EVEN "GOOD"COWBOYS ARE A TARGET | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona


Rancher Troy Neal talks more like an ecologist than a land baron as he surveys the 76 Ranch, his 24,000-acre spread in the Zane Grey country near Payson. "We have to take care of the land, or it won't take care of us," he says, gazing up at the 6,200-foot...
Share this:

Rancher Troy Neal talks more like an ecologist than a land baron as he surveys the 76 Ranch, his 24,000-acre spread in the Zane Grey country near Payson. "We have to take care of the land, or it won't take care of us," he says, gazing up at the 6,200-foot peak that marks the center of his grazing allotment. The Sierra Anchas range crowds around the peak, its muscular features hiding--from a distance, at least--the insidious damage done to the land by a hundred years of overgrazing. "It's hard to rectify damage that's been done over time; it takes time for the land to heal. It's our responsibility to help it do that."

But good intentions weren't enough to prevent him from becoming a target of ecotage, the newest "range war" to hit Arizona. In fact, two years ago Neal's remote ranch was vandalized shortly after he extended a cordial invitation to a crowd of antigrazing demonstrators to come and see the changes he had made to resuscitate the depleted land. Neal had encountered the demonstrators on his way into a cattlegrowers convention in Benson and decided to try talking things over with them. No one responded to his offer.

But two weeks later, someone destroyed a quarter mile of Neal's fence, using a technique described in detail in Earth First! leader Dave Foreman's book, Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. The fence bordered a small enclosure, one of several experimental sites on which Neal closely monitors plant regrowth. Cutting the fence opened the way for cattle to invade the protected area and devour the protected range.

"The [vandals] walked along, stopping every few feet to cut all four strands of barbed wire, just totally destroyed it," Neal recalls. "Usually, if it's a hiker or someone on an ATV, they'll just cut one spot so they can get through." He says he hasn't the slightest idea who did it.

Multiple fence-cutting is one of four techniques to harass ranchers recommended in Ecodefense, which admonishes monkeywrenchers at the same time to pick their targets carefully. "Despite the negative aspects of the livestock industry, many ranchers are decent folks," Foreman writes. "In Montana and Wyoming, particularly, there are ranchers who support Wilderness, oppose predator control, and have a deep and abiding respect for the land . . . Unfortunately, they are the exception. But the monkeywrencher must make absolutely certain that the intended target of grazing ecotage fully deserves it."

Suitable targets might include vocal Sagebrush Rebellion leaders, ranchers who practice wholesale slaughter of predators and "egregious overgrazers," Foreman adds. In Troy Neal's case, the monkeywrenchers ignored that part of Foreman's advice.

Of the dozen or so recent incidents of suspected Earth First! vandalism-- from the slaughter of breeding bulls to the destruction of windmills--only two were aimed at outspoken defenders of grazing. And, ironically, none of the incidents targeted the architects of the year's most notorious insults to the environment: two ranchers responsible for the slaughter of an elk herd near Prescott, and the lingering death of several bears trapped near Aravaipa and left to rot. If the vandals had bothered to check out Neal first, they would have found a rancher who sympathizes with the goal of a healthy environment and doesn't try to defend the industry's past mistakes. Neal has instituted sweeping reforms, acting on the advice of a management committee that includes two environmentalists, since taking charge of his ranch seven years ago.

"I gotta admit it, I was really cussin'," Neal says of the fence-cutting incident. "I felt if they really knew why this fence is here, they'd realize it's protecting the range. But if you can't see people, you can't talk about it." He smiles sheepishly at the memory of his anger. Neal is, at that moment, a perfect example of the shy, handsome cowboy who so frustrates grazing critics armed with nothing but reams of statistics. The statistics show a glaring disparity between the amount of land devoted to ranching, and the economic return from it, yet the cowboys have won the public relations war going away, environmentalists acknowledge.

"People not only like cowboys, they deify them," fumes Dan Daggett of the Sierra Club. "How many of the hundreds of people you see riding around in pickup trucks and cowboy hats are really cowboys? Yet, you challenge the right of ranching to dominate the land and they act like you're trying to unbutton their 501s and get after 'em with the scissors. That tells you something about public opinion, doesn't it?"

The public also wants a healthy environment, and even the ever-popular cowboys are beginning to understand that, notes Dave Stuart, range and wildlife management staff officer for Tonto National Forest. Some of Arizona's most overgrazed territory lies within the forest. "A decade ago, only 10 percent of the cattlegrowers were cooperative in efforts to correct overgrazing, but now about 70 percent are actively pursuing that approach," Stuart says. Troy Neal, he adds, exemplifies the new breed of ranchers.

