Las Vegas, as it is today in 2019, with its two million residents, forty-two million annual visitors, sophisticated hotels, and trillions of dollars of wealth, exits because of VISIONARIES who saw what the barren desert could be transformed into.
Brett Torino is that kind of man, a visionary who has put an enormous amount of time, money, and backbreaking physical labor, including his own, into transforming forty-four dry, dusty, desecrated acres in the majestic Spring Valley Mountains and wild backcountry of Lovell Canyon, on the south side of Mount Charleston, into a stunning oasis with two lakes, hundreds of waterfalls, and thousands of trees, plants, and flowers.
Brett is also a compassionate, generous man, who has always loved kids. He became active in philanthropy in his early twenties with the Boys and Girls Club. Twenty-four years ago, while developing the Lovell Canyon property, Brett opened it up to the Boy Scouts, as well as the Metropolitan Police Department, who brought teens who had committed a misdemeanor, whose records would be expunged if they participated in Metro’s Youth Intervention Program.
Then nineteen years ago, the ranch became and still is a sanctuary and nature’s playground for thousands of chronically, or critically ill or disadvantaged children between the ages of five and seventeen, who spend a few days every summer having the time of their lives; forgetting, if only briefly, the challenges they face.
Though most of us can’t achieve what Brett Torino has, we can, each in our own way, make the small place in the world we occupy a better place.
Brett shows by example that we can transform ugliness into beauty and grace; chaos into order and peace; neglect into love and nurturing; and ignorance into wisdom and gratitude.
Brett doesn’t do things to impress others. He does them because they speak to his heart and nurture his soul. Perhaps the story of how the Torino Ranch evolved into a place of such importance to children in need will inspire others to take some form of action.
Helping others is an intoxicating elixir, and a worthy cup to drink from.
Torino Ranch sits on land that has a diverse and fascinating history dating back to the original inhabitants who were Paiute Indians.
Since then several people have owned the Lovell Canyon property, including a lawyer named Bill “Wildcat” Morris, who also bought the now demolished Landmark Hotel and Casino, which was built in 1961 across from the Las Vegas Convention Center, in 1983 for $18.7 million, and spent another $3.5 million on renovations.
In 1985, the IRS filed a $2.1 million lien against the property for Morris’ failure to pay his employees’ payroll taxes. The Landmark’s fire codes weren’t in compliance, and Morris was trying to negotiate a $28 million loan to update them in 1986 when a small fire broke out that was deemed to be arson. In 1990, Morris filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and lost his gaming license.
This small bit of back history establishes a pattern regarding Bill Morris’s character. He turned the Lovell Canyon property into a RV park with approximately 1,800 campers who paid a membership fee to enjoy the small watering hole he built on the property, as well as the jamborees and other outdoor activities and events held there.
Unfortunately Morris let the property fall into bankruptcy, just as he did the Landmark Hotel and Casino. When the RV Park was shut down, some members were so angry at losing their money that they burned and destroyed everything they could.
They shot the water tower full of bullet holes, stripped the copper wiring, and stole the plumbing and anything else of value from the few buildings on the property. When the watering hole dried up because Bill Morris failed to renew the water rights, it became a garbage dump.
Seeing the breathtaking beauty of the ranch today, it’s hard to imagine the eerie, war zone-like ghost town the 160-acre property was when Brett purchased it in 1994 from some colorful, shady characters who bought the bankrupt property a few months earlier.
“I was brash back then,” says Brett, “and much more of a risk taker than I am today. The land was barren and desolate, the few buildings were busted up, and the property had no water rights. Also the forest service was threatening to shut down the road to the property and let it go back to nature, which meant we would have no access.
“Thankfully that didn’t happen, but it was still a huge gamble. It took time and a lot of money to procure the water rights. Until that happened, I had to find creative and costly ways to import water to the ranch. We also had to put in a septic system and underground and above ground power.”
Eventually Brett sold 116 acres to the BLM as a nature conservancy easement and turned the remaining 44 acres into a paradise.
“It was an enormous undertaking,” says Brett, who is a botanist at heart. “I had to swallow the entire project at once in order to deal with it holistically."
