The Rancher's Revenge

When environmentalists attacked, rancher Jim Chilton used the best ammunition he could find -- and it came from his enemy

After graduating, Chilton earned master's degrees in both political science and economics, worked for the Salt River Project, and was an assistant under U.S. Senator Carl Hayden. He started an investment firm in Los Angeles and did well enough that, he admits, Jamie Lee Curtis was a neighbor.

He didn't get a ranch of his own until 1987, when he purchased a house in a remote part of Pima County, followed by rights to graze cattle on two nearby swaths of land controlled by the Forest Service. He briefly tried to make a go of it as a full-time rancher, but eventually found himself back in Los Angeles on weekdays, tending the ranch and his half-dozen cowboys on the weekends.

He likes to say he's a fifth-generation rancher. His ancestors arrived in Arizona in 1888, and they came driving cattle. (The family ranch, alas, is now underwater at Roosevelt Lake, thanks to the dam built on the Salt River.) But, on the job, he's learned that ranching has changed since the days his grandfather did it.

Kieran Suckling, one of the Center's founders
Kevin Scanlon
Kieran Suckling, one of the Center's founders
Jim and Sue Chilton didn't just win -- they won big 
New Times
Jim and Sue Chilton didn't just win -- they won big money.

Decades ago, it wasn't uncommon for ranchers to put as many cattle on the land as it could support. But today, ranching is science. It's just good business, says C.B. "Doc" Lane, director of natural resources for the Arizona Cattle Growers Association. "The only way a rancher can survive is by taking care of his environment," he says.

And so ranchers develop grazing plans to move cattle from one pasture to another, giving the land recovery time. There's even a formula to determine how many cattle can graze on a certain allotment.

When Chilton bought rights to the Montana Allotment, its previous permit holders had only recently developed a grazing plan, says Duane Thwaits, the Forest Service staffer who supervised ranching for the Nogales district. The land's condition was starting to improve, but it needed time.

Thwaits was impressed with Chilton's dedication. Chilton even flew in the guy who wrote the formula for cattle numbers, Jerry Holecek, hiring him as a consultant. Sue Chilton, who has worked as a bilingual teacher, spent hours walking the allotment with him, taking plant samples and compiling data.

Holecek, a range science professor at New Mexico State University, says he enjoyed being able to "quantitatively document" that grazing could be good for the land. He calls the Montana Allotment's recovery "one of our greatest success stories." He's published several papers detailing that success in research journals.

Chilton's interest in good science wasn't entirely altruistic. As he explains, "I saw what was happening. That's why I hired Holecek."

After all, the availability of scientific techniques isn't the only thing that's changed about ranching. Government regulation has become much more intense -- and that's partly due to the Center for Biological Diversity.

After the Center's success in halting logging in 1995, ranching was next on its agenda. In 1997, it filed suit against the Forest Service, arguing that the agency needed to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to protect endangered species on the allotments under its control. It cited a total of 92 different ranches.

One of them was Chilton's.

It was the first time that Chilton and the Center for Biological Diversity would find themselves involved on opposite sides of a legal issue, although it certainly wasn't the last.

And this suit was, to some extent, a draw. Everyone involved with the suit claims partial success. The Center got Fish and Wildlife involved on the allotments, which meant, finally, someone was paying attention to the species there.

Meanwhile, after years of litigation, the appellate court ruled that ranchers were exempt from the controls of Fish and Wildlife unless the agency could actually demonstrate that there were, indeed, endangered species on their individual allotments. That was a victory for the cattlemen.

But the ruling only helped the Chiltons so much.

The reason? To their great annoyance, the couple had a minnow on their property: the Sonora Chub. A bunch of minnows, in fact. And while the best guess of fish biologists is that the chub is doing okay in Mexico, it only exists in two streams north of the border, including the California Gulch, a small stream that runs through the Chiltons' allotment.

That tiny range was enough to earn the fish a spot on Fish and Wildlife's "threatened" species list. And just like that, protecting it from the Chiltons' cattle became a government concern.

The files documenting the Forest Service's attempts to balance the Chiltons' grazing rights with the chub's protection are several feet high, but the gist is this: The government fenced off one small area of California Gulch in 1997 and another in 1998. And then, in 1999, it proposed fencing off a much larger area along the gulch.

The Chiltons didn't take to that idea happily. When they bought the grazing rights, they believe, they bought the water rights. And their cattle needed it -- without water, they'd have to reduce the number of cattle on the allotment, Chilton says.

So they fought back, sometimes with lawyers, sometimes with letters of their own, as lengthy as they are angry. Once the couple demanded an apology and a retraction after receiving reports that a Forest Service biologist, Jerry Stefferud, said something bad about their grazing practices in a meeting. (Stefferud denies ever saying it.) Another time, the Chiltons penned a nine-page screed against an Arizona Game and Fish employee with a "personal mission to destroy" their ranch.

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