THE tall slim stranger looks out of place. His cowboy hat and boots, jeans, and leather vest contrast noticeably with the Birkenstocks and hiking boots, the tie-dyed and African-print clothing crowding the aisles of a food market that's just opened in a town known for its environmental and social activism.
He exchanges the vest for a long black apron (but leaves his hat in place), picks up a carving knife and fork, and heads over to the deli section where a small roast just out of the oven has been set up.
``Would you like to try some of our Oregon Country Beef?'' he asks passersby as he slices off small chunks of the roast and impales them on toothpicks. ``We're a group of 14 family ranches who use sustainable land practices,'' he says, referring to the marketing cooperative he represents here at the opening of Cantwell's Market in Ashland, Ore. ``And we also don't use any growth-stimulating hormones or feed-additive antibiotics.''
For the next several hours, ``Doc'' Hatfield of Brothers, Ore., (pop. 9) works the crowd, stressing to skeptics (many of them vegetarians or environmental activists) that a traditional Western way of life - raising cattle - can be done in harmony with the land. There are some earnest exchanges about eating red meat and about the environmental impact of cattle. But people seem pleased to hear from a cowboy who talks knowledgeably about ``land stewardship'' and ``ecosystem management,'' and most walk off with a brochure and beef sample or two.
A few days later, Doc and his wife and ranch partner, Connie, fly back East to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where they receive a National Environmental Achievement Award from a coalition of 29 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the National Wildlife Federation.
While politicians, activists, and special-interest groups argue about the future of cattle ranching - especially on subsidized federal land - a growing number of ranchers are leading the way in blending old traditions and new values.
They are working closely with government scientists and land managers, with environmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy, and with each other to preserve a way of life while improving the land on which that way of life is based.
``For a lot of years, we just looked at fat cows,'' says John Hyde, who runs a family ranch near Chiloquin, Ore., that dates back to when his great-uncle bought 5,000 acres from Klamath Indians early in this century. ``But if we look at healthy soil and healthy plants, the fat cattle will be a byproduct of that.'' Hoofed-animals advocates
For the past half dozen years or so, the Hyde family has been active in ``holistic resource management.'' This is the philosophy and practice of land management developed by Allan Savory, whose Center for Holistic Resource Management based in Albuquerque, N.M., has nearly 1,500 members in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
HRM, as it is commonly called, is best known for its advocacy of hoofed animals - cows - as a tool to stimulate plant growth and thereby restore and sustain biological diversity and other aspects of a healthy ecosystem. The key to this controversial approach is careful management of the cattle - letting them stay in one area for a very short time (as little as a day or two) before moving the herd elsewhere. Advocates say this results in better growth of natural grasses than if cattle were simply excluded from the land -
especially if that land has been damaged by years of overgrazing already, which is the picture in much of the West.
There is growing evidence that HRM works, both in North America and in southern Africa, where Mr. Savory was a wildlife manager, rancher, and member of Parliament in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). There remain, however, more skeptics than converts among environmentalists, traditional ranchers, and government land managers, who continue to wrangle over the ecological, economic, and social pros and cons of ranching in the West.
Still, the Clinton administration has shown at least initial interest in this approach. Jim Baca, director of the Bureau of Land Management (which oversees 270 million acres in the West, much of it available for grazing) has met with Savory and others at the Center for Holistic Resource Management. And Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's family business in Arizona recently began using HRM principles in managing its ranch operations.
The most important thing behind the Savory method is not cattle but the process of goal-setting, team-building, and communication. HRM also requires a constant testing of assumptions.
This, Mr. Hyde says, has been the most difficult part of the ``paradigm shift'' that his family has undergone. Following this model has also been a challenge for the group of about 30 ranchers, government wildlife specialists, and environmentalists who have spent the past three years working to improve the whole watershed in which the Hyde's ranch is located.
Despite the challenges, Yamsi Ranch (the Klamath Indian name means ``Home of the North Wind'') is notable for its ecological well-being. John and his mother, Gerda Hyde, hand-planted a quarter-million lodgepole and ponderosa pine trees in areas that had been logged. Six large wetlands have been created here, as well as a 312-acre lake that attracts thousands of waterfowl along the Pacific flyway. Native bunch grasses are slowly returning to areas damaged by logging and grazing, and bird populations are increasing: bluebirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, ibises, sandhill cranes, avocets, owls, and hawks. On the day a reporter and photographer toured the ranch, a bald eagle swooped across a meadow and into a pine.
``You see little things happening all the time,'' says Hyde. ``A few more of this, a few more of that. Biodiversity - that's what it's all about.'' The Williamson River, which meanders for 10 miles through the ranch, has become well-known to fly fishermen who come here from around the country to catch (and release) native rainbow trout.
Last month, the Hyde ranch received one of seven regional Environmental Stewardship Awards from the National Cattlemen's Association. Among those judging the industry-sponsored competition were representatives of the National Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy.
