“I think he was the best kind of cowboy. I mean, he wasn’t just a cowboy.”
In the words of Kirk Hanna’s daughter, so begins a documentary about the life and legacy of the Colorado cattleman known as “the Eco-Rancher.” “Hanna Ranch,” directed and produced by Mitch Dickman, premieres Saturday at the Starz Denver Film Festival.
Partly, it’s the story of Hanna’s affinity with thousands of acres of short-grass prairie where his family has run cattle for three generations. Partly, it’s about Hanna’s idealism and influence as he built unlikely alliances between conservation and agriculture on a landscape ravaged by urban sprawl. And partly, it’s about all manner of messy human stuff such as sibling rivalries, depression and ambition.
“There was a lot at stake as Kirk thought about improving the environment, saving Fountain Creek, preserving the Hanna Ranch, finding ways to not simply sell to the first developer that turned up with a big check. And part of what was at stake was his own sense of identity, his own view of himself,” says rancher Dale Lasater, Hanna’s friend and confidante.
Dickman, founder of the Denver-based Listen Productions, learned about Kirk Hanna in a 2008 article by The Rocky Mountain News’s Todd Hartman. He drove down to the ranch in Hanover to propose a fictional movie version of Hanna’s life to his widow, Ann.
“I had this idea of a trying-not-to-be-cheesy-Hollywood movie about overcoming challenges. But Ann laid out all these news clips and said ‘Why not just make it about Kirk and all the things he did?’,” Dickman said.
Kirk Hanna looked just like how old westerns and cigarette ads have convinced us cowboys should look. Old VHS footage shows a guy with a Magnum P.I. mustache, Carhartt duck jacket and white Stetson mounting his horse with Clint Eastwood swagger.
“That son of a bitch was nine feet tall. Did you know that?” Jay Frost said of the older half-brother who taunted him as a kid but mended their relationship after Hanna left his work as a commodities broker in Denver to save the ranch from the mismanagement of their older brother, Steve.
After years of tensions between environmentalists and ranchers, Hanna stopped to consider what overgrazing was doing to his family’s 12,000 acres south of Fountain between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. He adopted a holistic approach that entailed the time-consuming practice of rotating his cattle rather than letting them graze free on the grassland. His use of natural fertilizers and goats for weed control and his preaching about agricultural interconnectedness were at first rejected by other ranchers. Over time, envious of his drought tolerant herd and nutritious grass, they soon followed his more sustainable methods and picked him to lead the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.
Hanna also changed attitudes among environmentalists, who hadn’t understood the value of cattle to the land.
“In the absence of these animals roaming the prairie and eating the grass, you don’t get healthier prairie, you get desertification,” said author Eric Schlosser who, in his bestseller “Fast Food Nation,” wrote about Hanna’s ability to unite environmentalists with ranchers.
“I really thought this guy was going to be governor of Colorado or senator of Colorado and that he would emerge as a real national figure,” he said.
Schlosser – one of the film’s executive producers — points out that the number of ranchers in the U.S. has dwindled from 1.3 million in 1980 to 750,000 today. Despite many ranchers’ desire to keep land in their families, the economics are tough and it’s all too easy to sell out to developers.
“There’s a reason why only one in four people in agriculture stay in agriculture. It’s hard, isolating, risky work. It’s hard for young people to make the choice to stay in it,” said Karl Kister, the film’s other executive producer.
Through Hanna’s ties to The Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups, he was an early advocate of conservation easements that subsidize ranchers to preserve their land as open space by ending rights to build on their property.
The film shows the encroachment of a nearby racetrack, gravel pit, waste treatment plant, housing tracks and 7-Eleven. It chronicles increasing surges of rainwater from sprawling Colorado Springs that flooded Fountain Creek, eroding dozens of Hanna Ranch’s acres and destroying miles of its fencing. Hanna could see what was coming. As successful as he was persuading neighbors and other ranchers to embrace conservation, he was less successful convincing his own family – especially his development-minded older brother – to hunker down on their land.
“Dividing of estates and money has a way of breaking families up,” said Steve Hanna, who hesitated, but ultimately agreed, to be interviewed on camera.
The brothers’ bitter feud, a decline in the cattle market, a crisis of faith and other unknown pressures caused a downward spiral that led to Kirk Hanna’s suicide in 1998.
“My brother was sad sometimes, he was happy sometimes. I didn’t know he was depressed. I didn’t know what that meant,” one sister said.
Like his half brother, Jay Frost — who now runs the ranch with Ann Hanna — also suffers from depression. “I think he didn’t want to let people know he was in trouble,” he said.
There are points in “Hanna Ranch” where what goes unspoken is more powerful than what is said. Family members recall Hanna muttering in the weeks before his death that, somehow, he had “done something very bad” and felt he had sinned irreparably. They didn’t know the specifics. Dickman makes no attempt to fill in the blanks or manufacture a simple explanation for Hanna’s suicide.
“To me, that aspect of the movie was handled beautifully. There’s never a single reason why someone ends his or her life. It’s always about multiple factors” said Jarrod Hindman, who runs the suicide prevention unit for Colorado’s health department.
Last year, 1,053 Coloradans committed suicide – by far the highest total on record. Of those, 80 to 85 percent were men. Men in rural settings, especially ranchers, farmers and oil and gas workers, are especially at risk.
Hanna’s quick decline was typical of rural men who tend to feel they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps rather than reaching out for help.
“He was a leader in his industry and in his family — someone viewed to be a very strong man who was clearly battling with these internal problems. That comes through very subtly but powerfully in the documentary,” Hindman said.
Dickman, who moved to Colorado to ski, learned through making the movie how essential open space and grasslands are for our fly-over state. Through the stunning videography of Zachary Armstrong, the film captures the way the sun glimmers on spring grass and snowflakes levitate in the winter wind. The images alone convince you this land is worth saving. It’s no wonder Hanna fought so hard.
For his part, Kister started the project thinking “Hanna Ranch” would be an environmental film. What struck him moving forward was that the story is more about people than place.
Both he and Dickman say they wish they didn’t have to make the movie and that Hanna, who now would be 58, had lived to see his wife, brother and daughters continue fighting for their home place.
Fifteen years after his death, Hanna remains an icon of the New West – an ethos of preserving what’s essential not only to Colorado’s land and environment, but also the western culture that draws so many people to move here. There is no better example of his legacy than the Peak to Prairie Conservation Initiative, a large-scale swath of open space from Pike’s Peak on the west all the way to prairie land in Lincoln and Crowley counties to the east. It’s a massive, protected and sustainable ecosystem unto itself – the living embodiment of Hanna’s conviction that “everything is connected to everything else.”
For information about Saturday’s premiere, go the the film site . Find out more here about a brunch and panel with Schlosser (Fast Food Nation, Food Inc., Command and Control), Chris Pague of The Nature Conservancy, Matthew Jones of Slow Food USA and Dale Lasater of Lasater Grasslands Beef.