Neal's efforts to restore the land are cited by forestry officials as being among the most progressive and enlightened on the Tonto, where most of the 76 Ranch is located. Healthy new growth carpets the once-barren streambanks and sandbars of Tonto and Rye Creeks, which flow through Neal's ranch. Beaver and other rare wildlife have begun to reappear.

Neal may typify the new breed, but that doesn't mean he's typical of most in the industry, either.

For one thing, most ranchers don't jet off several times a month to teach time-management seminars for IBM and other corporate managers, which Neal does to help pay off the ranch mortgage. And how many ranchers make Spanish/English tape recordings to help the foreign-born ranch hands improve their language skills?

Neal is a full-time rancher, intent on running a self-sustaining economic operation. But he's the first to admit his background is eclectic in comparison to most old-time ranchers.

Neal, 52, grew up in Willcox, a ranching center in southeastern Arizona. His father owned a service station, making him a townie, but many of his relatives were ranchers. "I spent a lot of time on their ranches, helping out in the summer and during vacation, so I was familiar with the life," Neal says. But he did not aspire to join them.

"Oh, no, not me," Neal says. "I was headed for the city. I wanted the bright lights." He had one advantage over the average kid from a hick town; he was gifted enough in athletics to pay his way through Arizona State University on scholarships. The time was the late Fifties; the country was between wars and jocks were the unchallenged heroes on high school and college campuses.

For the following two decades after graduation, Neal coached high school basketball and developed several business ventures, which evolved into a busy public-speaking career. He met his wife Judy, a Midwesterner, when both were teaching high school phys ed classes.

The Neals raised three children while living in the Phoenix area, but decided to try ranching once the kids were grown. "I guess you could say I couldn't decide what I wanted to be when I grew up," he says of the change. The pair both loved the outdoors and, being athletic, weren't discouraged at the prospect of ranching's hard, physical side.

The 76 Ranch seemed perfect for their needs. Tucked away down a back road about two hours northeast of Phoenix, the ranch is comprised of a couple hundred acres of private land and a national forest grazing allotment covering 36 sections of mountainous terrain. The ranch house clings to a cliff overlooking the confluence of Tonto and Rye Creeks.

The Neals added a wraparound porch, faced with river rock. A tidy vegetable garden grows on a sunny terrace of land below the house. A hand-carved sign once greeted visitors to the ranch, but some campers tore it down and used it for firewood a few years back. The ranch entrance has been unmarked ever since.

When it came time to draw up a ranch management plan, the Neals naturally gravitated toward Holistic Resource Management, an approach that differs radically from traditional ranching. "Holism is managing the range as a whole ecosystem," Neal explains. "The deer, the rattlesnakes, they're all part of it and you, as the manager, have to appreciate their roles.

"A while back we pulled up a cattleguard and bullsnakes just started coming out in every direction," he says. "Now, the natural impulse is to start shooting, but I told everybody to let 'em alone because they do a job, they play a part.

"I won't shoot a rattlesnake; they're needed because the javelina eat them," he says. "That took some doing to change on my part, because I was born and raised in southeastern Arizona and all my life, any time you saw a rattler on the road you'd shoot it. It was just automatic."

Neal says he likes the diversity of views a rancher is required to seek as part of running an operation under the HRM philosophy. He discusses everything with a volunteer advisory committee established to help him manage the ranch. Among its members are a Sierra Club member and ASU riparian ecologist Robert Ohmart, for years one of Arizona's most outspoken critics of overgrazing.

Ohmart says he is impressed by what he has seen of the Neals and their impact on the land. "The Neals are very open, very honest," Ohmart says. "I think I can honestly say there's been an improvement in riparian [streamside] areas on their allotment, and on several others on the Tonto where progressive ranchers have taken over."

Ohmart concurs with Stuart that genuine reform has come to the Tonto, long Arizona's most devastated national forest because of overgrazing. "Compared with ten years ago, I'm much happier with the condition of the Tonto--not satisfied, but much happier," he says. "Of course, one of the big problems is that no matter what Troy and Judy do, you probably won't see a permanent improvement until everyone on the watershed starts using HRM, because the protection of streamsides depends upon the capacity of the hillsides to hold water." It took Troy and Judy Neal the better part of a day's work to fix the mangled fence. Since then, Neal has expanded his experiment with Holistic Resource Management undaunted, but a little saddened, that his critics have yet to take him up on his invitation to sit down and talk.

"I felt if they really knew why this fence is here, they'd realize it's protecting the range. But if you can't see people, you can't talk about it."

"People not only like cowboys, they deify them," fumes Dan Daggett of the Sierra Club.

"I won't shoot a rattlesnake; they're needed because the javelina eat them."


Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.