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.

To many environmentalists, it's heresy to suggest that you can take from the land and give to it at the same time. A decade ago, in The American Naturalist, Dr. Joy Belsky wrote, "No convincing evidence supports the theory that herbivory benefits grazed plants." This is still pretty much the prevailing wisdom, in spite of such hard evidence to the contrary as the mine tailings at Globe-Miami, which, after all other methods of rejuvenation had failed, began to grow grass when cows were let loose on them.

Grass has billions of tiny roots, and provides a reservoir for water and material for organic soil. Range scientists believe that the deepest soils on Earth developed under grass--grass that was grazed by animals.

The Schwennesens understand this. As we walk around the land, they claim that it's now twice as rich as it was when they arrived. They know the names of the different plants and flowers we find, and at one point they stop to discuss what a strange one might be. I step on some cholla cactus, and yell. Eric pulls it out of my foot. I'm wearing sandals, but he demonstrates that the soft needles will go through a thick boot.

They show me rock dams they've built in washes, to keep topsoil from being washed away in heavy rain. "This only takes a few minutes to do," Eric tells me. "But it makes a big difference."

Then why isn't it done by more people?
He grins. "It looks too much like work. It's not romantic."
They like to stay on their land. Jean aims to go into town just twice a month, though she usually ends up having to go more often. Eric hardly goes at all these days. "I won't let him," says Jean.

"I go into town and come back in such a bad mood, she won't let me go anymore," he says, laughing.

We sit in their camper and eat roast beef sandwiches. The meat is excellent, soft and tender. It should be--until very recently, it was walking around the ranch.

"That's the great thing about this," says Eric. "You get mad at a cow, it's dinner. You can eat your enemy." He looks at me sympathetically. "I guess you can't do that to an editor."

The Schwennesens are not typical. There are ranches that are simply hobbyhorses for rich people. The largest ranch in the state of Arizona--the Big Boquillos--is owned not by an individual, but by the Navajo tribe.

As time goes on and ranchers feel the financial pinch, many feel forced to "40-acre" their land, selling it off for residential purposes.

But Jean and Eric Schwennesen are not alone. Karen Riggs and her husband, Clay, own the Cimarron ranch in Cochise County. They've been in the business for 11 years, but the ranch has been in Clay's family for 130. Clay works on the ranch full-time, but Karen also works as a civil engineer, "through need rather than desire. What we've done with my salary is expand our ranching, so that we now have more land and more cattle than we did 11 years ago. We have about 300."

What about the claims of some environmentalists that ranching is bad for the land?

"I think in some cases it is. Depending on how it's managed, it can be devastating. I think some of the sound bites you hear are overly generalized and overly simplified. Let's face it, having a good enemy really helps fund raising--on both sides. But I think you'll find more environmentalists and ranchers getting together these days, actually trying to look past the stereotypes. We have some things in common. Neither of us wants to see 10-acre ranchettes covering the landscape."

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: bgraham@newtimes.com

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