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.
Montezuma Well is a large, deep pool formed after a limestone cavern collapsed eons ago. The site became an important year-round oasis for prehistoric cultures that inhabited the Verde Valley.
Sinagua Indians tapped into the well's outlet more than 1,200 years ago and built a canal to irrigate nearby fields. Remnants of the canal system remain intact. Not surprisingly, the site plays a pivotal role in Native American religions.
The ancestors to the Yavapai Indians--who still live in the area--believed the Earth was first inhabited by people who ascended through the bottom of the cavern before it filled with water.
The area is also ecologically unique. The forest corridor along Wet Beaver Creek is suitable habitat for two endangered birds--the peregrine falcon and the southwest willow flycatcher--two endangered fish and more than three dozen threatened species. A pair of peregrine falcons is routinely sighted in the area. The falcon is one of the few endangered species in Arizona whose population is significantly increasing.
More than 180 species of birds have been identified within the monument's boundary, with only 23 percent living there year-round. Most of the birds use the area as a migratory stop.
Javelinas, foxes, coyotes and white-tailed deer also frequent the monument's creekside habitat. None, however, has the impact of the cattle. Cattle overgrazing denudes grasslands, compacts soils, erodes streamside banks, crushes young tree saplings and pollutes the water with cryptosporidium, a virus that can be fatal to humans with suppressed immune systems.
The Park Service has not done an environmental review of the forest stretching along Wet Beaver Creek within the monument. But reports prepared by the Forest Service on the impact of cattle grazing just outside the monument's boundary conclude that the land is severely overgrazed.
"Range and watershed conditions are poor on most of the allotment. Vegetation is in a downward trend," says a 1995 Forest Service environmental assessment of Webb's allotment.
The impact of the cattle appears to be equally severe on the adjacent national monument. Cattle have such free rein inside the monument that they frequently drink from the historic canal leading from the base of the well--eroding the canal's steep banks and defecating in the water.
Instead of taking steps to reduce the impact of the cattle, the Park Service and the Forest Service are, according to their own records, encouraging further degradation by refusing to stand up to one man and a handful of cattle.
Paul Webb's private property includes a spring-fed cienaga. The spring once filled a swimming pool that was a favorite of guests during the dude-ranch days; now the pool is overgrown with reeds.
There is additional water from the portions of Wet Beaver Creek and Walker Creek that run through the Soda Springs Ranch, but not enough feed to support Webb's cattle for long periods.
Webb's 20 or so cows may seem like a small herd, and his 150 acres may seem like a lot of land to urban dwellers. But the cow-to-acre ratio on Webb's ranch is very high for the desert-scrub land in the upper Verde Valley.
The state Land Department recommends about six head of cattle per 640 acres on its grazing land in the Verde Valley. The high number of cattle and the low carrying capacity of the land make it all but inevitable that Webb's cattle will look far and wide for forage.
Webb obtains additional forage through a grazing permit with the Forest Service for 309 acres of mostly high-desert scrub and grasses adjacent to his ranch.
Webb's base property, even when combined with the Forest Service grazing allotment, is still incapable of providing enough forage for the cattle. But a free supplemental source of food and water is just next door, at Montezuma Well National Monument.
The monument was created in 1943 by an act of Congress. It was expanded in 1959 to include private lands owned by Webb and his late wife. The couple refused to sell a portion of the Soda Springs Ranch that was within the monument's boundary to the federal government.
This piece of property inside the monument is the gateway that Webb uses to let his cattle into the creek's riparian corridor, which extends for nearly a mile through Montezuma Well National Monument. The cattle roam from his private land, across the creek and onto the monument's riparian stretch, unfettered by fences that have been pulled down or destroyed by floods.
The staff of Montezuma Well National Monument has given up trying to maintain fences along the creek, because periodic flooding shreds them. Instead, the Park Service has erected a fence hundreds of feet from the creekside, on a slightly higher plain less prone to flooding.
Moving the fence away from the park's boundary is a grazing windfall for Webb.
