Of land and livelihood
Longtime Moffat County woman devoted herself to giving landowners a voice
February 1, 2012
Jean Stetson was fully immersed in the lifestyle she'd grown to love when the rumblings of change began.
She and her husband, Frank "Pud" Stetson, were hard at work together on their ranch near Maybell. They were raising their two children, Frankie and Libby, who were as engaged in the ranch as much as their parents.
In the late 1990s, discussions about sage grouse habitat came on the scene, which could have affected the Stetsons' grazing permits on Bureau of Land Management lands, she said.
Jean wasn't about to sit on the sidelines.
She stepped up to positions on working groups, boards and organizations, serving as the voice of local landowners. At the same time, she maintained the titles of mother, rancher's wife and businesswoman.
This is how her life in public service began — not with grand ideals or a craving for the spotlight, but a simple and profound love of the land.
She took a seat on the Northwest Colorado Sage Grouse Working Group in the late 1990s, where she brought the rancher's perspective to discussions about how to manage the bird's habitat.
She later went on to represent Northwest Colorado on a working group for a sage grouse plan for the entire state.
In the mid-2000s, she represented the Colorado Cattlemen's Association on a working group designed to tackle the reintroduction of wolves into Colorado.
It was a charged topic, Jean said, and discussions often became heated as environmentalists, landowners and other stakeholders clashed.
But conflict didn't deter her from taking a seat at the table.
In her mind, she had an obligation to be an active participant concerning issues that could have resounding impacts on the family ranching operation.
"I've always had the philosophy that if you … are concerned about the way things are going, then you have a responsibility to try to come up with solutions and try to help guide that process so that your voice is heard," she said.
For Jean and Frank, the land wasn't simply an ideal or abstract concept. It was a day-to-day reality that grounded their lives for decades.
They wrestled a living from it, just as Frank's family had done for two generations before him. They also raised their children to work and appreciate it.
"I think my kids have been active in the operation since they were old enough to reach the pedals on a tractor," said Jean, 52.
Although Jean didn't have ranching in her blood — she was a "city girl," she said, born and raised in Colorado Springs — she developed a deep appreciation for the people who could earn a living from the land.
"I can say I developed a profound respect for people that work on the land and the lifestyle that goes with it," she said. "I fell in love with it."
Jean's approach to tackling issues like sage grouse and wolf management is a study in the art of compromise.
Her voice in these groups, she said, was one of many. Other stakeholders — including outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists — had a seat at the table, too.
The solution, she said, lies not in giving preference to one group or another, but rather in striking a compromise between their different and sometimes competing interests.
"It's all about bringing balance back to these issues and trying to come up with a solution that's win-win," she said.
Jeff Comstock, Moffat County natural resources director, believes this is one of her strengths.
"Jean is a very talented lady who dedicates herself to researching all the facts before she decides where she'll come down on an issue," he said. "… She's very thorough … about considering other people's uses of those federal lands and balancing land uses."
Balance also was a key component in Jean's life outside of the meeting room.
At the same time she was wrangling with threatened species issues, she was trying to strike a balance at home between raising a family and helping her husband manage the ranch and run Stetson Accounting and Consulting on the side.
Seasons of high stress followed one after the other. Just as soon as tax season ended, she said, she and Frank turned their attention to calving.
She still can't explain how she managed to juggle all those responsibilities.
"I don't know how you do it," she said. "You just do it."
Whatever spare time she had she spent studying, first about sage grouse and later wolves. She read whenever she could — late at night or when she was waiting for her children at sports practices, she said.
"There (were) a lot of late nights," she said.
Her commitment to understanding a subject gave her a level of professionalism, said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, where Jean serves as treasurer for the board of directors.
"Jean is … well read, she researches things very well and she's very organized," he said, and she is "a really idyllic member to have."
He also described her as an articulate advocate for ranchers’ interests while she was serving on the working group concerning wolves.
"Just really how she was able to communicate the perspective of the beef industry in a professional and sincere fashion in a very clear way — it's something that will stick in my mind for a long time," he said.
From ranch to community
Eventually, Jean's dedication to Northwest Colorado extended beyond her and her husband's patch of land near Maybell.
She went on to serve on numerous community boards, including The Memorial Hospital Foundation Board, where she was an early proponent of the new hospital years before it was built.
"I just felt it was the right thing to do," she said.
Jean also is a longtime member of the Moffat County Land Use Board and serves on the newly created Moffat County Federal Mineral Lease District Board.
She's vice-president of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association's board of directors, a position she believes yields visible and positive results.
"You know in your heart that you're doing something good for the community," she said.
She and Frank forged a life together in Moffat County and were constant partners until his death in July 2009.
Jean sold most of the ranching operation, retaining a small parcel of land near Craig, but her roots remain deep in Moffat County's soil.
"I've had lots of people ask if I would leave," she said, now that her husband is gone and Frankie, 23, and Libby, 21, are now grown.
Yet, if anything, Jean is more committed to the region she's called home for 20 years or more. The outpouring of support after Frank's death "furthered my loyalty to the community," she said.
"This community has been so good to me, I think it's really important that you give back," she said.
She paused, then said it again.
"It's been so good to me," she said.