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
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
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
"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
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. …