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Jeff Lee and Ann Martin started a place to read about – and experience – the West

The Rocky Mountain Land Library, 32,000 books about the American West, will find a suitable home on the historical Buffalo Peaks Ranch in Colorado.

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    Ann Martin and Jeff Lee, cofounders of the Rocky Mountain Land Library in South Park, Colo., share a vision for a library about the West.
    Ellen Ingwerson
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There’s an odd similarity of inspiration that book lovers and nature lovers experience in their respective cathedrals of awe. A library stacked floor to ceiling with enticing books can be as viscerally moving as cumulus clouds throwing shadows on a sage-scented plain.

What if somehow you could capture both in a meaningful experience: Read books about the American West housed in a library in the mountains where you could spend the night, connecting to the land intellectually and physically – and then go back to your everyday life to be a more inspired, involved citizen about issues relating to the environment?

It sounds like a fantasy, but two quiet employees of the venerable independent Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver – Jeff Lee and his wife, Ann Martin – have wrestled it to reality over the past 20 years.

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They call it the Rocky Mountain Land Library, 32,000 American-West-related volumes they’ve collected using their bookstore salaries and employee discounts. And they have a new $5-a-year lease on the historical Buffalo Peaks Ranch here on a pristine stretch of the middle fork of the South Platte River.

Though most of the books are in storage until the ranch can be renovated, and lack of plumbing and electricity limit the bunkhouse overnights they want to offer, the couple has started an institution to connect people to the land. Programming is well established: The library has hosted more than 400 author talks at the Tattered Cover and school programs throughout Denver since 2001. Events at the ranch include geology hikes and workshops in poetry-writing and field-sketching.

“Intentionally, we don’t try to define it too closely,” Mr. Lee says, explaining his vision – one that can confound funders, fundraisers, and grant writers who want a laser-focused mission in one sentence. “It’s not only the books, it’s the place – the books are about a sense of place, but the residential aspect, too, is a way to be inspired by the landscape. It’s just that simple notion of connecting people to nature and the land [using] the books as a tool to inspire.”

The notion has drawn support from natural history writers to fly fishers and archaeologists, who find importance in citizens staying connected to the land.

What it hasn’t drawn is a lot of funding.

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But a haunting New York Times Page 1 photo last spring, showcasing the library’s weathered cook’s house against a snow-and-cloud-shrouded massif dislodged some cash. Public donations and a South Park National Heritage Area grant brought the $48,000 needed for roofing materials that HistoriCorps, a volunteer preservation group, installed on two buildings in July. (See our story at www.bit.ly/Historicorps.)

Laura Irving, a charity worker and writer from Bournemouth, England, captivated by the Times photo, volunteered on the roofing project. She describes her experience as “peaceful and warm,” despite cold, rainy weather at the 9,000-foot-elevation ranch where she spent days crowbarring shingles off weathered roofs, chasing rats out of old buildings, and camping out.

“What really resonated,” she adds, was Lee and Ms. Martin, “these seemingly ordinary normal people doing something exceptional and beautiful.”

Sitting for an interview on the porch of the library’s main ranch house, the cofounders project the stereotype of library clerks: quiet intelligence dressed in jeans and comfortable shoes, their conversational volume so low the breeze carries it away.

But their meek appearance proves deceptive as they trace the steady, if slow, progress of their dream from its birth in the 1990s. With little money and a lot of determination, their nonprofit has amassed what some academics say is a natural history book collection better than those of some universities; they have negotiated a lease with the water agency that owns the ranch; and they have pioneered a deep relationship with preservationists at the school of architecture at the University of Colorado Denver, which is drawing plans to turn a dusty lambing barn into classrooms, and a horse barn and stalls into library space and art studios.

The couple look at each other deferentially – sometimes quizzically – when asked to talk about their motives and challenges.

In the mid-1990s, they started a natural history book mail-order catalog called Stonecrop alongside their day jobs – he as a bargain-book buyer and she as a graphic designer for the Tattered Cover website.

The two share a love of nature, and Lee – who came west with a geology degree after college in the 1970s to work in mapping for the US Geological Survey – edited “Home Land,” a book of essays about ranching and conservation. Handling, selling, and collecting books on the West seems to be a way to possess the “awe” he says he first felt beneath the big skies of the Rockies.

But online bookseller Amazon dawned – scooping up their business – and the couple was left, not totally unhappily, with thousands of books on the American West in the basement of their rented house.

At that point, Martin says they asked themselves, “What do we do now?"

They had strong memories of a visit to Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Wales, set up for “reflection, as well as social interaction” by W.E. Gladstone, who served as British prime minister four times in the 1800s. “We thought that would be cool, to have a residential library here in Colorado focused on cultural and natural history of the West,” Lee says.

They visited many potential sites in Park County, settling on the six-mile-long Buffalo Peaks Ranch along the South Platte River, owned by the city of Aurora, Colo. Negotiations with Aurora started in 2005, and a contract was signed in 2013 calling for the library to preserve ranch buildings, some of which date back to French immigrant homesteaders who staked the site out in the mid-1800s.

“There were a lot more stumbling blocks than anyone imagined,” explains Linda Balough, who directs the Tourism & Community Development office in Park County and helps the library apply for grants.

The library’s biggest threat was the sale of the couple’s rented home in 2012, forcing them to find storage for a basement full of books. The crisis was a classic example of how the couple quietly operates, says John Calderazzo, a Colorado State University English professor and nature writer who has been on the library’s board off and on for 20 years. He’d never actually seen the book collection before 2012 and, half-joking, says that at times “I wondered if this was a fantasy, like ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ and this was actually just a crazy [couple].”

But when he and dozens of other supporters showed up to help pack, he says, “the basement was not just full of books, but floor to ceiling, and they were in upstairs rooms, too. It took days and days to get them all out,” he says.

As Mr. Calderazzo and his wife, SueEllen Campbell, also an English professor, helped pack the books, they realized what an astounding collection it is. “For scholars and writers and historians who want access in one place to this kind of material, there is nothing like it,” Ms. Campbell says.

Though Lee and Martin estimate they need $1 million to get three core buildings up to the minimum standard to house books and overnight guests, and $5 million to realize their full vision, they remain confident.

Lee puts it this way: “Don’t be afraid if you don’t know the next steps. Sometimes people have a dream and think, ‘I don’t know how to do it’ – that’s a dream killer. Be comfortable with the fact that the dream is solid enough as long as you stick with it.”

• Learn more at www.landlibrary.org.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups that support reading and the environment:

Benetech develops innovative and effective technology applications for unmet social needs. Take action: Help fund a digital library for people with disabilities.

The Shirley Ann Sullivan Educational Foundation works to create a world where every child is educated and grows up with dignity, equality, and respect. Take action: Send a girl to school.

• The EcoLogic Development Fund empowers rural and indigenous peoples to restore and protect tropical ecosystems in Central America and Mexico. Take action: Help to conserve natural resources in Honduras.

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