The ranch restored: An overworked land comes back to life
by Tom Knudson
McDERMITT, Nev. - The Trout Creek Mountains of southeastern Oregon will never rank among America's most magnificent peaks. Although beautiful in their way, the Trout Creeks rise to only 8,000 feet, with summits more plateau than crag, more sagebrush than lichen. In places, canyons in the Trout Creeks are deep and wild. But they are not the grand canyons of the Yellowstone or Colorado, not even the glacier-carved gorges of nearby Steens Mountain.
Nor have the Trout Creeks made a mark in the world of letters. In decades of writing about the West, Wallace Stegner never mentioned them. Stephen Trimble's The Sagebrush Ocean, a natural history of the Great Basin, contains no reference to the range. The Black Rock Desert to the south, Hart Mountain to the west, Steens Mountain to the north - those are the places in this part of the Great Basin that get noticed. The Trout Creeks simply get overlooked.
Perhaps it is the distance. Eight hours by car from Portland, six from Reno, the Trout Creeks are too remote for most weekend campers, too unheralded for most vacations. There are no visitor centers in the range, no developed campgrounds. The Oregon-Nevada border, which slices through the southern edge of the Trout Creeks, amplifies the sense of distance, brings a no-man's-land feeling to the landscape. Part of two states, the Trout Creek Mountains seem not quite connected to either one.
Even the clouds seem to neglect the Trout Creeks. While the ocean-born storms of the Pacific Northwest grow majestic forests and spawn big rivers to the west, they wither over the Trout Creeks and yield a lesser bounty. Streams are of the kind you can step across. They flow not into rivers that run to the sea, but die in shimmering alkali flats. A few shaggy stands of mountain mahogany masquerade as old growth. What moisture does fall keeps a cruel schedule. Most arrives not in the spring as life-giving rain but as winter snowstorms that pass through quickly, followed, often, by numbing cold.
History, too, has not been generous with the Trout Creeks. They have had their Indian battles, military posts and mining strikes. But like winter snows, history happens quickly and moves on.
The one exception is ranching. Ranchers, not miners, brought settlement to the region, and today, a small community of ranchers, some descended from early settlers, remains tethered to the Trout Creeks, moored to the mountain range like ships to a shore.
Today, it is the ranchers who are making the area known beyond its borders, and they are doing it by succeeding where others have failed, by turning adversity into opportunity. Faced with serious obstacles - including a federally protected species on their public grazing allotments, miles of sensitive riparian zones and five federal wilderness study areas - Trout Creek ranchers are not only continuing to graze cattle, they have also negotiated some of the most secure grazing rights in the West. And they have done it not in the customary fashion - with angry words and legal challenges. They have done it by joining with government and conservationists to develop new grazing methods that produce not only hamburger but healthy habitat for fish and wildlife. It is not the kind of drama that grabs Hollywood. But it should. For what is happening is filled with promise for much of the rest of the West.
The reason is simple: More than 150 million acres of federal rangelands are, to varying degrees, overgrazed. More than three-quarters of all riparian areas - moist zones along streams - are overgrazed. Ten years ago, the Trout Creeks would have fit such a description. But today, willow and aspen grow thick along creeks. Lahontan cutthroat trout are on the rebound. Groundwater basins are expanding. The sagebrush that invaded is dying from too much moisture, while perennial grasses proliferate. To stand high in the range and look out across its streams, sparkling like tinsel in the dry days of September, is to look upon a Lazarus landscape back from the dead.
Cultural changes are impressive, too. When ranchers meet with the Bureau of Land Management and conservationists, they arrange themselves in a circle and talk things out. This process has a name: the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group. Things do not always go smoothly. There are times of frustration and disagreement. In 1994, one conservationist left the group in anger. But these days, conflict gets reshaped into rough agreement.
"The Trout Creek Mountains are about the future of ranching in the West," said Doc Hatfield, a central Oregon rancher instrumental in bringing change to the area. "If we can have economics and ecology without trampling property rights or compromising the BLM's obligations to the public, then we've got it in the bag."
Grazing - an old story
The first public warning about overgrazing came in 1902. Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House.
"The public ranges of the region are in many places badly depleted," wrote David Griffiths, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist, in Forage Conditions on the Northern Border of the Great Basin. Traveling from Winnemucca, Nev., to Ontario, Ore., on horseback, Griffiths had visited six Great Basin ranges, including the Trout Creeks. "This is directly traceable to overstocking and it does not appear clear how matters will improve in the near future."
The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which parceled the range into allotments and created the modern BLM, was supposed to stop the damage. It didn't. By the early 1960s, less than 1 percent of the range in the Vale, Ore., BLM district was classified in excellent condition.
So began another dose of federal range reform. Beginning in 1962, the "Vale Project" brought more than 1,800 miles of fence, 574 small reservoirs and over 200,000 acres of crested wheatgrass seeding to southeast Oregon, all aimed at improving the range. While the $14 million-dollar project improved conditions for cows and made ranchers happy, streams continued to degrade.
