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
"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."
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. …