Blue Valley Ranch owner donates $800K to make Highway 9 safer

Tonya Bina
Ski-Hi News
Traffic moves along Highway 9 south of Kremmling on Thursday morning. Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News | Sky-Hi News

KREMMLING – Many remember the tragedy.

On the eve of Dec. 3, 1985, Gene, 41, and Mimi Ritschard, 45, of Kremmling, were returning home from Gene’s Farm Bureau meeting in Colorado Springs. Christmas presents Mimi had bought while shopping in the city were piled in the back of their Volkswagon Rabbit.

On Highway 9 across from Blue Valley Ranch, the driver of a Ford LTD swerved to barely miss a deer and collided head-on with the Ritschards’ car, killing them both instantly. The other driver survived.

It was a dark time for their four children, whose ages at the time ranged from 15 to 23. Becoming the legal guardian of his youngest sister, the eldest, Mike Ritschard, “was thrown into fatherhood,” said his wife Susan Ritschard.

Although the family eventually “pulled through” with the help of family and community, emotional scars of the tragedy remain. Susan recognizes how to this day, she and Mike rarely let their own teenagers drive far on any road, and “we don’t buy small cars anymore,” Susan said.

The Blue Valley Ranch near Kremmling, owned by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul T. Jones II of Greenwich, Conn., is donating $805,000 to Grand County with the aim of improving the safety of Hwy. 9.

Accidents involving deer, elk, icy conditions or speeding vehicles are a frequent occurrence along the Grand County stretch of the highway, a two-lane road lacking shoulders on which too many human fatalities have taken place.

Most recently among them was in 2007, when East Grand School teacher Amy Gallagher, 26, died from injuries that she suffered when she lost control of her Isuzu on the icy roadway. Her car slid into the southbound lane and struck an oncoming Ford Bronco.

For several years, Blue Valley Ranch employees have been keeping track of accidents and wildlife deaths north of Green Mountain Dam Road between Hwy. 9 mile markers 127 and 137.

Deaths of wild animals can amount to 25-30 percent of the resident deer herd in a single year, said John Kossler of Blue Valley Ranch, a 25,000-acre wildlife conservancy and production-ag ranch that in areas sprawls to the both sides of the Hwy. 9.

The highway bisects feeding and watering habitat of mule deer. The mule deer forage for food on their wintering range east of the highway, but every day must cross the road to water at the Blue River on the west side of the road.

For the 18 years the ranch has been in operation, Blue Valley owner and operators have recognized the danger posed to wildlife and motorists. The goal of improving the highway – perhaps with underpasses designed to allow deer and elk to travel safely, fencing, widening the narrow stretch, even adding paved shoulders to the highway to accommodate bike paths – has been a ranch priority for several years, said ranch manager Perry Handyside.

The owner hopes to make the highway safer for employees, his family, the community and for commuters who use the popular highway connecting resort destinations in Summit, Grand and Routt counties.

“The owner decided it was time to do something about it,” Handyside said.

Jones, a philanthropist and conservationist, has “been here for 18 years and considers himself part of the community,” Handyside said. “He spends his summers here. This is how he contributes to the community.”

At the March 1 Grand County commissioners’ meeting, Blue Valley Ranch, represented by Handyside and Kossler, forged a private-public partnership with Grand County for an eventual fix to 10 miles of highway from mileposts 126 to 136.6. Jones is providing the sum of $805,000 to the county, which through Grand County, will fund preliminary work of CDOT that should get the highway project “shovel ready” in the event future funding comes available for actual construction.

The outlined work is “preliminary engineering and final design of safety improvements, including integration of the latest methods for preventing vehicle/wildlife collisions and wildlife mitigation strategies such as fencing, underpasses and widening in addition to other minor improvements,” reads the agreement between Jones and Grand County.

“Grand County deeply appreciates this generous contribution from Blue Valley Ranch,” said Commissioner Gary Bumgarner. “It takes us a big step closer to making Highway 9 safer for the residents of the county and for all of the visitors who travel here.”

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