"Someone once said to me, ‘You didn’t landscape the property, you painted it.’ That was a beautiful thing to hear because I put so much of my heart and soul into every brushstroke, every detail.”
Brett’s father was a real estate developer in Southern California, and he spent his high school years working on construction sites driving 18-wheelers and front loaders. So when it came to clearing the land on the ranch and creating swales, and hills and retaining walls, Brett had the necessary skills to move and bury 100 tons of landfill.
“The ranch looks natural, like it occurred organically, but everything was planned,” says Brett.
Forty-five minutes west of Las Vegas on Highway 160 toward Pahrump, three miles past the blink-of-an-eye town of Mountain Springs, there is a sign that indicates the turnoff for Lovell Canyon Road. Lovell Canyon is a popular place for recreational use, and the vegetation along the paved road mainly consists of desert scrub, sagebrush, and 300-year-old Pinyon Pines and Junipers.
Unexpectedly twelve miles up the road is a tall stone and wood-beamed entry way with two large wrought iron gates each with a custom designed iron butterfly, and a metal sculpture above the gate that has the name TORINO on it. A variety of magnificent tall trees and lush greenery is visible all around, and it’s obvious that a magical place exists beyond those gates.
If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; in terms of 10 years, plant trees; in terms of 100 years, teach people.” - Confucius
“The earth inspires me,” says Brett. “I used to think tree huggers were extremists, but as I got older, I realized they were right on point. We can’t lose touch with nature. It’s what keeps us humble. Mother Nature is under siege, and someone has to be willing not only to sound the alarm, but actively be part of the solution.”
It was an enormous undertaking installing an irrigation system for more than 600 indigenous, exotic, and nonnative trees that Brett planted himself. The natural ecosystem attracts birds, butterflies, and bees, which are necessary for pollination. As Brett walks the property, he talks about everything with reverence.
Surprisingly the roots of that one white locus tree spread far and wide underground, and white locus trees have shot up as far away as the lake. Interestingly, the younger white locust trees are bigger and faster growing than the original purple locust trees I planted.”
A man watches his pear tree day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. If he tries to force the process, he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him wait patiently, and the ripe pear will fall into his lap.” - Abraham Lincoln
It’s a labor of love harvesting the fruit from all the trees that is then dried, canned, and preserved.
The Amen of nature is always a flower.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
All the flowers on the property are perennials so they bloom year after year. The colors and fragrances of more than 500 lilac bushes, roses, white peonies, honeysuckle, wisteria, and ranunculus delight the senses.
Some of the natural beauty at Torino Ranch.
You can grow something to eat anywhere. Window sills, fire escapes and rooftop gardens have the same potential to provide impressive harvests as greenhouses, backyard gardens, and community spaces.” - Greg Peterson – Urban Farm Advocate
“Growing the food you eat is a spiritual undertaking that nourishes the soul,” says Brett. “Over time we’ve developed a system so nothing goes to waste.”
Rivers, ponds, lakes, and streams – they all have different names, but they all contain water. Just as religions do – they all contain truths” - Muhammad Ali
As a Buddhist, Brett believes water is cleansing and healing, which is why he installed over 100 waterfalls, streambeds, and water features on the property. Immediately upon entering the ranch, one notices the two beautiful lakes connected by a bridge.
“When I bought the property there was a big hole in the ground that someone tried to fill with water. I don’t know what they were thinking, because there are a number of steps that go into building a man-man lake that must be done correctly,” Brett explains.
“It was an enormous undertaking. First my crew and I removed all the garbage that was dumped in the hole. Then I drove a Kawasaki front loader and made the lake bigger and deeper.
“We applied Bentonite waterproof clay to the bottom of the lake, and spread a twenty millimeter thick plastic liner over the Bentonite.
“A conveyer belt separated rocks from the top soil that we then spread over the plastic liner. We had to do it all manually with wheel barrels because big machinery would have torn the plastic.
“We installed a huge water distribution system, and right before we were about to fill the lake, a massive rainstorm shoved the plastic liner and all the top soil to one end of the lake. Months of hard work was ruined. I wanted to cry, but instead we dug in and started over. I even built a smaller second lake adjacent to the first.
