By Steve Charles
  December 10, 2003

Dick Gooding has doctored 3,500 acres of wildlife habitat in northern New Mexico back to health and his Chromo Mountain Ranch has shaped the lives of his sons and nurtured his family. Now he’s trying to make it last…

Hear "plastic surgeon" today and you think of facelifts, botox injections, and breast jobs. But decades before his profession became so identified with the "Nip/Tuck" field of cosmetic surgery, Dr. Richard Gooding was mending cleft lips and palates, restoring faces and necks riddled with cancer, grafting skin to rebuild the flesh of burn and auto accident victims, and re-attaching limbs and mending hands. For hundreds of grateful patients and their fathers, mothers, and loved ones, Doc worked miracles with a scalpel.

He’s pretty good with heavy machinery, too.

"Man, after it rains, this road gets as greasy as a pig at Homecoming," Doc is laughing over the hum of the 4x4 Ford Escape he’s piloting two-handed up the one-lane path he carved into the side of this mountain with a grader years ago to reach the high meadow where the elk graze and beaver make their own mark on the land. It’s late October and we’re bumping up the ruts in the Rockies of northern New Mexico under a sky so wide you expect to glimpse the curve of the earth. Cranes, eagles, robins, thrushes, and rock wrens that flourish here have long ago gone south, but the air practically sings on its own. This time of year in the mountains fires the nerves, and it’s not just because the bears and mountain lions that live at Chromo Mountain drop you down a notch on the food chain. Cool, dry air sets the hairs on your arm tingling. Stones glisten. The aspen, scrub oak, and cottonwood leaves are radiant, their edges in sharp focus, as if we’re holding a magnifying glass on the beauty of the world.

"I pulled a sixteen-inch rainbow trout out of there," Doc says, pointing to the small lake below us reflecting vermilion, gold, deep green, and blue.  Eight thousand feet and rising, we’re looking out over a restoration project more extensive than any of Doc’s previous patients: Doc and Sue Gooding’s 3,500-acre Chromo Mountain Ranch.

"Sue loves this place as much as I do; that’s half the fun," Doc says, recalling the day he and his wife of 50 years took a picnic lunch to the high meadow and watched an elk calf chase a butterfly. "We could have watched for hours."

As we rumble around a right bend, conversation turns to the prolonged drought that has dehydrated the Southwest.

"It’s the worst I’ve seen it in 30 years in ranching; folks who have been here all their lives say they haven’t seen it so dry—had a dry spell back in ’56-’57 that comes close, but nothing like this."

Then Doc tucks his sunglasses into his blue cotton denim work shirt. His eyes widen, and I follow his gaze up the road. About 25 yards away, three bobcats, big ones, are lying on their sides like Springer spaniel-sized housecats with overgrown paws and ears, no tails, taking in the view and blocking the road.

"Well, I’ll be… Never seen three together before; and never this time of day."

Doc stops the SUV and I snap a photo with the digital, but the basking cats are too far away. I fumble in my backpack for the camera with the telephoto lens, slap in the film, reach for the latch…and the cats are off!

Two leap over the lip of the road. The younger one bolts for the high brush.

"You take the road. I’ll see if I can flush him out for you," says the 72-year-old hunter who once guided a hunt on this land for Chuck Yeager, among others. He scrambles up the gravel and behind the cat. But it’s too late—I’ve missed the shot.

"Must have swung around to the right," Doc says, graciously overlooking the fact that his photographer doesn’t have the right stuff.

On up the road, brush and scrub oak give way to aspen, ponderosa pine, fir trees as an expanse of grass Doc calls Hidden Meadow frames a vista of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to the north.

"The guy who logged this place before we came back just raped it—took all the old growth trees and left trash all over the place," Gooding says, kneeling in the lush grass. "I hired a timber consultant, he marked the trees we needed to clear, then we found two brothers who did a great job timbering. Then I buried the ash and stumps with the dozer and seeded the ground with a mixture of mountain grasses—timothy, clover, mountain grove, and brome. We seeded in late July and had a marvelous monsoon season that year. The grasses really took off."

