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.

Ranchers are the welfare mothers of the Western economy. Everybody picks on them.

They're easy to pick on. Ranching is an anachronism. In Arizona, it's not economically viable. Raising cattle here makes about as much sense as growing palm trees in Alaska. The Arizona Cattlemen's Association is unable to say how much of the nation's beef is produced by Arizona, but no more than 5 percent of U.S. beef comes from west of the Rocky Mountains.

So why do people still ranch here?
Because they like it. And because they always have.
How do they survive?
Government assistance.
Why do they receive such assistance?
Because they like it. And because they always have.
But a change might be on the way.

State Trust Land is supposed to be used to make a profit, which goes to schools. Last April, the state auditor general declared that the State Land Department was failing in its duty to put the leases on grazing rights out for competitive bid. When a 10-year lease expired, ranchers were simply allowed to renew it.

In July, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Dann reached the same conclusion.

Jean Schwennesen is one who stands to lose if grazing policy is reformed. She and her husband, Eric, own the Double Check Ranch near Winkelman. She's only been in the cattle business for two years. "But my husband and I have lived on ranches most of the time. I grew up on a small farm. We both have degrees in agriculture. We managed a ranch in Nevada."

When I suggest that ranching isn't viable here, Schwennesen surprises me by agreeing.

"There's no denying it. There's an old saying that the only way to get a ranch is by the womb, the tomb or the altar, because they're so expensive. The asset that you have is quite valuable, and returns very little. I read somewhere that the average ranch only returns 2 percent on your investment. So there aren't many people foolish enough to do that."

Why are returns so poor?
"Partly because cattle prices fluctuate greatly, and the expense of running a place is great. Year in, year out, you probably gross about $300 for every cow you have on the place. Which is why it's impolite to ask how many cows a person has on their place."

So how many does she have on her place?
"A hundred. About 250 head is considered an economic unit."
Of her 10,000 acres, she owns about 10 percent. About 1 percent of the land her cattle graze is owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management, and the rest is State Trust Land.

There are 9.4 million acres of State Trust Land in Arizona. Most of it, 8.5 million acres, is grazed. Grazing leases bring in a total of nearly $2.15 million yearly. BLM controls 16 million acres in the state, of which 11.6 million are grazed. The Forest Service has 11.25 million acres and leases 10.2 million acres for grazing, bringing in about $1.2 million annually.

Schwennesen says that many ranches survive only because they have been in the rancher's family for a long time, and so no payments have to be made on the property. "But this is why a lot of ranches are becoming developed [for other uses]--the asset is very valuable, so when one generation dies, and there's not much income being generated, the estate taxes can mean that the ranch has to be sold. A lot of ranchers live off bank loans."

Although she professes to be "full of hope and optimism," Schwennesen believes that to survive she'll have to do more than let cattle eat the scenery. "We intend to be in the resource business," she says. "The cattle will make the payments on this ranch, but there's virtually nothing left to live on or make improvements. So we're going to be doing a bed-and-breakfast kind of thing. We're going to be making a living off of the open spaces the cattle do provide."

She says Double Check Ranch will take on a partner to develop a pasture poultry operation. The Schwennesens run a little packing house on the ranch, direct-selling meat to consumers and selling some to organic-food stores.

"So that's how we're surviving," she says. "Ranchers who're not willing to be creative are an anachronism and can't stay forever."

There's a whole mythology attached to ranching. Think of Louis L'Amour. Zane Grey. The Marlboro Man ads. The heroic outdoorsman taming the land, controlling the forces of nature to make his living. John Wayne. Randolph Scott. The High Chaparral . . .

The way it was. Or, rather, the way it never was.
Going back to the days of the Old West, to the likes of John Slaughter, ranching has been about exploitation. The cowboys employed by the ranchers led lives of bleakness and squalor. Ranchers attained, and retain to this day, undue political influence because they were the major landholders outside the cities, and therefore the major employers in rural areas. In these areas, it was ranchers who opened the gates for large-scale capitalism. The first people to live in an area would be trappers. Then miners. Then farmers. And then there would be ranchers, who brought railroads to rural districts so that cattle could be transported. Once upon a time, ranchers ruled the West.

