Environmentally minded cowboys run a green ranch in Arizona
At two ranches near the Grand Canyon, they try to raise cattle in a way that doesn’t sully the sensitive southwestern landscape.
Two Mile Ranch, Ariz.
John Heyneman has a problem. It’s late January, and some of his cows are missing. They’re stuck on the Kaibab Plateau, a 9,000-foot high Ponderosa pine forest just north of the Grand Canyon. Most of his 400 cattle made it safely from the forest, their summer home, to the valley below, where they winter. But the stragglers wandered off on land that lacks a cowboy’s most important tool – fences – and now they’re lost, stranded knee-deep in snow.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Heyneman is the ranch manager at the Kane and Two Miles Ranches, which cover 850,000 acres of mostly public land on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. That’s a lot of land across which to lose a cow. The aging fences have gaps in them, and passers-by often leave gates ajar. Up here, where the land rolls from rocky desert to lush forest to sandy cliffs, the most reliable resource in Heyneman’s work is the land. As an example, he gestures out the window of his white Dodge truck.
“Those rocks,” he says, pointing to the Vermilion Cliffs, one of the most famous landmarks in the Southwest, “are one of the few really effective fences we have.”
The ranches are a partnership between the Grand Canyon Trust and the Conservation Fund, which together spent $4.5 million for the land as an investment in conservation. But the parcels came with a controversial catch: cows. Yet here, the cattle have gone green. Or, if you prefer, the conservationists have gone cowboy. It’s an unlikely partnership between ranchers and environmentalists, two groups usually on opposite sides of the fence. Then again, those fences don’t usually come in 3,000-foot-high red rock.
For decades, conservation groups have decried cattle grazing as an act of environmental destruction. Cows trample native plants and insects, leech scarce water, and aggravate soil erosion, environmentalists say. Heyneman has heard it all before, and he even agrees – to a certain extent.
“They are certainly people in the Southwest who really believe that cows are the great demise of the American West, and I’m not sure I’m willing to put that on their shoulders,” he says. “I don’t love cows. I don’t find them sacred. But I don’t find them diabolic either.”
Heyneman grew up in a Montana ranching family but never yearned to be a rancher himself. He went to college “back East in Minnesota,” where he studied science just long enough “to figure out that you could get whatever answer you wanted by changing what question you asked.” Itching with wanderlust after college, he worked for two years in Brazil, and later got a master’s degree in soil sciences.
He lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., and works in the Trust’s offices three days a week, then pulls out his Kevlar pants and pops in an audiobook for the two-hour commute to the ranches, where he spends the rest of his work week. His cowboys live up here.
Sometimes, they even stay at the ranch headquarters, a small stone building that once housed “Buffalo Bill” and a group of English aristocrats William Frederick Cody courted as investors for the hunting lodge he hoped to build here. Today, the stone house still lacks plumbing and power, and except for one week a month, Heyneman sleeps at his home in Flagstaff.
“I’m still a little more Alpine, I’m afraid,” he says. “I’ve got this affinity to running water that has not completely diminished.”
His counterpart in this operation is Ethan Aumack, a tall redhead in a fleece vest who oversees conservation science at the ranches. Mr. Aumack is a fifth-generation vegetarian who grew up in Flagstaff ditching school to go hiking in the Grand Canyon. In his office, he keeps a button that says “HELP PEOPLE.”