Gooding’s eldest son, Steven, says the results have been "unbelievable."

"In ten years, the resident elk population has increased three-fold, the deer and bear populations have increased, and the grouse and turkey populations have come back. Every facet of the ecosystem has turned around 180 degrees."

Steven recalls Outdoor Life hunting editor Jim Zumbo’s comment that the ranch had more variety of wildlife per acre than any place he’d ever seen in North America. A survey by a University of Colorado botanist documented the outstanding biodiversity of the land’s plant life.

Conservation organizations have taken notice.

Gooding has earned accolades from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Savory Center for Holistic Management, and in 2002, he was named New Mexico’s tree farmer of the year.

"You could have knocked me over with a feather," Doc says of that award. He thinks of himself as small-scale when it comes to tree farming. But he proudly displays a bumper sticker on his diesel Ford F-250 declaring the driver an "American Tree Farmer," and he enthusiastically recounts his reintroduction of narrow leaf cottonwoods to the region.

"They used to be all up and down these river and creek beds," Gooding says of the tree once used by the Cheyenne as the pole in their sacred Sundance. "But cattle overgrazed here—they’d eat all the seedlings—and this is a short-lived tree, only 30-50 years, so the old ones died off and there were no more new ones to replace them." 

The Goodings’ cottonwoods, along with the native wild plums they’re also re-introducing, are tenderly raised in pots around his home in Albuquerque and brought to the ranch only after Doc thinks they can make it on their own.

The Ford Escape tops the Continental Divide and we’re treated to another rare sight for an early afternoon: a mother mule deer gazes at us from between two ponderosa pines, twin fawns at her side. Gooding respectfully slows the SUV.

"Well, look at that," he says with obvious pleasure. Twins don’t happen by accident here. These two signal a healthy herd and plenty of nutritious feed—grasses from Doc’s restored meadow.

"Good for you, Momma," he practically chants. "Good for you."

That evening, Doc tosses a pine log into a crackling fire and leans against his living room hearth, which built of stone quarried on the nearby Navajo River.

"Sue and I like the light, the wide-open feeling here," he explains, pointing to the high windows and vaulted ceiling that gathers southern light by day. Farm-grown western red cedar logs add to the cozy feeling of the ranch house, an elk antler chandelier sheds light from above, and beautifully carved cedar lamps glow for reading. Titles on range management, cattle breeding, hunting, and all things outdoor fill the bookcase, Cabela’s catalogs are spread out on the coffee table, and overstuffed leather couches and throw pillows with Navajo designs make for a comfortable place to talk. And even though over my shoulder a 12-foot wooden carving of a grizzly bear roars at the night, it’s the pig knick-knacks and coat hooks that grab my attention.

"Those are Sue’s." Doc laughs. "She’s nuts about pigs."

Sue Gooding’s uncle and aunt were hog farmers, and when her parents were killed in a car accident when she was eight years old, the couple stepped in to raise her.

"Wonderful people," Doc says. "And Edwin was a damned good farmer."

Which raises the question: How did an Indianapolis kid turned plastic surgeon end up a cattle rancher, hunting guide, and tree farmer of the year in New Mexico?

"My granddad farmed in Indiana, and I loved to work there in the summer," Doc recalls, stirring the coals. "This was back in the days when families would get together on one place and thresh, then go to the next. My first job was to run water out to the threshing hands in a pony cart.

"I wanted that family farm experience for my own family. So as soon as I got established in New Mexico, I started looking for a ranch."

The years between Granddad’s farm and Doc’s ranch took Gooding to Wabash (see sidebar) and his blind date, courtship, and marriage to DePauw grad Sue Matlock; through Indiana University Medical School, and under the tutelage of Harold Kleinert, who was revolutionizing micro-surgery and limb reattachment in Louisville. Doc served a stint in the military during the "doctor draft" in New Mexico, then began building his practice and raising his family.  But even while he was running the training program in reconstructive surgery at the University of New Mexico, he kept one eye on the land.

"In 1972, five of us got together and bought a place up in the Brazos meadows for $55 per acre—at 10,000 feet, 3,300 acres, absolutely beautiful."