“Initially, we stocked the lakes with Rainbow, Steelhead, and German Brown trout, but then the health department said if the kids were going to swim in the lake we had to get rid of the fish. This seemed unusual because kids always swim in fresh water lakes and streams that have fish.
“So much goes into maintaining the lakes. Instead of using chemicals, we use aerators to naturally kill the bacteria. Once a year we drain the lakes, eradicate any foreign growth and treat the water before we refill them.
“It costs a lot, but the lakes are an important part of the enchanting environment. We wanted to create a “day at the beach” experience where the kids could swim and go canoeing. We built a sandy beach and a sandy shore around the lake. We also built an island and created a breakwater for the kids to enjoy. And we have multiple lifeguard stations for the kids’ safety.
“Thatched Palapas provide shade and there are Adirondack chairs for sitting. Sometimes at dusk the deer and elk come down from the mountains to drink. It is especially magical to get in a little boat and sit quietly out on the lake and watch the wildlife.”
There is a hidden message in every waterfall that says, ‘If you are flexible, falling will not hurt you.” - Mehmet Murat Ildan
Brett used one hundred and eighty tons of rock to build twenty-eight waterfalls fed by the complex irrigation system beneath the ground that also fills the streambeds. Oak trees next to limestone and granite rock faces create a beautiful ecosystem that attracts butterflies, birds, and bees, which are necessary for pollinating the fruits and flowers.
Swimming has its educational value – mental, moral, and physical – in giving you a sense of mastery over an element, and of power of saving life, and in the development of wind and limb.” - Robert Baden-Powell – Founder of the Boy Scouts
The old pool Bill Morris built was busted up. Brett rebuilt it, enlarged the deck and added a fence around it that is up to code. The pool is an integral part of camp because many kids who come here are too sick or too small to swim in the lake.
The pool is also where the kids can learn how to scuba dive. It is the only licensed aquatics therapeutic program for kids with cancer in the country.
The design, building, and landscaping of the A-frame cabins with metal roofs in June 2001 was a collaborative effort between the Brett Torino Foundation and Sunshine Nevada, a nonprofit that helps critically ill, special needs, and at risk children. Great friendships are formed at camp, and the kids love sleeping in the cabins that each have ten bunk beds.
Restrooms and comfort stations were also built for the counsellors, campers, and guests.
Two months after the cabins were built, in August 2001, a 6,000 acre wildfire charred the forests all around the ranch except to the North, and the flames blackened the back of the Boys’ Cabins.
Twelve years later in 2013, the Carpenter 1 fire approached from the North, devouring the mountains and trees that were hundreds of years old.
“Fireballs were shooting in the air,” says Brett. “Three hundred firefighters camped out on the ranch, and told us to evacuate. Thankfully the ranch was spared from being burnt to the ground, but the next day a huge storm caused flooding and a massive mud slide.
“If the storm happened a day earlier it would have put out the fire. Instead, a wall of mud and debris came raging down the mountains. Boulders the size of small cars and trees rolled through the ranch demolishing everything in their path.”
Mountains of mud engulfed the 7,000-square-foot barn that was used as a dance hall. Thankfully Brett was able to restore the carousel inside that he loved so much. A five-foot-wide swath of mud buried the ranch all the way to entry posts of the property. In addition to the dance hall, the caretakers’ cabin, and half the lodge was destroyed. The damage was $1 million.
The world is a complicated place where there’s a lot of division between people. The performing arts tend to unify people in a way nothing else does.” - David Rubenstein
Brett replaced the barn with an outdoor amphitheater where the kids come together to sing, dance, act, and put on skits. Entertainers from town also come to entertain the kids.
Brett, who loves to create sculptures using clay, wood, and metal, designed and had fabricated a large abstract metal piece for the stage that resembles tall blades of grass blowing in the wind.
There is an enormous rock wall 70 or 80-feet tall by the outdoor eating area that has five waterfalls and when they are lit at night it is a WOW experience. Giant tulip-shaped fabric canopies provide shade and add to the ambiance. Recently some of the canopies had to be replaced at a cost of $100,000. Keeping the ranch in pristine shape is a never-ending expense.
