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Cover Story

New breed of ranchers shapes a sustainable West

These green cowboys try to marry good stewardship of the land with making money. 

By Todd WilkinsonCorrespondent / July 29, 2012

  • COVER STORY: The green cowboys

Ann Hermes/Staff

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harlowton, mont.

Zachary Jones is a saddle-hardened fifth-generation rancher even though, on the surface, he may not look like one. As he threads his pickup truck through the back pasture of a quintessential Western expanse – one carpeted in flaxen-colored grass in the shadow of Montana's Crazy Mountains – he bears little resemblance to the stereotype of the Stetson-wearing cowboy. No pointed boots or spurs. No denim. No bandanna. Not even a rifle mounted in the vehicle's back window.

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  • Montana

    Graphic Montana
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

Instead, Mr. Jones is wearing cargo pants, a stylish shirt with a Patagonia logo on the front, and, most tellingly, Birkenstock sandals. You'd almost think he were heading to the monthly meeting of the men's book club in Bozeman.

What he's actually doing is checking on newborn Angus calves on his Twodot ranch following rumors that wolves might be prowling the area. In other words, real callous-forming wrangler work, which suggests another point: Out here, appearance sometimes has little to do with authenticity.

IN PICTURES: Green Ranching

"Being a smart rancher – one who's still going to be here in another 50 years – isn't based on how you dress," says Jones. "It comes down to how you treat the land and build resilience over time that matters. In particular, it's about how well you manage grass and water."

Normally, listening to a cattleman talk with reverence about managing grass and water, using terms like "holistic" and "sustainable," would be akin to hearing an environmentalist marvel about the horsepower in an all-terrain vehicle. It seldom happens.

But a new breed of cowboy, like Jones, is changing how ranching is being done in the American West and might – just might – alter the dynamic in the "range wars" that have engulfed the region for more than a half century. Make no mistake: These are not new arrivals carrying out green techniques for the feel-good sake of being green. They are ranchers managing the land in benevolent and environmentally sensitive ways because they think it will help them survive – and make money.

"As a matter of necessity, the old way of ranching is giving way to a new paradigm," says Bill Bryan, head of the Rural Landscape Institute in Bozeman, Mont. "For some, ranching was pursued in the past with an emphasis on raising beef at the expense of everything else. Raising animals for the dinner table isn't an activity that has to be at odds with the environment."

Nor is this some New Age boutique movement – a few quixotic ranchers trying to be good stewards of the land while overseeing a few hobby cattle. Some of the biggest land-owners in the West are embracing elements of the practices, such as media moguls Ted Turner and John Malone, who oversee a combined total of 4.3 million acres – the equivalent of a couple small New England states. The movement also includes people from diverse philosophical and business backgrounds, from Peggy Dulany, a member of the Rockefeller clan, to former Wall Street hedge fund managers to caretakers for the Mormon Church.

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