Saving Land - and Ranchers Who Work It

Environmentalists, cattlemen team up to preserve changing West

MILITANT ranchers asserting property rights. Hard-nosed environmentalists trying to force cattle off fragile Western lands. The confrontations are increasing in frequency and ferocity as old West encounters new.

But beyond the big-money lawsuits and political harangues, efforts are growing in the two camps to preserve both the landscape and a rural way of life. Environmentalists are realizing that the most likely alternative to ranching - residential and recreational development - may be worse for the land than cattle are. And ranchers are realizing (as many have known all along) that what's best for the land is best for business.

The McQueary family ranch in northern Nevada is a good example. Jouncing along in a pickup through pastures nestled against the spectacular Ruby Mountains of northern Nevada, Neil McQueary points to the flocks of birds on the lush wetlands sharing space with his 300 head of cattle.

"It wouldn't be too hard to envision this place cut up into 40-acre parcels, the mountains all filling up" with residential development, says Mr. McQueary, imagining what might have happened if the economic disaster his family faced a few years ago had come to pass.

But instead of this being one more story in what McQueary calls "the financial wreck of the '80s," an innovative arrangement involving the Department of Agriculture and two private conservation groups - The Nature Conservancy and American Farmland Trust - saved the 3,585-acre family ranch and in the process helped preserve a unique ecosystem and the wildlife it supports.

"There was just a real common purpose between this family and the goals that we had," says Graham Chisholm, Nevada special projects director for The Nature Conservancy who is working with the McQueary family to achieve economic and environmental stability here. The Conservancy, based in Arlington, Va., with offices around the country, has helped protect some 80 million acres in the United States through land acquisitions and conservation agreements with land owners.

Such stories are being told more and more around the West. In a new book titled "Beyond the Rangeland Conflict," former Sierra Club activist Dan Dagget describes ranches in six Western states (and one in Sonora, Mexico) that he sees as models for the future. Typically, these ranchers are working with conservationists and other ranchers. Several employ "holistic resource management" techniques, which involve moving cattle frequently to pattern the natural grazing of wild animal herds.

Best way to preserve

Over the several years he studied these ranches, Mr. Dagget moved from opposition to skepticism to a belief that range improvement could (and in some places should) include cattle ranching.

"I'm not saying that every place on any of these ranches looks better than a park or preserve," he writes. "They don't. What I am saying is that the trend on these well-managed ranches is toward more biodiversity and biomass rather than less; that significant portions of them are in good to excellent condition ... and that the places that aren't, are getting better."

The condition of rangeland across the West is a matter of dispute. The National Cattlemen's Association points to a 1990 study by the US Bureau of Land Management reporting that "public rangelands are in a better condition than at any time in this century."

But this only shows how bad things had become during the preceding century of ranching, critics note. The range may have gotten better, but this still means that just 36 percent of grazing lands are in good to excellent condition, the BLM reports. The majority are still classified as only fair or poor.

At the same time, as more city folk move to the mountains and valleys of Colorado, Montana, and other Western states (or join the hordes of vacationing skiers and mountain bikers who come for fun), there is concern that the "new" West may cause more environmental damage than the old.

"The real threat is subdivision," says the Conservancy's Mr. Chisholm. Not far from here, a rancher sold off 550 acres to be broken up into 45 "estate homesites" featuring what the development company's brochure boasts will be "outstanding four-season recreation ... from golf to heli-skiing."

That's where the McQueary ranch arrangement fits in. The UX Ranch, as the McQueary place is known, borders Franklin Lake in the Ruby Valley. This is an important wetland area in a state that has lost some 80 percent of its wetlands since the first European explorers and settlers (including Jedediah Smith, John C. Fremont, and the infamous Donner Party) came through here in the 1800s, leaving wagon ruts that still are visible.

The lake and surrounding marshlands are the largest unprotected wetland left in the Great Basin, a critical spot along the seasonal migratory route for millions of birds. Among the birds that live or stop here are sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, and snowy egrets. Beaver, mink, and antelope also make their home here.

Because Franklin Lake is "ephemeral" - meaning it grows and recedes with seasonal stream runoff - it produces more nutrient matter (increasing its value to wildlife) than does the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge just south of here. Ruby Lake is spring-fed and therefore stays more constant in size.