Meanwhile, cattle productivity has increased as well under the new management regime. ``When I came back from Oregon State University [in 1980], this ranch barely supported one family,'' Hyde says. ``It's supporting three families now.''
For the Hyde family, team-building under holistic resource management began when John and his brother, Taylor (a veterinarian in nearby Klamath Falls), sat down with their mother to lay out three goals. Three goals
The first is quality of life. ``That's all values,'' John says.
The second goal is deciding what's needed to produce that quality of life. ``It doesn't have to be monetary production,'' he says. ``It can be clean air, clean water, wildlife.'' The third goal has to do with landscape description - ``Stepping back and thinking about what you'd like the land to look like if you came back in 200 or 300 years.''
This is similar to the approach practiced by the Hatfields and the young couple who help manage the Hatfields' ``High Desert Ranch'' several hours north of the Hydes' place.
The Hatfields spent 10 years building a ranch in Montana's Bitterroot Valley while Doc (whose given name is Patrick) developed a veterinary practice as well. By the mid-1970s, however, they concluded that traditional ranching methods were bad for the land and not very good for cattle either.
``I became frustrated as a vet because I was treating problems that shouldn't have happened,'' Doc recalls. ``And we began wondering if it wasn't possible to raise cattle in harmony with the land and not have to use a lot of expensive inputs like fossil fuel, chemical fertilizers, labor, and machinery.''
The Hatfields moved to Oregon in 1976, to a place Connie Hatfield describes as ``run-down with five windmills that didn't work.'' Since then, they have worked to restore the land by paying close attention to the soil, the water, and what grows naturally here. Connie takes visitors to a grove of aspen that is turning golden this time of year and in the spring is home to neotropical migrating birds.
Her husband defines ecosystem management as ``managing so precipitation goes into the ground where it falls,'' preventing unnatural runoffs that cause erosion. And for this to happen, he adds, ``takes the most healthy, biodiverse vegetation you can imagine.''
Walking up a shallow hillside, he points out some of this vegetative variety: Idaho fescue, bluegrass, basin wild rye, mountain brome. He notes that ``the juniper are back in their ecological niche - back up on the high, rocky ridges'' rather than crowding out the grasses down lower, which is what happens with overgrazing.
Then, down on his hands and knees, he sees that this area, which was grazed 10 days ago, is covered with organic matter. ``What I like is all this litter,'' he says. ``That makes a mulch that holds the water and makes a better site for seedlings to get started.''
Again, the key here is moving the cattle often, ``making sure during the growing season they bite each plant just once,'' as Connie puts it. In addition, the Hatfields' philosophy is to breed cattle that fit the environment here rather than manipulate the environment. Ranch cooperative
Several years ago, Connie began organizing what has become a 14-ranch cooperative spread over eastern Oregon near little towns like Antelope, Fossil, Crane, and Plush. Six of the 14 follow holistic resource-management principles, and all have developed written goals for the condition of their land. None use hormones or antibiotics. They now sell to markets in big cities like Portland and Seattle, to fine restaurants, and to a Japanese buyer.
For the past several years, the Hatfields also have been involved in successful watershed restoration efforts in other parts of the state that had been overgrazed for more than a century; they have been asked to speak at training sessions for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees.
In making its recent award, the environmental coalition (coordinated by the organization Renew America) described the Hatfields as a ``major force in bringing together ranchers, environmentalists, government-agency staff, and university personnel to improve conditions on public and private range and woodlands in Oregon and throughout the western United States.''
``The couple has fostered a sense of cooperation which has resulted in significant environmental improvements and minimized legal confrontations between conservation interests and traditional users of Western range lands,'' the award announcement states.
``They amaze me with all the traveling and talks they give on resource management,'' says John Heilmeyer, a riparian expert with the BLM who oversees 1.75 million acres of land, including 6,000 acres the Hatfields lease from the federal government. ``They're very dedicated.''
These days, Mr. Heilmeyer finds he does ``a lot of translating'' to ranchers set in their ways - explaining the importance of restoring and preserving riparian zones on their ranches. He points out a stream area on BLM land near the Hatfields' place where another rancher allows his cattle to graze for only about 30 days out of the year. The stream banks are thick with vegetation, and beaver have returned, a marked contrast to the erosion pictured in a photo taken 17 years ago.
But ranchers like the Hydes and the Hatfields, though they may be models for the future, remain exceptions in the West today.
``People are slow to change,'' Hyde says. That is why the Clinton administration - pressured by environmentalists wanting cattle off public range lands and tax reformers pushing an end to what they say are government subsidies to ranchers - wants to nearly double grazing fees and institute range reform from Washington.
``We ranchers are scared to death that our way of life is leaving us,'' Mrs. Hatfield says.
``Obviously there are problems or we wouldn't be in the fix we're in,'' Mr. Hatfield says. ``The main problem is overcoming the frontier mentality that we've lived on in the West for the past 100 years - that there are unlimited resources to use for man's immediate benefit.''
``The problems on the land aren't that difficult,'' he adds. ``The problems are in human communication and in defining the goals of where we want to be.''