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Devil's Thumb Ranch

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Sustainability Project Experience - EV390

This course prepares students for and includes a two-week intensive work/study experience at a business with a stated sustainability focus.  Students will study the nature of the business and their current sustainability practices through structured class time prior to traveling.  Students successfully completing this course will gain a better perspective on the technology, business, cultural and regulatory constraints and opportunities that enable the enterprise to operate in a sustainable fashion. Interdisciplinary teams of students will identify additional possible projects to creatively overcome complex, real-world sustainability challenges for the business and complete a preliminary feasibility study that includes interdependent technical, economic and environmental considerations. Project ideas and progress will be communicated through oral presentations and progress reports throughout the semester, culminating in a presentation and report to the business staff.

The focus of the class will be a two-week visit and work effort at Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash, Colorado.

Clarkson Common Experience designators include technology course, STS knowledge area, 2 communication points.

EV390 – Spring 2017

Devil’s Thumb Ranch reaches for Zero-Net Energy!  The May 2017 trip to Devil’s Thumb Ranch and the focus of the semester will include investigation of the processes included in DTR’s net-zero energy plan and external assessment of their ability to produce, store and provide the electric energy required for operation.  In addition to their geothermal heat pump system for hot water and heating, they are in the process of developing wind, solar, and battery technologies on site. Renewable generation is being used to power the facility with a direct current microgrid. Students will complete their assessment and report to the senior management team at DTR and the energy consulting firm Positive Energies in an oral presentation and through a written report.

Devil’s Thumb Ranch

Devil’s Thumb Ranch is really the result of passion of Bob (an alum of Clarkson) and Suzanne Fanch. They set out to save a huge tract of Colorado by developing a resort on about 100 ac. and leaving the remaining 5000+ acres as wild. When the Fanch’s bought the property, it was under consideration for golf courses and subdivision of vacation homes.  Bob’s vision was different – to save most of the area in its natural state and share the beauty and outdoor activities with others so that they can also care about the environmental setting in an area that “rejuvenates the mind and spirit.”

The resort has grown substantially since the Fanch’s bought the property in 2001.  It now has accommodations in the lodge, cabins and bunkhouse, two restaurants and a café, a spa and support for many outdoor activities. The theme of rustic elegance is evident throughout and the staff members are extremely nice and service oriented.  Bob’s interest in operating the resort in a manner that is as sustainable as possible is shared by his staff.  Both major aspects (building materials, energy systems) and minor aspects (toiletries, towels) are carefully considered.

EV390 – Spring 2012

Projects for the first group of students participating in EV390 focused on energy efficiency, biomass energy and gray water reuse.  In addition to time spent learning about the ranch, completing their project feasibility assessments and planting over one thousand seedling trees, the students also had ample time to hike, bike, ride horses and relax in the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. Click here to read a brief synopsis of the student projects. 

EV390 – Spring 2013

Material flow analysis – an eco-tourism resort has a lot of materials flowing into the facility and waste to dispose.  The 2013 team completed an analysis of these flows to identify better ways to reduce, reuse and recycle materials within the constraints of the business and limited recycling infrastructure in the region.

EV390 – Spring 2014

The ecosystems of the Rocky Mountain West have been altered and continue to be stressed due to loss of keystone species such as grey wolves, proliferation of invasive exotic species such as cheat grass, habitat fragmentation due to vacation-home and resort development, and climate change. The Devil’s Thumb Ranch attracts guests who wish to recreate outdoors in a healthy natural environment. In 2014, EV390 evaluated and made recommendations on the environmental management of the Ranch. The team completed a natural resources assets survey of the ranch and identified best practices for sustainable natural resource management.

Full reports from previous projects are available upon request.

Other Sustainability issues at the ranch

  • Devastation of lodge pole pines from beetles.  Current efforts include massive cutting of damaged trees (2 ac./d) for lumber (though major amounts of slash are burned) and replanting of 3000-5000 every May. One group of students recommended a biomass wood chip combined heat and power system for the ranch that would utilize the harvested dead trees resource. The deforestation has led to widespread habitat loss with future opportunities to identify and recommend methods to restore key habitat areas.
  • Geothermal heating – two geothermal systems use water in ponds and a heat pump.  The lodge is heated with extensive system of 180 300+ ft. wells. Hot water and heat supplied with the geothermal system. System sometimes does not handle all of the heating needs and backup natural gas boiler is used to supplement. There could be opportunities for additional heat recovery from air exhaust and hot water leaving the buildings.
  • Water use and water rights – pre-1900 water laws control the use of all water at the facility.  The total amount of water used on the ranch is monitored and limited.  Clean effluent from settling, sand filtration and UV wastewater treatment system is returned to the Ranch Creek.  Inappropriate amounts of discharge (e.g., too much flow relative to the creek flow or high levels of contaminants (NH3, NO3-, BOD, solids) could cause the ranch to be shut down quickly. Any changes (e.g., new lodge or other further development) in water needs are generally accompanied by ~2 years in water court to get permission to use the water in a manner different than their original permit.  There seems to be significant opportunities for gray water recovery and reuse to get more use out of the water before treatment and discharge seems like a great opportunity, but laws may limit creativity. Two student projects in 2012 focused on grey water, only to find at the last minute that century old laws would prohibit their ideas.  Advocacy for changes in these water laws is clearly required!
  • Solid waste – recyclables are collected at the ranch, but the ability of Grande County to deal with the recycled materials is unknown.  Some on-ranch and county analysis of recyclables (and other waste) generation and means for reducing waste generation is needed. This could include tracking the fate of recyclables after picked up at the ranch; completing a solid waste inventory; or diversion of organic waste (manure, food waste, solids from the on-site wastewater treatment plant) to an anaerobic digester or composting system would help the ranch.
  • Farm to table ideals – The ranch and chef have strong interest in serving more local food.  They do have some relationship with area farmers, including Morales farm and greenhouse in Fraser.  They are considering building a cold-climate greenhouse near the new lodge.  There are many questions to answer – what to grow (produce, herbs, cut flowers, bedding plants), how big, mix of both high-level production rooms and other learning/public facilities. Heating needs (thermal storage of radiant energy gains would be very effective for very sunny days and very cold nights).
  • Grid based electricity – Nearly 75% of Colorado’s electricity is from coal fired power production, leading to one of the highest regional greenhouse gas emission factors in the country.  All of the ranch’s current electricity needs are met through the electric grid.  Solar PV has been considered in the past but not adopted.  Use of natural gas in a fuel cell or micro-turbine for heat and power would substantially reduce the GHG (and other pollutant) emissions associated with ranch operations.


EV390 Syllabus from Spring 2016

Travel to Devil’s Thumb Ranch

  • May 14-26, 2017
  • Accommodations in the “Bunkhouse” (single and double rooms)
  • Travel fees $2200 for <13 students, $2000 if 13 or more students, due with Spring 2016 tuition bill

Class size is limited to 15 students.

To apply: Send an electronic file with a letter defining why you are interested and the experiences you bring to this class, a resume and an unofficial transcript to Susan Powers (


The 2013 DTR group shares dinner in the bunkhouse.

Ryan Brawn (BS EnvE '13) enjoys quiet time at Devil's Thumb Ranch.