One of the cottages was turned into a medical shed filled with supplies where medical staff administer the children’s medications and can treat them for dehydration, insect bites, sunburn, etc. Because the kids who come here are sick, the ranch has a helicopter pad for a quick evacuation if necessary.
On a separate note, Brett also happens to be an experienced commercial helicopter pilot.
Though summer is set aside for the kids’ camps, the lodge is available throughout the year for corporate retreats, board meetings, workshops, meditative retreats, etc.
Brett says nothing is wasted, just beautified. The ceiling in the main room of the lodge is made from old wooden fencing. On one wall is an original piece of art Brett commissioned Roy Purcell to paint that depicts the ranch. Purcell spent six months on the ranch photographing the trees, flowers, and animals for accuracy.
There is an industrial kitchen that consists of a walk-in cooler, sinks, stoves, utensils, and outdoor grills. At the kids’ camps, a dedicated army of volunteer chefs and assistants can serve up to 900 gourmet quality meals a day, including any special dietary requirements, to the kids, their siblings, counselors, staff, and volunteers.
The purpose of meditation is to calm our mind. If our mind is peaceful, we will be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we will experience true happiness. But if our mind is not peaceful, we will find it very difficult to be happy, even if we are living in the very best conditions.” - Kelsang Gyatso
Brett wanted to create a shortcut from the property below where all the activities take place up to his studio retreat. But Brett can never just build a simple pathway. He gives everything he does a great deal of thought with the intention of creating something beautiful.
And so Brett created a stairway out of shimmering, sparkling, silver Quartzite flagstone. He placed most of those large stones himself, and his energy is infused in every step.
As one ascends and descends the stairs that are surrounded by lush trees and plants, one is inspired to stop and reflect on the beauty all around.
Transformation is a process, and as life happens there are tons of ups and downs. It’s a journey of discovery – there are moments on mountaintops and moments in valleys of despair.” - Rick Warren
When Brett bought the property, the structure which is now his personal retreat had been burned. The roof collapsed and only three walls were barely standing. Most people would have torn the structure down, but Brett, who admits to being quirky, turned ashes into beauty. Wanting to preserve the history of the place, he stabilized and reinforced the three walls with steel, and built exterior and interior walls around them. Even though the original walls are hidden from view, Brett knows they are there. Still age and wisdom change people. Today Brett says he would probably put up a prefabricated house, which would be much easier.
During construction Brett found a black and white photograph tucked away in one of the walls. It was of an Armenian man who built the structure back in the 1950s with his name written on the photo. Finding a relic like that adds even greater meaning to the length Brett went in order to preserve history.
Though he rarely sleeps there, Brett considers the one-room studio a sanctuary. In the courtyard you can hear the calming sound of rippling water coming from a water spout protruding from a stone wall Brett built that fills a stone basin. There are many hummingbirds on the property that occasionally stop by to enjoy a bath here. There are also many bird feeders on the property.
Everything on the ranch has a story, including a table and two benches on the deck outside Brett’s studio that is made from 300-year-old doors from an ancient monastery. The stone walkway that leads to the house, as well as the fireplace inside the studio, and the bathroom, are inlaid with shards of colorful pottery that Brett placed. His hand is visible everywhere.
Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue” - Buddha
The ranch isn’t a storybook fairy-tale about a wonderful retreat that magically appeared,” says Brett. “I have worked my ass off, experienced fire and floods, and dug deep into my pockets to build this paradise. The ranch is run like a small city. Being held to the same strict standards as a small hotel, we go through rigorous inspections by all municipalities, including the Southern Nevada Health District. We are custodians of the road and that maintenance never ends. We are constantly cultivating our relationships with Metro, the Forest Service, and the BLM to keep order in the Lovell Canyon Valley and ensure that our area is protected.
“The ranch requires constant work, and about a $1 million a year to maintain it, which doesn’t count the cost of operating the Brett Torino Foundation. As the CEO, the responsibility falls on my shoulders. It’s a lot, but I do it for the kids.
“Occasionally I sit back, take a deep breath, and say, ‘Wow! Look at this.’ My purpose is to inspire people. It’s about showing people that if you care, you can make a difference on every level of your life. I’ve always lived that way. The ranch is just a reflection of that.”
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