EVEN "GOOD"COWBOYS ARE A TARGET

Rancher Troy Neal talks more like an ecologist than a land baron as he surveys the 76 Ranch, his 24,000-acre spread in the Zane Grey country near Payson. "We have to take care of the land, or it won't take care of us," he says, gazing up at the 6,200-foot peak that marks the center of his grazing allotment. The Sierra Anchas range crowds around the peak, its muscular features hiding--from a distance, at least--the insidious damage done to the land by a hundred years of overgrazing. "It's hard to rectify damage that's been done over time; it takes time for the land to heal. It's our responsibility to help it do that."

But good intentions weren't enough to prevent him from becoming a target of ecotage, the newest "range war" to hit Arizona. In fact, two years ago Neal's remote ranch was vandalized shortly after he extended a cordial invitation to a crowd of antigrazing demonstrators to come and see the changes he had made to resuscitate the depleted land. Neal had encountered the demonstrators on his way into a cattlegrowers convention in Benson and decided to try talking things over with them. No one responded to his offer.

But two weeks later, someone destroyed a quarter mile of Neal's fence, using a technique described in detail in Earth First! leader Dave Foreman's book, Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. The fence bordered a small enclosure, one of several experimental sites on which Neal closely monitors plant regrowth. Cutting the fence opened the way for cattle to invade the protected area and devour the protected range.

"The [vandals] walked along, stopping every few feet to cut all four strands of barbed wire, just totally destroyed it," Neal recalls. "Usually, if it's a hiker or someone on an ATV, they'll just cut one spot so they can get through." He says he hasn't the slightest idea who did it.

Multiple fence-cutting is one of four techniques to harass ranchers recommended in Ecodefense, which admonishes monkeywrenchers at the same time to pick their targets carefully. "Despite the negative aspects of the livestock industry, many ranchers are decent folks," Foreman writes. "In Montana and Wyoming, particularly, there are ranchers who support Wilderness, oppose predator control, and have a deep and abiding respect for the land . . . Unfortunately, they are the exception. But the monkeywrencher must make absolutely certain that the intended target of grazing ecotage fully deserves it."

Suitable targets might include vocal Sagebrush Rebellion leaders, ranchers who practice wholesale slaughter of predators and "egregious overgrazers," Foreman adds. In Troy Neal's case, the monkeywrenchers ignored that part of Foreman's advice.

Of the dozen or so recent incidents of suspected Earth First! vandalism-- from the slaughter of breeding bulls to the destruction of windmills--only two were aimed at outspoken defenders of grazing. And, ironically, none of the incidents targeted the architects of the year's most notorious insults to the environment: two ranchers responsible for the slaughter of an elk herd near Prescott, and the lingering death of several bears trapped near Aravaipa and left to rot. If the vandals had bothered to check out Neal first, they would have found a rancher who sympathizes with the goal of a healthy environment and doesn't try to defend the industry's past mistakes. Neal has instituted sweeping reforms, acting on the advice of a management committee that includes two environmentalists, since taking charge of his ranch seven years ago.

"I gotta admit it, I was really cussin'," Neal says of the fence-cutting incident. "I felt if they really knew why this fence is here, they'd realize it's protecting the range. But if you can't see people, you can't talk about it." He smiles sheepishly at the memory of his anger. Neal is, at that moment, a perfect example of the shy, handsome cowboy who so frustrates grazing critics armed with nothing but reams of statistics. The statistics show a glaring disparity between the amount of land devoted to ranching, and the economic return from it, yet the cowboys have won the public relations war going away, environmentalists acknowledge.

"People not only like cowboys, they deify them," fumes Dan Daggett of the Sierra Club. "How many of the hundreds of people you see riding around in pickup trucks and cowboy hats are really cowboys? Yet, you challenge the right of ranching to dominate the land and they act like you're trying to unbutton their 501s and get after 'em with the scissors. That tells you something about public opinion, doesn't it?"

The public also wants a healthy environment, and even the ever-popular cowboys are beginning to understand that, notes Dave Stuart, range and wildlife management staff officer for Tonto National Forest. Some of Arizona's most overgrazed territory lies within the forest. "A decade ago, only 10 percent of the cattlegrowers were cooperative in efforts to correct overgrazing, but now about 70 percent are actively pursuing that approach," Stuart says. Troy Neal, he adds, exemplifies the new breed of ranchers.

Neal's efforts to restore the land are cited by forestry officials as being among the most progressive and enlightened on the Tonto, where most of the 76 Ranch is located. Healthy new growth carpets the once-barren streambanks and sandbars of Tonto and Rye Creeks, which flow through Neal's ranch. Beaver and other rare wildlife have begun to reappear.

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