"There is no advantage to him to exclude his cows from the riparian area," says Kathy Davis, natural resource specialist for the National Park Service operations in Arizona. "He is getting better forage. It's a bummer."
Montezuma Well Superintendent Henderson says there is little he can do but sacrifice part of the monument's land to Webb's cattle. Maintaining fences to keep the cattle out would be expensive, and stray wire fencing could pose a threat to wildlife during floods, he says.
"We have tried with our fencing to exclude them as best we can from the majority of the park," Henderson says.
But others--including National Park Service officials--say Henderson is simply failing to utilize the tools at his disposal to prevent Webb's cattle from illegally grazing on the national monument. It is the rancher's responsibility to keep the cattle from entering the monument, not the monument's duty to fence them out, Park Service officials say.
Jim Walters, the grazing administrator for the National Park Service, says Henderson could cite Webb for the illicit grazing or even impound his cattle to encourage him to keep the cows at home.
"It would behoove the park superintendent to try to work out an arrangement to keep these cows out," Walters says.
Joe Fellar, an ASU law professor and expert on Western grazing issues, says Henderson is taking the timid approach to dealing with trespassing cattle.
"That guy [Webb] is violating federal law and he ought to be busted for it," Fellar says.
But ranchers wield greater political power than their numbers would suggest, as shown by their ability to stall attempts by the Clinton administration to increase federal grazing fees and reduce overgrazing. Political pressure on federal range managers often makes them reluctant to pursue cattle trespassing on public lands.
With the political winds clearly blowing in Webb's direction, and because the monument staff generally leaves him alone, the rancher is able to claim ignorance when asked about his cattle's impact on Montezuma Well.
"They have an office over there at the [monument] entrance," Webb says. "That's where they work. They let people go in there, they look around, they walk out, and they have a gate, and they open and close it.
"They have certain hours that it's open, and I don't have anything to do with it."
Early last year, the Forest Service had an opportunity to cancel Paul Webb's grazing permit and allow the land he leases from the federal government time to recover from overgrazing. The agency was requested to do just that during a public review of the permit.
The Forest Service has known since at least 1991 that Webb's allotment was overgrazed and in unsatisfactory condition. In 1991, the Forest Service also documented Webb's cattle trespassing on neighboring ranches.
During the review period that spanned the first nine months of 1995, Forest Service biologists concluded that the allotment's ecosystem could support further light grazing of no more than three cows for three winter months.
But biologists repeatedly stated that their conclusion was based on strict adherence to the permit. If more than three cattle grazed in the winter months or if cattle grazed on the land into the spring, there would be serious damage, particularly to the riparian areas.
The biologists noted that Webb has failed to maintain his fences in the past, allowing cattle to overgraze the allotment in the early spring.
"It is imperative that these fences are quickly maintained," the biologists warned.
Despite clear evidence that Webb was incapable or unwilling to maintain his fences, repeated instances of Webb's cattle trespassing and the declining condition of the Forest Service property, the agency not only renewed Webb's grazing permit last month, it did something unprecedented.
Coconino National Forest Supervisor Fred Trevey says he issued Webb a lifetime permit because of his age and the contribution made by Webb's "pioneer family to the Verde Valley area."
Environmentalists were shocked by the lifetime permit. "I have never, ever heard of such a thing," says Tempe environmentalist Jeff Burgess. "How can the Forest Service give him a lifetime permit?"
Not even the Forest Service could answer that question.
Gerald Henke, director of rangeland management for all Forest Service operations in Arizona and New Mexico, says he's never heard of a lifetime grazing permit being issued.
"It is not the policy or the regulation of the Forest Service to issue a grazing permit for more than ten years," Henke says.
The lifetime permit also called for the Forest Service to closely monitor Webb's grazing practices. But no one from the Forest Service bothered to check to see if Webb's cattle were off Forest Service land at the end of January 31, as required under the permit.
Cattle that appeared to belong to Webb were observed grazing on Forest Service land in February and March.
The lack of federal oversight of Webb's grazing practices doesn't stop with the Forest Service.