In some ways, ranching here has the potential to help wildlife. McQueary points out that cutting hay in his pastures that edge the wetland denies cover to predators looking to make a meal of the sandhill cranes.

When times got tough and banks cut off operating loans, it looked like the end for the UX Ranch, which had been in the family for three generations. To head off foreclosure, the family formed a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and American Farmland Trust.

In return for a conservation agreement preventing any future subdivision and allowing for regular study of wildlife on the ranch, the two conservation groups bought the place for $300,000, leased it to the family, and agreed to sell it back with no interest charged once the McQueary's found financing. That financing was secured last spring when USDA's Rural Economic & Community Development Services came up with a $200,000 loan, which enabled the family to buy back the ranch.

All parties agree the deal is succeeding. "It's worked real well for me," says McQueary, who adds his conservationist partners have been "real flexible to work with."

Stewards of the land

"The most important thing is working out specific needs with individual families," Chisholm says. "We need to find tools that work both for people on the land and our interests."

"It's that sort of stewardship across generations that's so valuable," he adds. "You lose a lot of knowledge when families leave.... Keeping ranches in operation and keeping the water flowing is the best thing for Franklin Lake."

The future may be more secure now, but that doesn't mean the McQuearys have it easy. Ranching is not only arduous work, but a risky business. Calves occasionally are lost to coyotes. Feed costs jumped this past year, and the price of beef on the hoof dropped sharply.

Over the past few years, the market price for a truckload of 100 steers has fallen from $52,000 to $32,000. One reason for the drop is that drought-plagued Mexican ranchers were able to sell their cattle more easily in this country because of the North American Free Trade Agreement. "The numbers are so depressing you just don't want to think about it," says McQueary, who is in his late 20s and has an agriculture business degree from the University of Nevada at Reno.

Like a lot of businesses around the country, the 300-cow family operation has had to go through its own downsizing. Neil's brother Lyle works on another ranch in the area, and brother Rod now concentrates on what has become a successful career as a cowboy poet.

The brothers' mother, Eloise, works in a saddle shop two hours away in Elko, a community of 18,000. And Neil's wife and ranch partner, Kristen, is a deputy district attorney who lives in town during the week with the couple's infant son Lachlan. ("Named after the last chief of the McQueary clan," Neil says proudly.)

Still, the family believes that with the new financing worked out with the conservation groups it should be able to keep the ranch indefinitely. "As long as my wife keeps her job," Neil adds.

Environmental peacemakers

There are other examples of ranchers working with each other - and with one-time adversaries - to allow their way of life to continue while taking into account new environmental concerns.

Several ranchers in southeastern Oregon are now part of a working group that meets regularly with environmentalists and BLM land managers to restore an ecosystem in the Trout Creek Mountains. There, the issue is preserving habitat for the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout while allowing some level of summer grazing to continue in the high mountain meadows. Members of the Trout Creek Working Group received a special award from BLM director Mike Dombeck, who flew out from Washington to tour their project.

Along the Arizona-New Mexico border, 35 ranch families have joined with representatives of the BLM, the US Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, and conservation biologists to protect a million-acre ecosystem. "The Malpai Borderlands Group," as it's called, agreed on a mission statement that includes conserving "the natural processes that create and protect a healthy, unfragmented landscape ... in our Borderlands Region."

What's needed, asserts Ed Marston, publisher of the regional biweekly newspaper High Country News based in Paonia, Colo., are "rural communities whose residents want to work the land and live off it, rather than simply live on it, with the mountains and deserts as a pretty backdrop." In the end, maintains Mr. Marston in a recent editorial, "Without rural people to work the land, the health of the land cannot be restored."

At the moment, Congress and the Clinton administration are wrangling over proposals to change federal policy on public grazing land. Some want to raise fees and impose more environmental restrictions. Others are pushing to lighten the regulatory load. Some ranch supporters even want to turn over all BLM land in the West - 270 million acres - to the states.

Many ranchers today, though, see protecting land as essential - especially the hundreds of millions of acres of public land on which cattle graze. "I foresee our challenge as ranchers and cowmen to demonstrate that we can maintain and enhance our natural surroundings better than any government body," writes John Dofflemyer, a rancher from Lemon Cove, Calif., in the "Dry Crik Review of Contemporary Cowboy Poetry" he publishes. "In the process, we shall prolong our culture."

*Parts 1 and 2 ran two weeks ago and one week ago, respectively.

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