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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. 

(Page 7 of 7)

"There's an ecological tragedy going on with 99 percent of ranching, whether it's on private land or hundreds of millions of acres of public land," says Brian Ertz of the Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group in Hailey, Idaho. "Holistic management isn't a solution if it's working only in places where some landowners can afford to subsidize it. The results have to be replicable, and I've seen no evidence that's happening."

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  • Montana

    Graphic Montana
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

That's one reason some adherents of sustainable ranching are now trying to catalog the results of using the techniques. Mr. Simonds, who once managed ranch operations owned by the Mormon Church, recently worked with 16 researchers to retrieve satellite imagery going back decades to assess the effects of holistic management practices on the church's properties. The photographs showed that ground cover had radically improved over time, even with the addition of more cattle on the lands. The properties also have more wildlife, healthier wetlands, and have returned greater profits.

IN PICTURES: Green Ranching

Yet advocates trumpet more than just the impact on brome and bottom lines. Savory wrote a paper a few years ago showing how more effective grass management could help address global warming. He suggested that increasing the ground cover on just 0.5 percent of the world's grasslands could store 720 gigatons of carbon dioxide – more than the annual emissions sent into the atmosphere from humans burning fossil fuels.

What kinds of results sustainable ranching ultimately yields will have more than an academic impact. Simonds, for one, would like to see federal agencies adopt holistic techniques to guide private landowners who graze cattle on public lands. That would put the concept right in the middle of the range wars that have raged for decades, with the potential to either ratchet them up or help resolve them.

Perhaps even more important, as a new generation of ranchers begins to take over cattle operations in the West, some believe they will be more receptive to trying new techniques.

"In my travels around the West in recent years, I've noticed a growing phenomenon of the second generation of New West managers taking hold," says Todd Graham, a ranching consultant. "They are young people, folks in their 20s and 30s. They don't have the attachment to old paradigms."

Those using the techniques now don't need convincing. As he surveys the Twodot with his wife and two young daughters, Jones points to springs and marshlands that were once scarred by cattle hooves but now are home to sandhill cranes and nesting eagles.

At the J Bar L ranch, Ulring and the other wranglers are giving their guests a glimpse of 21st-century ranching one steak and cattle drive at a time. The tourists who come to play cowboy usually get caught up in the green way they manage the land and raise the cows, which is part of the point – to educate.

"Our clients are drawn initially to our ranch because of the setting and the opportunity to ride horses," says Ulring. "But there's so much more to it. I would say 90 percent of the people cry when they leave. The men who come here on vacation try to be stoic, but they get choked up the same as their wives or girlfriends. There's a yearning to touch something real I can't fully explain."


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