Before issuing the lifetime permit, the Forest Service held several public meetings and issued reports for public comment. No one from Montezuma Well National Monument attended the meetings or presented written comments concerning cattle trespassing onto the monument.
In fact, Superintendent Henderson says he wasn't aware that Webb's Forest Service grazing permit was up for renewal. Henderson says he was never asked by the agency for his input.
"I think we should have probably been asked, but I was not," Henderson says.
There is a reason the Forest Service should have notified the Park Service about the permit hearing. In 1970, the two agencies signed an agreement that calls for them to meet whenever necessary to "review the status of the environmental quality" of the monument.
Webb's inability to control his cattle is not only damaging a fragile streamside habitat, but also threatening human lives.
Webb also grazes cattle on a 383-acre plot he owns in Camp Verde known as Finney Flat, located a few miles from the Soda Springs Ranch. Since January of this year, his cattle have roamed off this property and throughout the area, wandering down public highways and breaking down fences on a neighbor's hay farm.
The Camp Verde Marshal's Office has received 40 calls since January 1 about loose cattle on Montezuma Highway and cattle trespassing on private property.
On March 5, the almost inevitable happened.
Sharon Lee Neill was returning home from work down Montezuma Castle Highway around 7 p.m.
"I was just driving home and this cow ran out into the road," she says. "I never even saw it until impact."
Her 1990 LeBaron was totaled, the passenger side crushed by the collision with a pregnant cow, which was killed.
The automobile accident was the second collision with one of Webb's cows this year. The first collision caused $1,000 damage to a police vehicle responding to a report of stray cattle on the roadway.
Neill's accident spurred Camp Verde Town Marshal John Wischmeyer to put some pressure on Webb.
Wischmeyer has prepared a criminal public nuisance complaint that claims the cattle pose a dangerous threat to the community. Webb hasn't been formally charged, because he removed the cattle from Finney Flat soon after Neill's collision.
Webb says people are making a big deal out of a common ranching problem. Cattle, he says, are inclined to roam.
"That's the nature of a cow. She always thinks it's greener over the fence," Webb says. "Once in a while, one gets out. That's nothing new. Anybody who has a bunch of cows knows this is kind of a normal operation."
Nevertheless, the Camp Verde turmoil has made an impression on Webb.
"He knows he has to move his cattle out," his friend Don Gunnell says.
Webb has his 383 acres in the heart of Camp Verde up for sale; he's asking $5.7 million. If the property sells, Webb would get a share of the proceeds out of his late wife's estate, Gunnell says.
Webb's free hand with the Forest Service at the Soda Springs Ranch also appears to be waning, despite his lifetime grazing permit. After years of turning a blind eye to Webb's operations, the Forest Service is beginning to pay closer attention.
Four days after signing the permit early last month, Webb received written notice from the Forest Service that he was failing to comply with fence-maintenance requirements.
The Forest Service warned that unless the fences were repaired by April 1, Webb's grazing permit would be in jeopardy.
Repairing long stretches of fencing is not an easy task for anyone, let alone an 84-year-old man. And Webb prefers to work alone, with friends lending only an occasional hand.
One Forest Service employee predicted that Webb's ranching days would soon be over.
"It appears his time has finally come," says Forest Service range conservationist Ken Vensel.
But Webb is not packing up just yet.
The required fences were back up on April 1.
After more than 50 years of ranching, Paul Webb is still firmly in the saddle.
And all indications are that Henderson, the superintendent of Montezuma Well National Monument, plans to do nothing to protect the national monument from Webb's cattle but wait for Webb to stop ranching, or die.
"I don't see any changes within the short term," Henderson says. "Certainly, over the long term, the situation will improve.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- The Time Jared from Subway Hit On Me
Sat., Sep. 12, 6:00pm
Sat., Sep. 12, 8:00pm
Sun., Sep. 13, 1:05pm
Mon., Sep. 14, 6:40pm
- Ecologist Dies on Rugged Grand Canyon Trail After Falling in Gully
- Arizona's Measles Vaccination Rate Worst in Nation, CDC Says