idea is to get this thing honed down so that we’re managing livestock in a way that’s beneficial to the environment,” Moon says. “It’s not just sort of this necessary evil kind of thing. This is actually going to be good for things in the long run. When you get a new place, you’ve got to figure out how to do that. Every ranch, every environment’s a little different.

”So, what was the lure of the Elk River Valley for the McFarlanes? The entire family was born in Colorado, except for Scott – and even he has ties to Colorado ranching from early days. His father once had a 14,000-acre bison ranch on the Eastern Plains, near Kiowa, and what he calls a “gentleman’s ranch” near Vail. 

“I just didn’t have any thought that we would ever be in a position to be able to realize a dream to go back into ranching. Things worked out kind of okay for us. I’m in the high-tech space and it worked out,” he says, alluding to his Seattle day job that pays the bills. The family wanted to buy a Colorado ranch, and the rule was that he, his wife, both daughters and their spouses had to agree unanimously upon the location. 

The entire family piled into a car and drove around the Western Slope. And then they spent a night in Steamboat – the first time McFarlane had returned to the Yampa Valley since his summer job working at the Steamboat Village Inn (now the Sheraton) when he was 15 years old. His dad, Will McFarlane, ran the hotel for the Steamboat Ski Area’s owner at the time, LTV. “I just did everything. So, I was really good at schlepping the luggage. I wasn’t so good at housekeeping,” Scott says. In other words, his trajectory had the inklings of a traditional Steamboat “ski bum” origin story before he went the way of Silicon Valley.

And so, decades later, the McFarlanes rolled up the driveway to the Home Ranch – a path that feels nothing short of a heavenly trail into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. “We drove up here, everybody got out, and they said, ‘This is it.’” 

The McFarlanes now have a significant conservation footprint in the Elk River Valley, having also acquired Round Mountain Ranch and the Whitmer Ranch to link about 2,600 acres of contiguous conservation in easements with the Cattlemen’s Land Trust. Scott’s daughter, Courtney McFarlane-Kennedy, now lives full-time in the valley with her husband and toddler, and is focused on building a performance horse program at the ranch. In addition, the year-round cattle operation will utilize the K Ranch in far-west Moffat County near Dinosaur, too – another property that is headed for a conservation easement.

While cattle on the K Ranch are being bred for desert-adaptation and high altitude, the cattle operation on the Home Ranch is crossing local cattle they’ve purchased from notable neighbors including the Fetchers and Carlsons with Akaushi, a sub-breed of Japanese wagyu cow.

“We’re going to breed for a half-Akaushi calf,” Moon explains. “The Akaushi are really the best adapted wagyu to a beef system for the United States market. And if you crossbreed them with the American cattle, you kind of get this ‘best of both worlds’ kind of scenario. You still have the marbling, but you have an animal that is more adapted to your environment here, has a little better carcass and everything as far as size for the American market. But you’ve got the marbling. We’re hoping to develop a direct market system for that beef.”

Grass-fed marbled beef?

“Yeah,” Moon says. “They look lean ... but they have intermuscular fat instead of putting on so much back fat like an Angus would. From a typical cattleman’s eyes, they don’t look finished when they’re finished because that’s not where the fat is. We’re really excited about the beef program because it’s different.”

A conservation ethic runs strong around Clark. It was seeded by local property owners like Jay Fetcher and former Home Ranch owner Steve Stranahan, who saw incoming development in the early 1990s. Stranahan died in January 2019, and his family sold the Home Ranch to the McFarlanes. But back in the day, before Northwest Colorado had local land conservation organizations, Stranahan bought up ranch properties to embark on the path of protecting the area from massive development. Local ranchers imagined a voluntary Upper Elk River Compact as a roadmap to protecting their way of life. An early core of land conservation emerged, and it has since grown to over 17,500 acres surrounding Clark.

“If you have a little bit of success, everybody wants to know, ‘What are you going to do? What do you stand for?’” McFarlane says. “I figured it out along the way that for me, it’s land. That’s what I can do. I mean, that’s what I can do for me in my heart. That’s what I can do for all the people and the land itself. That’s my thing.”