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This is America’s last true cowboy

Meet the Colorado rancher dragging traditional practices into the 21st century.

Around here, Duke ‘Big Duke’ Philips is a legend. A third-generation rancher, Duke sees ranching is an important part of America’s cultural history. And its future. Through his Ranchlands business, he and his team (many of whom are Philips too) work to preserve and restore the land’s natural resources by merging tradition with modern ways of thinking.

We meet at Chico Basin Ranch, Colorado, one of the most magnificent landscapes on Earth. High desert grasslands, alpine forests, wetlands, sand dunes, creeks and lush meadows, this area of Colorado is regarded as one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes in the United States.

As we head out to explore the vast property, everyone without exception greets Duke with a big smile and huge hug. Choosing to dump the complexities of the modern world for a simpler, more ethically-sound way of life has brought a genuine sense of calm. The respect Duke and his team have for the land and each other is clear.

“I make a living from running livestock on large tracks of land and ensuring that the health of the animals and the land is taken care of. I have a crew of people that are around trying to make it happen every day, working together with me.

“We have 2,000 buffalo that run as close as what they used to before modern man appeared. I can come out here and just watch them for hours. They feel like beasts that have come down through the eons – there’s something about them that you can’t really describe.”

Duke’s vision for Ranchlands is to preserve both ranching heritage and the ecosystems. There’s a big emphasis placed on educating the future generations of ranchers. Ranchlands offers an internship that provides a hands-on experience in all operations, from fencing, digging pipelines, moving cattle and participating in grazing planning.

“The world is changing fast, and we view the public concern about environmental land management issues not as a threat, but as an opportunity for ranchers and environmentalists to combine resources and knowledge to become better stewards and breathe new life into the ranching industry.”

For Duke himself, the true joy of ranching - and what he hopes to impart on Ranchlands students - is the peace of being surrounded by nature, in the outdoors with the animals and mountains. It’s where he truly feels at home.

“For me, it’s the simplicity of silence. Of clean water falling from the air, of a breeze blowing by; being on a horse and just going across and noticing all these things that we don’t even take the time to think about, much less see.”

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