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.

By , Correspondent

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    New horizons: Ethan Aumack, who oversees conservation science at the Kane and Two Mile ranches, looks out over the Vermilion Cliffs that act as a natural fence on part of the land.
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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.

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.”

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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.

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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.”

It’s from his grandmother, the third in a genealogical line of Norwegian immigrants who wouldn’t wear leather out of concern for cows. “There’s a lot of humor to be had about the vegetarian and the red meat rancher coming together on this project,” admits Aumack (who also confesses to eating beef from both ranches).

The project isn’t about nourishing cattle with ecofriendly feed or building wooden instead of barbed-wire fences. These cowboy-conservationists aren’t that kind of green. What they are doing, instead, is asking whether cattle ranching can be successful and environmental.

Actually, this may be the more revolutionary question. Environmental groups have been buying up land in the West to control the 80-year-old grazing permits it comes with. The idea is to retire the permits, and with them, the cows. That, eco-activists hope, will save the land.

The Trust didn’t have that option. If it retired its permits, Heyneman says, the government would just reallocate them. So if it wanted to preserve a quintessential American vista, it had to get in the cattle business. What began as an environmental initiative therefore became a ranching operation that defies the conventions of two sciences: ecology and economics.

Not many people who want to make money get into small-scale ranching in the Southwest. The businesses that have been turning a profit tend to be the big operations that own the land on which they graze their cows. Family-owned ranches often run their cattle on public lands and represent more of a hobby than a livelihood: One of Heyneman’s cowboys says his family and their neighbors all have day jobs and ranch on weekends, mostly as a way of spending time with each other and enjoying the landscape.

If the economics of small-scale ranching is dismal, the ecology is murky. Almost every aspect of ranching can inspire an ecological debate, and, sometimes, concessions. Heyneman was quick to prohibit his cowboys from a time-honored way of protecting cows – shooting coyotes or rattlesnakes. And, occasionally, his cows get a little cramped: The Trust sealed 10,000 acres off from the ranches to protect federal restoration activities, and it built fences of rough-hewn wood around a series of lakes that date back to a time the ocean covered the desert.

Other things are not as easy. If you let cattle drink from streams, for example, they might despoil riverbank habitat. Every source of water, then, is a potential source of tension. And not just between the cowboy and the conservationist. Earlier this year, one cowboy here said, ranch staff went to fix a spring and “near got in a fist fight” with neighbors who thought the water was theirs.

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Ultimately, the goal here is not to turn a profit from beef, but to preserve a unique American landscape. Through Aumack’s eyes, it is a wearied landscape, lurched out of its natural balance by a hundred years of human use. He’s trying to turn that around.

Aumack has led 550 volunteers in 47,000 hours of labor on the land since 2005. They’ve cleared tumbleweed from the fences, pulled water-sucking tamarisk from riverbeds, and counted the number of non-native plants across the ranches. The data they’ve gathered will help predict future brush fires, prioritize areas for protection, and offer guidance on better ways to graze cattle.

But there are things even science can’t prove, including the question at the heart of the operation: Are cows bad for the land? “The science doesn’t give us clear answers,” Aumack says. “It gives us some additional information to clarify the consequences of making different decisions, but it doesn’t necessarily decide what’s right or wrong.” Whether cows should graze on arid land in the American West is ultimately a matter of judgment – and politics.

Heyenman, on the other hand, knows one thing for sure: In the dead of winter, cows don’t belong in three feet of snow, and those stranded cattle on the Kaibab Plateau are in need of a rescue. Fortunately, the professional cowboy is also an amateur pilot. Heyneman will circle the pines in his plane until he finds the cows, and then lead them, one by one, back to the valley.

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