Blood, Sweat and Steers

Ranchers who run cattle on State Trust Lands may soon have competition for the publicly subsidized grazing leases they've always enjoyed. But not every rancher is getting fat off the land.

Typically, when defending themselves against criticism by environmentalists, ranchers use economic arguments--that cows produce protein and mineral-rich foods, bone charcoal for high-grade steel, coverings for baseballs and footballs, hair for yarn and felt, gelatin, fat for soaps and lubricants, hoof material for glues, blood for cancer research, glands for insulin, ACTH and Adrenalin.

But, in an era of increased environmental consciousness, are these things--which can be obtained from sources other than cows--enough to justify the damage that grazing does to the land?

There are environmentalists who don't believe it does any damage at all. Diana Hadley is one of them. The Tucson-based writer, who is working on a book about the history of ranching in Arizona and New Mexico, says, "Grazing doesn't necessarily cause any damage if it's done in the right way. Grasslands are meant to be grazed."

In the 1880s, a huge cattle boom coincided with a major drought. According to Hadley, that's when the ecological damage was done. But, with the exception of a drought in the 1950s, pastures in Arizona have been improving throughout this century.

"It's not grazing that causes damage, but overgrazing," says Hadley.
Opponents of ranching often talk of "a near desert being turned into a real desert." But much of the damage to the southern Arizona land came from an earthquake in 1887, which caused springs to dry up.

Ironically, it was cattle growers themselves who, in the late 19th century, asked the government to control access to public lands for grazing.

To get to the Double Check Ranch from Phoenix, you take the highway to Florence and keep going. After 13 miles, you turn onto a dirt road and drive carefully through some of the bleakest country imaginable. The farther you go, the spookier it gets; the sun bounces off the dirt, and there's no sign of life anywhere. At last you come to a gate. There's an old computer lying on the ground, with the name "Schwennesen" inscribed on it.

You open the gate and drive through. Then you stop and get out of your car to close the gate again. A bunch of mean-looking steers give you the eye. You drive a little farther, and see a trailer and a small camper. A couple of dogs look at you and bark, but they're friendly.

So are their owners.
I'd wondered what people would be like after two years out here, with little contact with other human beings. I'd imagined a couple of snaggle-toothed, tobacco-chewing, banjo-strumming misanthropes who'd point a shotgun at any visitors.

Eric Schwennesen is an amiable, witty man in his 40s. He's brown-skinned, tightly muscled and wears a cowboy hat pulled low, closer to his large mustache than the hair on his head. Jean is around the same age, slightly built but strong. He's laconic, she talks fast and enthusiastically. They're soon to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

One of their dogs is blind, a genetic condition. It went blind gradually, and Jean and Eric didn't realize it was totally blind until they were walking toward an area where a fence had been--and the dog ducked to get under the fence, not seeing that it was gone.

It's easy to see why they didn't know before. I'd never have known if they hadn't told me. The dog obviously works from memory, scent and sound. But Jean tells me to be careful to let it know when it's about to bump into me; she says it won't bite, but it could get scared.

The other dog, a Scottish border collie, is manic the whole time I'm there. When Jean and Eric show me where the cows are kept, the dog jumps in the cows' water tank. I point to a broken gate and ask what happened to it.

"One of the cows," Jean says. "First, she jumped out of the truck, and it took days to get her to go back in there. Then she broke through the gate . . ."

Where is she now?
"She went for hamburger. McDonald's deserves her."
It's going to be a long time before the Schwennesens achieve their goals for the land. They plan to build a house--doing it themselves--and they have a sketch of it on a wall of their camper. But that's far down the line. Right now, they're living in the most basic circumstances and trying to work with the land.

The Schwennesens have nothing to do with John Slaughter or any other ranching stereotypes. They're more in the tradition of intellectual American farmers, like Gary Snyder or Wendell Berry. Jean even quotes Berry. We're talking about ecologists who want a green world devoid of people, and she tells me some environmentalists refuse to go and talk to ranchers because they're afraid they'll like them. "It's like Wendell Berry said, we've become excellent at taking one neat solution and dividing it into two problems."

Jean and Eric are environmentalists. They have a real relationship with the land. During my visit, they hardly talk about cattle. Instead, they take me on a walk around their land and show me what they're doing to rejuvenate the ground.

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