Gooding sold his share of the ranch for $300 an acre and bought the Chromo Mountain spread for $200 an acre. Today the land is worth tens of millions.

‘This place was an obligation, almost like a forced savings or investment," Gooding reflects. "And the beauty of it is, we’ve been able to enjoy it while we’ve invested!"

But the Gooding family’s commitment to the land required sacrifices. "Priorities," Doc calls them.

"It takes a purposeful dedication to make something like this work," Doc says. "I always drove trucks, never had fancy cars, and we never spent a lot of money traveling."

Except to his other ranches. He’s had four of them during his four decades in New Mexico, sometimes two at a time.

He laughs. "I spent a lot of time on the road!"

He also worked with some of the world’s most innovative experts in ranching and agricultural practices. In the 1980s, he and his son, Stewart, were on the crest of a range management revolution, adopting the practices of Allan Savory, who applied to deteriorating western rangeland some of the strategies he’d observed in his native Rhodesia. Success using Savory’s methods led Doc to join the board of the Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management, which has since trained more than 10,000 people around the world in Savory’s sustainable agricultural, ranching, and conservation practices.

The Goodings’ 17,000-acre ranch outside Santa Rosa, New Mexico was also among the first to utilize solar energy, primarily to power the wells that brought water to the 1,000 cattle raised there.

The Santa Rosa ranch, and another spread outside of Coolidge, Arizona, were Gooding’s most successful attempts to make money in the ranching business, but the less economically viable Chromo Mountain Ranch remained first in his heart. This is where his family fell in love with the outdoor life, began to shape the land. Then the land began to shape them.

Sue Gooding says her honeymoon in August of 1953 foreshadowed the ways she and Doc would stay together these 50 years.

"We were planning on going to Biloxi, but it had been such a busy summer that I said, ‘I hope this place is kind of quiet and away from it all, because I’m so tired of people and everything.’

"So Dick jumped up and made reservations at the Gun Flint Trail!"

There at the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in Minnesota, Doc taught his bride how to spin cast.

"I’d never caught so many fish before, and as I caught them, Dick was taking them off the line. After while he said, ‘You know, I’d like to have a chance to fish, too!’ I was having a ball!"

Five decades later, the lake at Chromo Mountain trenched out by her youngest son is her favorite fishing spot, and she sees the ranch itself as the place where she, Doc, and the kids learned to be a family together. As the turbulent ’60s and ’70s tore families apart, Stewart, Steven, and Shawn Gooding were spending summers and weekends with their parents on the ranch. No electricity, no television, no running water, and no phone.

"We had the kids with us and no outside interruptions," Sue says. Dick’s medical practice meant dinners at home were often interrupted when Dick was on call.

"But at the ranch we could sit down and have a full meal without interruption. At night we’d play board games, Monopoly and Scrabble, and we talked with each other. You just don’t have conversation like that when everyone’s busy or watching TV."

Sue credits ranch life with instilling in her children the Hoosier work ethic she’d admired in her aunt and uncle.

"The work could be anything from daily chores to the log cabin that Steven and Stewart built, ‘cause there’s plenty to do there," Sue says. "And many projects, like branding cattle, you couldn’t get done unless everyone worked together."

Working together brought rites of passage. Steven recalls the time he and Stewart, then 18 and 16, had finished building the cabin’s exterior and their father showed up with a bathtub and set it inside the unfinished cabin. Steven felt the tub would be in the way and get damaged, and a line was drawn.

"I said, ‘Dad, I don’t practice medicine, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t practice construction. If you want me to finish this job, you need to get the tub out." recalls Steven, now a general contractor. "We’ve had a great relationship since then!"

"It’s not been all pie-in-the-sky and wonderful," Stewart Gooding says. "So many people say they "want to get back to nature," but unless you’ve been there without the comforts, you can go there and not understand it. But the ranch gave me a sincere appreciation for the raw environment."

So strong was that appreciation that, when he graduated from the University of Idaho with a degree in genetics and zoology, he turned down a chance to attend veterinary school to manage Chromo Mountain as a cattle ranch for his father. It was a venture that strained relationships and cost the Goodings their land.

