Longtime Collbran cowboy cashes in grazing permit after 61 years
Clifford Hill hardly ever gets more than a half-day’s drive from his home in Collbran.
“I got to be home by chore time,” Hill said.
Those chores still have the 84-year-old up before daybreak and in bed well after dark, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. You see, Hill is a cowboy. Has been for as long as he can remember.
Born “in a little log cabin off Plateau Creek” and raised in Collbran, Hill said he started his life as a rancher after spending two years in the Army.
On Oct. 7, 1947, Hill applied for a cattle grazing permit from the U.S. Forest Service. A year later, it was awarded to him, and he has held onto the permit for 61 years.
Earlier this month, though, he sold it.
“It’s neat that they have been here and stuck with the changes that have occurred all of these years,” said Monica Klinger, a Forest Service range-management specialist.
For Hill to have lived the life he has, raise cattle, support his wife and children and buy two ranches totalling more than 200 acres, he had to do more than rope a few dogies.
Hill has worked for the Forest Service; installed natural gas pipelines; worked at the Collbran Job Corps; been a Mesa County assistant assessor in the winters; bagged groceries at the local market; served as a water commissioner; driven a school bus; and worked as a pool rider for the Bar 70 ranch. He also still owns a hunting guide service and 35 head of cattle.
“We did all those things just so we could have those cows,” Hill said.
Clifford Hill, who graduated from Collbran Union High School with 12 other students in 1943, actually started out raising sheep. He said the grazing permit for the sheep came with his first ranch. So, even though he knew nothing about raising sheep, he felt obliged to at least give it a try.
“I had to go buy the sheep,” he said.
Hill found he enjoyed the challenges, but when something goes wrong during the year, things go really wrong.
In the mid-1960s, the sheep contracted a disease, and all the lambs died. He had to sell some of his 180 acres, north of the rodeo grounds, to survive.
“It was a good place to raise kids,” said Janice Hill, 71, Clifford’s wife.
The town of Collbran bought the land and now gets much of its water from the Hills’ former property.
By the late 1970s, the Hills moved to a smaller, 80-acre spread, which they call the Smiling Ranch, off OE and 57 1/2 roads.
“We’ve run through this whole life of ours because we’ve had to keep ahead of everything,” Janice Hill said.
It’s been rough at times, she said, but worth the struggle.
“We earned all this ourselves. Nothing was ever given to us,” she said.
The Hills have raised cattle, sheep, chickens and hogs. They have also run a guide service on 248 acres east of Vega Reservoir that abut thousands of acres of public lands.
The guide service started off as an occasional hunting trip among friends. Eventually, it grew into a business.
“When the friend’s friends’ friends started calling,” Janice Hill said.
“That’s when we started charging,” Clifford Hill said, finishing his wife’s thought.
Mark Sullivant runs the guide service for the Hills.
“License No. 105, that tells you how long he’s had that,” Sullivant said.
Sullivant said the use of public lands has changed in the past century. Cattle used to be king, but today many other users of public lands compete with cattle.
“Back in the olden days, the cattlemen, the forest was really theirs,” Sullivant said. “They took care of it.”
Now there are off-road vehicles, fishermen, hunters, hikers and campers — and making a living as a rancher is harder.
Even though at least one of the Hills’ children wanted to, none of them could afford to leave their jobs in the city and carry on the family business. Reaching his golden years,
Clifford Hill said he physically can’t carry on as a rancher.
“The problem is I don’t feel safe riding my horse,” he said.
Clifford Hill won’t be riding off into the sunset, yet he has no regrets having lived life as a cowboy.
“It’s been fine,” he said. “It’s been a good life.”