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The afternoon sunlight glimmers across Wet Beaver Creek as kingfishers squawk and swoop, angry about an intrusion.
A wide cattle trail soon splits into scores of paths that shoot off like nerves from a spinal cord into the thorny mesquite brush.
Immediately to the left is the southern boundary fence for Montezuma Well National Monument--an important historic site that includes Indian cliff dwellings and the remnants of a 1,200-year-old canal system. The monument attracts a half-million visitors a year.
According to a U.S. Forest Service map, the fence should continue due east and soon cross Wet Beaver Creek. But instead of crossing the creek, the fence veers to the northeast, away from the creek.
This divergence is odd. National monuments are operated by the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service; typically, very precise boundary fences are maintained.
By moving the fence line, the Park Service has left unprotected a rare southwestern watercourse dotted with huge cottonwoods, sycamores and willows. Such riparian corridors once lined most of Arizona's rivers and streams and are important wildlife habitats. Nearly all have been destroyed by human intrusion.
On monument property, the cattle paths lead to a half-dozen cows taking advantage of the winter grasses growing beneath the leafless overstory.
The cows' presence is surprising. Federal law prohibits cattle grazing at Montezuma Well National Monument. In fact, most national monuments prohibit livestock grazing because of the environmental damage foraging cattle inflict.
But there the cows are.
The reason they are there is simple.
Park Service documents, Forest Service records and interviews with federal officials show that those two agencies have simply ignored land-management laws and regulations for land on and near the monument.
Montezuma Well National Monument Superintendent Glen Henderson has long been aware that cattle are trespassing on the monument. He admits he's taken no action to stop it.
"I guess, you know, just, we just haven't done it," Henderson says. "I don't really know if there is any good reason."
Meanwhile, the Forest Service, which controls land adjacent to the monument, is bending over backward, perhaps illegally, to make sure the rancher whose cattle are trespassing on the monument stays in business.
Elsewhere in the West, federal agencies have managed public lands restrictively enough to inspire a significant backlash from ranchers and states'-rights enthusiasts.
But at Montezuma Well National Monument just down the road from Camp Verde, Arizona, one man has whipped the federal government into nearly complete submission--84-year-old Paul M. Webb.
Paul Webb has called the shots on cattle grazing on spring-fed Wet Beaver Creek for nearly 50 years.
Armed with a surly attitude, Webb has intimidated the Park Service and Forest Service for decades.
"We haven't always had the best relationship," acknowledges Superintendent Henderson.
Except for a pack of dogs, Webb lives alone on the Soda Springs Ranch, first established in the 1880s. After answering a few questions via telephone, he declined repeated requests for a more lengthy interview, saying he "resents" inquiries into his life story. But he is a well-known figure in Rimrock, a small, rural community in the Verde Valley about 100 miles north of Phoenix.
Webb married Virginia Finnie Lowdermilk, the owner of the Soda Springs Ranch, shortly after he returned from his World War II service as a gunner and photographer for the Navy. He was her second husband. The couple operated a successful dude ranch for about a decade before business tapered off and they returned to cattle ranching.
Virginia died in the early 1980s. Webb did not inherit her extensive property holdings, which include 383 acres in Camp Verde worth more than $5 million, but he did become the personal representative of her estate. Upon his death, the ranch will become property of Virginia's cousins.
Webb has run the ranch by himself for the last decade. Now, health problems are slowing him down--he had one knee replaced a few years ago and hopes to have the other replaced soon, friends say.
Nevertheless, he's still in remarkably good condition.
"He's got a strong heart and a strong mind," says longtime friend Don Gunnell, a Camp Verde real estate broker.
Webb is determined to keep ranching as long as he can.
"I can't imagine what else he would do," says another longtime friend, local historian Mary Lyons.
The Forest Service certainly hasn't put any barriers in Webb's way, flouting its own laws and regulations to provide the rancher with an unprecedented lifetime grazing permit on federal lands.
And because federal bureaucrats won't enforce applicable laws, the former rodeo bronc rider is free to impose his laissez-faire ethic not only on his property and land he leases from the government, but also on a national monument. His leave-me-alone philosophy meshes tightly with the John Birch politics that swirl through Yavapai County.
"People stomp around on their property, and I stomp around on mine," he says in a brief telephone interview from his Soda Springs Ranch headquarters.
Stomp is an understatement.
Webb has a score of cattle on his 150 or so acres of private land immediately east of Montezuma Well National Monument. And although 20 cows may seem like a small number to a city dweller, they have had a large impact on an important ecological and historical preserve.