Making a living cattle ranching in the high-interest-rate, low-beef-price economy of the late ’70s and early ’80s was like swimming to shore against a riptide. But Stewart Gooding’s management of Chromo Mountain began with hope and zeal.

"I took the dream hook, line, and sinker," Stewart says. "I was totally green—had no idea what I was doing."

"Whatever needed to be done, we did it," he recalls. "We built barns, fences, roads, lakes, cabins—I learned to weld from master craftsmen, and I learned plumbing, electrical, solar…"

Yet the family’s resourcefulness, persistence, and work ethic couldn’t overcome the larger economic realities.

"The people who could get by in ranching today either inherited the land, had it given to them by other means; or they have a hell of a lot of money!" Dick Gooding says. "For a young person to go out and buy a ranch, pay for it himself, and make a go of it—there’s just no way."

"My one regret was that we couldn’t make a living doing this. It broke my heart."

Their financial situation and the emotional baggage the ranch now carried convinced Dick and Sue to sell the ranch and look for another place.

"It was very difficult for me personally," Stewart recalls. "I was filled with guilt, all sorts of emotions; if I hadn’t had Cindy and my family behind me, I would never have made it."

But the Goodings bounced back. Unable to find a place they liked more than Chromo Mountain and alarmed by the new owner’s management of the habitat, Dick was able to buy back 3,500 acres of the ranch in 1985.

And within weeks of leaving the ranching business, Stewart found a job as a mechanic.

"Managing the ranch taught me independence, how to make things work. But I was raised like that—we were taught that there’s always a solution."

In Stewart Gooding’s case, the solution included three career changes and a sojourn through five eastern states in 18 years. Now a consultant for corporate retirement planning, he and his family can live practically anywhere, and they’ve put their Greenwich, Connecticut home up for sale with plans to move back west.

The cabin they built more than 20 years ago is still a focal point of Doc Gooding’s favorite view of the ranch.

"I have a recurring sense of gratitude every time I drive up the mountain and look down on that hunting cabin, the lake, that valley. It’s very meaningful. I’ve taken I don’t know how many pictures of it over the years, and none of them have done that view justice. But I keep on trying."

"It was some party—a real whoopdeedoo!"

Doc is recalling the family festivities marking his and Sue’s 50th wedding anniversary this past August. Steven, Stewart, and their families directed the Gooding work ethic toward a celebration this time, and they did it up right. Doc’s pickup was decorated with ribbons, hearts, and congratulatory signs, with tin cans tied to the bumper for sound effects. The walls of the new cabin were adorned with photographs from Sue’s wedding album. And once the party was over, the family joined in a yearly ritual—the preparation of Sue Gooding’s chokecherry jam.

"It was the best crop of chokecherries we’ve had since we’ve owned the ranch," Sue recalls. Her voice rises with emotion as she describes the scene in the kitchen.

"It was just a riot—three generations in the kitchen working on chokecherry jam, everybody doing something different, and I was just going around checking on everyone; it was a wonderful time."

The same sense of cooperation will be essential to the preservation of the ranch. Through estate planning, Steven, Stewart, and Shawn are now part owners of Chromo Mountain. So one evening after the anniversary celebration, conversation turned to the future.

"This sort of property is becoming increasingly rare, and we talked spoke about how important it is not to take it for granted, as something you cherish, and teach others to cherish, so that it will always be this way," Doc recalls.

"There’s incredible diversity on this land, and to be able to maintain that diversity takes cooperation—you need to focus on the entire thing, the entire ranch, and beyond its borders," Stewart adds. "You can’t act as though it’s not all connected in some way.

"That takes communication, and that’s the hardest thing to achieve."

For Stewart, returning to Chromo Mountain since his ranching days has always been bittersweet. This trip was both "elating and sobering." He and his oldest son, who was practically raised on the ranch, hiked into the deep canyons of the property—areas Stewart had never seen before.

"It was almost a re-discovery of our place, our homeland there," Stewart says.