Not anymore, according to Tucson-based author Greg McNamee, who writes frequently about resource issues. "They now don't have a lot of say, and they hate it," he tells me. "The influential people now are big business and Glendale car dealers."

There are environmentalists who see ranchers as an enemy to be fought and defeated, and in the past decade ranchers have found their property vandalized in acts of "ecotage." McNamee, however, isn't without sympathy for the ranchers' case. "They couldn't survive without subsidy. But pretty much the entire West would collapse if it wasn't for subsidy. And you can go further than that and realize that the country itself depends on subsidy."

So, even though some ranchers may be indulging an expensive hobby, is there any reason they should be denied subsidy when other businesses receive it?

Yes, according to environmentalists, who believe grazing is so damaging to the land that they applied to the State Land Department for grazing leases for the purposes of "unranching"--fencing off the land to keep cows away and let the land recover. The Land Department responded by saying that you can't have a grazing lease if you're not going to graze. The department refused offers from environmentalists of double what the ranchers were paying for the leases.

Then the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest brought a lawsuit on behalf of Arizona's schoolchildren. As State Trust Land is supposed to be used to make the highest possible profit, which benefits schools, it was argued that the department was failing in its duty. And that's how Judge Dann saw it.

The outcome of his ruling is not clear. "It's in the hands of the Legislature," says State Land Commissioner Dennis Wells. "They're working on a piece of legislation to address the court order." The legislation, which is sponsored by Gail Griffin, co-chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, dictates that grazing leases must be advertised, and defines subleases. This is pretty much what Judge Dann ordered.

Bob Yount, director of the Land Department's Natural Resources Division, plays down the threat to the ranchers' livelihood.

"They have had the leases for a long period of time. They are 10-year leases, and they do expire, and they have been renewed, and the ranchers have had control of the land," Yount says. "The judge has said we need to increase the amount of competition we get on our grazing leases. We have to advertise them, and if there's a conflict, we have to have a bidding process. We have to do that so the trust gets more money. We're still talking about using the land for grazing. If someone wants to use it for something else, nongrazing, it would have to be reclassified to a commercial lease, because 'commercial' includes all other uses."

Yount says people are free to apply for reclassification of grazing lands for other uses.

Tim Hogan, the attorney who handled the lawsuit for the Center for Law in the Public Interest, sees it differently.

"The judge decided that the existing system is illegal, and that the state is failing its trust. It's a giveaway of trust land," Hogan says. "Our concern is appropriate use of public trust land, and, in some cases, conservation of the land.

"The situation right now is that there's been an appeal, and that'll drag on for a while. They're trying to fix a bill at the Legislature that will convince the court that they've solved the problem."

If Hogan seems skeptical about the Legislature's ability to address the problem, it's because he's got plenty of experience dealing with lawmakers. He also brought the lawsuit that resulted in the state Supreme Court ruling that Arizona's system of capital school finance is unconstitutional. Twice, the Legislature has claimed to have fixed the school capital finance inequities. Each time, Hogan thought otherwise, and the courts, upon reviewing the legislation, have agreed with him.

Jean Schwennesen has a different concern. "If we didn't have those grazing rights, we couldn't survive."

Although it's difficult not to sympathize with the ranchers, at first it seems just as difficult to defend their position on logical rather than sentimental grounds. Schwennesen affectionately describes her place as "a rural slum."

"We live on a cactus-infested rock pile--but it's our cactus-infested rock pile," she says.

Her commitment to the place is impressive; she and her husband, Eric, live seven miles from the nearest phone, with a lifestyle that makes slum living seem luxurious. Asked why they do it, she says, "Because we like it."

If people are willing to endure such hardship, it may seem churlish to deny them assistance. But is this really more than subsidized camping? If a person's chosen way of life is anachronistic--and, in practical terms, hardly indispensable to society as a whole--should his way of life be given government support just because he likes it?

The societal value of the lifestyle is not obvious when I talk to Jean Schwennesen on the phone. But, when I visit her ranch, one thing becomes very clear . . .

If ranching is to escape being consigned to history, it will be because of people like Jean and Eric Schwennesen.

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.

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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