Old Ranch Traditions Blend with New Values A Group of Oregon Fmailies Use `Holisitc Resource Management' Practices That Benefit Both Grazing Lands and the Cattle They Raise Series: COVER STORY. Old Ranch Traditions Blend with New Values

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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. …