After the anniversary party, he and Steven walked up to the top of the mountain to talk. They’ve had disagreements in the past regarding land management issues. But their conversation that evening left both men optimistic that, when decisions about what needs to be done on the ranch pass to them, they’ll be able to make them together.

"You hear horror stories about farms and ranches left to the kids, but I’m more hopeful now than ever that we can do it," Stewart says. "For me, the legacy here isn’t just how you care for the land, but also how you keep a family together."

Driving down a dirt road on the flats not far from the ranch’s machine shop, Doc and I stop in a field of rabbit brush, common mullen, mule’s ear, and scrub oak. Doc points out the mountain maple trees beginning to shed their seed pods, and we walk to the remains of an old cabin, nothing left but gray timber about shoulder high. This was the first homestead established at Chromo Mountain.

"Been here for years and years," Doc says, but he has no idea who first settled the place, or when.

I glance up the hill at Doc and Sue Gooding’s handsome, honey-blond cedar cabin. Doc says it’s the first cabin they’ve had here tied to the electric grid, and he enjoys the creature comforts.

But for men like Gooding, a ranch is its land, not its shelter. At 72, he’s been thinking a lot about what will become of that land once he’s gone. And he thinks he’s taken care of its future.

Besides putting as much of the ranch as possible in their children’s hands, the Goodings have also put most of the Chromo Mountain Ranch into a conservation easement agreement with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), whose mission is conserving, restoring, and enhancing natural habitat and promoting the sound management of wild, free-ranging elk. The easement permanently limits the use of the land and protects it the way Gooding has restored it, regardless of who may own it in the future.

"I know that, when I’m gone, this land will be preserved," Doc says. "Even if my kids or their kids have to sell the ranch, it will still be protected. And this easement is particularly valuable because it hooks up with the Edwin Sargent Game Refuge to the south and the Binkley ranch to the northeast, which also has a conservation easement on it."

That gives the elk, mule deer, and their predators more than 30,000 acres of continuous land to range across in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado—land that cannot be developed, strip-mined, or logged beyond the stipulations monitored by the RMEF.

"I’m not abandoning this land," Gooding says as we step back into the SUV and head up to the high meadows and a place where Doc usually sees beaver working. The drought has dried up the stream—the beaver are gone—but our drive is rewarded with a sound I’ve never heard before—the sound of bull elk bugling. It reminds me of an amplified version of the noise Sam Neill made blowing through a velociraptor skull in the movie Jurassic Park and I think again of the ranch’s predators.

"You see many mountain lions here?" I ask.

"Oh, once in a while. Mostly we see their kills."

Doc tells me of a closer encounter.

"We were riding horseback on a logging road up here, and all the sudden I hear this commotion coming from the bushes. This big elk, had to be 400 pounds, bursts out of the brush, and there’s a mountain lion on its back. I was watching from about 20 yards away as the lion pulled that elk’s nose toward the back of its neck and broke it like it was a matchstick. Man, our horses were steppin’ lightly!

"The lion saw us and took off, but when we rode back by after a while, she had totally eviscerated that elk. You could not find a crumb left."

"Takes your breath away," Doc says. And that’s the way he wants this land to remain. The Goodings have restored and preserved a wild homeland with hopes that their great-grandchildren and all those who visit may find their place in it, just as he, Sue, and their children have—land that "takes your breath away," even as it revives your spirit.

"I love to go into elk meadow in the early evening and watch the babies play in the water, watch the others come out and feed," Sue Gooding tells me on the phone months later. "It puts everything in its proper perspective. In our day-to-day lives, we get so tied up in things. But out there, I can realize what’s really important.

"I’m not sure I can find the words to explain it, really."

She pauses and sighs, unable to articulate all that this place has meant to her.

Steven Gooding says his parents’ legacy is a love for the land, for family, and how the two can be intertwined.

Stewart says they approach this land, its creatures, and their connection to it with reverence.

But there’s no need for Dick or Sue Gooding to find the words. For centuries to come, their descendants, or the animals that live on these 3,500 acres, or the wind rattling the leaves of the next generation of those narrow-leafed cottonwoods they raised so tenderly in pots in Albuquerque, will speak for them.