Sunlight flickers through the rustic sign, which is starkly shadowed and embellished with a cowboy herding his cattle, and two words chiseled below. As the camera zooms out, you see Hanna Ranch sprawling across 6,000 acres of southeast El Paso County, 30 miles from the encroaching urbanism of Colorado Springs.
In the new documentary Hanna Ranch, award-winning director Mitch Dickman (Active 365, DNC Mediamockracy) settles in here, at the edge of Fountain Creek, to explore the deep roots that tie one family to the land. And the 70-year-old ranch provides a striking setting for the powerful, tragic story of visionary cattleman Kirk Hanna and his quest to protect a simple way of life.
"Even though it's a timeless story by nature, there are issues — urban sprawl development, grassland conservation, how we raise our cattle — still at play today," Dickman says. "But this documentary is told through a personal story to where you can get more in-depth and not be preached at."
Six years ago, an article about Kirk in the Rocky Mountain News caught Dickman's attention, urging him to share Kirk's legacy and his family's continued crusade. Initially, the founder and director of Denver-based Listen Productions intended to make a narrative film. But when Kirk's wife, Ann Hanna, revealed the years of collected news articles and VHS cassettes documenting her husband's lifelong efforts, he knew he had to use them.
Production kicked into gear in May 2010, and Dickman sought to bring the pertinent issues of "conservation, the environment, responsible food production, family and tragedy" to life. To do so, he assembled an interesting team.
Eric Schlosser featured Kirk in his 2001 best-selling book Fast Food Nation, and as recently as last year wrote in a Denver Post column that the "eco-cowboy" exemplified the bridge that could exist between ranchers and environmentalists. He's an executive producer of the film.
Dickman also lassoed Karl Kister, an arts advocate, as a fellow executive producer, and lined up Zachary Armstrong as director of photography and editor. Armstrong worked previously with Dickman on three feature films and grew up a few miles from Hanna Ranch.
Described by Huffington Post as "part homage, part love letter, part wakeup call," Hanna Ranch screened last year at the 36th Starz Denver Film Festival and earlier this year at the Durango Independent Film Festival. Having shown in New York and Los Angeles earlier this month, it will debut locally on May 31 at Ivywild School, playing twice daily for a week in the gym. Opening night will showcase the filmmakers at a Q&A session following the screening.
Hanna Ranch portrays Kirk as the stoic, charismatic, tall-dark-and-handsome man his family and friends knew, who was always looking for "a better way." For one thing, Kirk used Holistic Resource Management (HRM) — seen as a revolutionary method decades ago — that sought to incorporate all aspects of the land: the sun, the water, the minerals, the bugs. When he started using a rotational grazing plan to relocate the cattle each week, a natural fertilizer and 400 goats for weed control, people thought he was a nutcase, Ann recalls in the film.
Other players include local ranchers Jay Frost, Kirk's half-brother and president of Arkansas Valley Organic Growers, and Dale Lasater, a lifelong family friend and owner of Lasater Grasslands Beef. With other ranchers, they formed the first Colorado chapter of HRM.
"The ranching he did took more work and time. But, ultimately, it was better for the land," says Schlosser in the film. Yet Kirk was working on even bigger issues.
Since 1970, the population of Colorado has more than doubled, to 5 million. Kirk saw a bleak future coming from unchecked growth — utility development, private toll roads, and on and on. A big threat to area ranchers was increased water flow from Fountain Creek, as a result of urban sprawl farther north. With more surface area covered by cement and asphalt in the city, the rain water rushes south, flooding the creek and eroding acres of land. This was just one problem Kirk persistently brought to the attention of Colorado Springs City Council.
He also did something unprecedented at the time, Schlosser says: He started working with environmental groups. Historically, ranchers and environmentalists didn't get along, but Kirk, who served as president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, was heavily involved with the Nature Conservancy. He also latched on to the concept of conservation easement, a legal agreement between the landowner and land trust to eradicate development rights on a property. He saw this as the only way Hanna Ranch could survive and be sustained.
However, bitter family feuds at Hanna Ranch threatened to make the ranch an easier target for developers. Though Kirk wanted to keep the ranch in the family for generations to come, his brother Steve wasn't convinced. As the eldest of the family, Steve initially assumed management of the ranch following their father's death, but Kirk took over when things began to unravel under Steve's watch.
Years later, the conflict came to a head with Steve's increasing demands to sell the ranch. Facing this added stress and the ongoing pressures of sustaining the ranch, Kirk spiraled downward into depression. He felt unable to mend his severed family relationships and became shadowed by an uncharacteristic darkness. On a snowy day, six days before Christmas in 1998, Kirk took his own life at 43.
Devastated, Ann attempted to pick up the pieces. Eventually she realized the only solution to the growing demand to sell the ranch was to split ownership with Steve.
That, however, was the only compromise she would make. It took 11 years after Kirk's death, but Ann signed the first of the conservation easements her husband fought for.
Fifteen years later, Kirk's legacy lives on with his land, his family, his work and everybody with whom he came in contact, says Dickman. The Peak to Prairie Conservation Initiative is one of the many indirect results of the eco-cowboy's ripple effect. It created a linked, sustainable ecosystem through a collection of conserved land between Pueblo and the Springs, including hundreds of acres of the Hanna Ranch.
Dickman is among a growing number eager to see what action Kirk and Ann's two daughters will take when they inherit the ranch. "Hopefully, they're coming in at the right time, when people are supporting agriculture, and they'll be the next generation that moves things forward," he says.
And if these words ring as true and authentic as they did in the documentary's final minutes, there's hope for us yet. "We are tied to family through this piece of land," says daughter Emy. "It's my blood, it's my father's blood."