By Michael Cox
You know that stupid picture you still see here and there, the one showing a fence line with almost no grass on one side and lush hip-high flora on the other side? It has been used for decades to try and convince the world that cattle automatically overgraze the land and cause erosion. It has been used to tell us that cattle grazing and a healthy range land are incompatible and that ranching is not a sustainable business.
When this week’s “Drovers” issue came down the wire, it carried a story by a rancher named Marty Smith. Smith’s message was clear, cattle ranching is a sustainable activity. As part of his “curricula vitae,” Mr. Smith politely pointed out that the Smith outfit in central Florida has been in operation far longer than the USDA. At 170 years in business, the ranch was begun when there were only 31 states in the Union. I would suggest that Smith and company know a thing or two about sustaining the viability of their rangeland.
The Spanish vaqueros brought cows up from Mexico about the same time as the Smiths were producing their first calves. The ranchers in the western US absolutely had to learn how to keep their rangeland healthy or go out of business. Were there some grazing mistakes during the past 150 years? Sure, there were, just as sure as Ford made the Edsel and Howard Hughes built the flying boat. But I don’t think ranchers are given nearly enough credit for their stewardship of the land. Allow me to tell you a story.
In 1977, I was editor of the Kingman Daily Miner, a 140-year-old daily newspaper in Mohave County, Arizona. One day the receptionist called back to my office to tell me that John Neal was there to see me. I went to the front of the building where my friend John stood, not his normal ebullient self.
We shook hands and went back to my office. John, a tough cowman who rode a 16.5 hand horse, sank into a chair as I asked him what was up and how was the family.
“The BLM is trying to put us out of business,” he said bluntly. His announcement came as no surprise to me. Most of us understood that we were in the early years of a “range war” of sorts, that is still going on today.
The Neals, John, his father Leonard, and uncle Roy, were the largest of three dozen or so permit holders scattered over the 8.6 million-acre county in the northwest corner of Arizona. The Bureau of Land Management is in charge of about 2.4 million of those acres, or almost a fourth of the county. More than 83% of the land in Arizona is under government control.
Most of the Mohave County outfits, which are gone now, were on hardscrabble land that supported no more than a couple of cows per section. Most, frankly, were not profitable. Ranching was (is) difficult and nobody was getting rich. Friday night at Emma’s Place for Mexican food was a big deal. Even then, owner Neal Matthew took an INSF check once in a while, but he knew the problem and that he would eventually get paid.
In my office that morning, John Neal told me about pressure being put on the small ranchers, who, in his opinion, were being nitpicked and nickel-and-dimed for alleged trespass, damage to the rangeland and riparian lands. They were in the process of downsizing the animal units on most of the permits.
Anyone who has ever tried to gather cattle on a 25-section permit in the high desert, knows you’re going to lose some now and then. In this case, those were the so-called trespasses. In times past, the BLM rangers understood this and would even help by telling the producers where the stranglers were. But times had changed. Grazing on public lands had become the mother of all ruination for the environment. The BLM folks had gone on the offensive. Three animal units were going to drop to two, or maybe go away all together.
The livestock community took up the challenge, mounting an information campaign. Then the BLM decided it would stage a show-me trip to demonstrate the need for their actions. They would expose the degradation of the land.
First, they did the fence line act where the grass was shorter on the grazed side, without telling anyone the grazed side was recently grazed and was now out of rotation. The stock was miles away on another pasture. The one we looked at would recover shortly. What they also didn’t show was a water catchment that the producer had built recently that benefited the cows and the wildlife.
Regarding water, the vast majority of the waters developed on public lands has been created by the permit holders at their own expense. That is a fact that doesn’t get the spotlight, but nonetheless, adds to the sustainability of the land and the wildlife.
Meanwhile as our show-me day wore on, the feds made a mistake. Even 45 years later it plays right into today’s discussion. There were about 18 or 20 vehicles in the parade and eventually we all pulled up to a piece of ground, 5 or 6 meters square, that was fenced. With great flourish, the show-me fellow pointed out the deeper grasses inside the fenced out enclosure. He told the onlookers that the ground inside the fence hadn’t been grazed for a couple of years and, he said, “Didn’t that grass look better than the shorter, grazed grass on the outside?”
While the range manager was explaining his piece de resistance, John Neal got out his trusty pocket knife and dug up a clump of grass from inside the fence. Meanwhile, Bob Dewy, another producer, dug up a clump of the same grass from outside the fence. The two ranchers held up their sods, pointing out to the onlookers that the grass from inside the enclosure had truly little root system. The one Bob showed had a much longer, complex root system. John Neal explained that, grazing, a lot like lawn mowing, stimulates the root system, improves plant health, and guards against erosion with its greater root safety net. Cattle manure helped the whole system along with nutrients.
We all drove back to town. As I drove, I thought about the people on the ground in the BLM and Forest Service. A lot of them were one with us. They loved the land and they were not about putting anyone out of business, but strings were (are) being pulled from hundreds and thousands of miles away. Politics, environmental extremist politics, had infiltrated the USDA and the BLM.
I ran the pictures and the story of the “show me” showdown on the front page the next day. The community was aroused, looking for action. I’d love to say we won. And, for a short while, we did. But the forces against animal production are like the Star Wars Empire. They keep coming back. About that, we must be vigilant.
John Neal was fed up. He was in the process of moving to Australia when he was diagnosed with cancer from which he passed rather quickly. His widow, Evalee, and the kids moved into town. The last time I saw the Cane Springs outfit, the headquarters was returning to the dust from which it had been built.