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 …