Consider the following account from Bob Kindschy, a retired BLM wildlife biologist. In 1970 Kindschy was talking with Ted Naftzger, a California businessman and owner of the Whitehorse Ranch on the north side of the Trout Creeks.
"Ted wanted to know what was happening to the trout," Kindschy told me. "Ted was an avid fisherman. But he was seeing fewer and fewer trout. So we put together a horseback trip to check things out.
"We rode 21 miles that first day," Kindschy said. "The hospitality was fabulous. We stayed in a fine bunkhouse with unlimited booze and vittles." The land, however, was not fabulous. "The upper watershed," Kindschy wrote in his journal, "is gullied and in poor condition."
One incident stands out. "We had come to a fence line on Whitehorse Creek," Kindschy said. "Beavers had gotten in there and cut a bunch of willows. On one side of the fence, the stumps had resprouted and were growing like mad. But on the other side, they were just hedged down, just two- or three-inch stubs.
"'Ted,' I said, 'what do you suppose has happened here?'
"'Oh, the beaver got them,' he said.
"I said, 'Yeah, but how come there's growth on one side but not the other?'
"And he said, 'The cows ate ... Oh, I see what you mean.'"
Alarms sounded. Willows were planted. More crested wheatgrass was planted to reduce riparian grazing. Still, cattle roamed the Trout Creek Mountains spring to fall, gathering late in the season in riparian areas. Two decades later, continued overgrazing and drought would trigger even more spectacular damage and give birth to yet another round of range reform.
By the late 1980s, the land was in shock. Streams did not murmur across grassy meadows, as they once had; they gnawed through eroded gulches. The water table crept lower, creating a welcome mat for desert vegetation. What moisture did fall, ran off quickly, repelled by bare ground. And the trout were in danger of extinction.
"We were at 11:59 p.m.," Kindschy said. "It was almost the midnight hour."
It was time for someone to gallop into the Trout Creeks and work a modern miracle. Two people showed up, coming not from the federal government but from common ground, neighboring cattle country to the northwest. They were Doc and Connie Hatfield, a ranch couple known for their innovative marketing of hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and for their belief that a healthy environment and economy go hand in hand (HCN, 12/26/94).
I caught up with the Hatfields at their High Desert Ranch in central Oregon near the town of Brothers on a gray November day. Doc is 60; Connie, 57. They seem younger. The Hatfields have a reputation for forging solutions out of strife. They have spent considerable time on the road, working public-range war zones like a U.N. peacekeeping team.
"The reason I got interested in the Trout Creeks is they were the biggest challenge I could imagine for public-lands grazing - wilderness study areas, a threatened species, huge pastures, deep canyons, limited water, high elevation," Doc tells me. "If you can graze cattle in an ecologically sensitive manner in the Trout Creeks, you can graze them anywhere."
They began with an experience common to many successful efforts - with failure. Doc and Connie, along with Wayne Elmore, a BLM riparian specialist, had been asked to give a talk to Trout Creek ranchers in the border town of McDermitt.
"There were five ranchers sitting on one side of the room. They looked like the toughest, roughest, meanest, crudest ranchers you could imagine," Connie said.
"Wayne was just starting to give his presentation. Immediately, one of the ranchers was very rude. The other ranchers just kind of followed suit. They weren't going to hear or listen. It was a very negative afternoon.
"The next day, we went on a tour of the Trout Creeks with the ranchers - and boy, it didn't look too good. We stopped at a place on Little Whitehorse Creek and there were raw cut banks and one big old aspen, with some life on the top of it, and a couple smaller ones ... And there wasn't anything else, really."
Doc remembers something else. "There were four vans: the BLM van, the rancher van, a multiple-use advisory-board van and the Whitehorse Ranch van. There was no comingling, except for Connie."
"Every time we stopped, I'd get in another van," Connie said. "I would hear grumbling from one van and grumbling from another."
"At the end of the tour Connie sat there and told everybody what everybody else was thinking," Doc said. "And one ranch hand says, "This is the third year we've come out here like this and nothing ever changes." Connie got all upset and said, "You ranchers can't let this continue." "
"I knew, from starting a marketing cooperative, that things can change," said Connie. "As we were driving home, I said to Doc, "We've got to get something going." "
One month later, in July 1988, another meeting was arranged at BLM headquarters in Portland. "We were due to start at two o'clock," Doc said. "The BLM managers, bless their hearts, were on a conference call to the national director in Washington. The call went on and on. Finally, I lost my cool and told the office secretary to get them off the phone. I was just furious. They got off, but they were not happy about it."
What happened next was quintessential Doc and Connie Hatfield.
"We had everyone sit in a big circle," Doc said. "What made a difference was when we began the role-playing exercise. We said: "How would you view this situation if you were the BLM, or an environmentalist, or a public-land rancher or the Whitehorse Ranch?" "
"The BLM's reaction was kind of like, "What is this?" "''''Connie said. "But finally they got into it. With one exception, everyone handled it pretty well."
With that meeting, the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group was born. "The mission was to see that changes occurred so the land would improve," Doc said. "It's critical to understand we invited the BLM," he continues. "The BLM didn't put this on. The working group was - and is - a private collaborative pressure group, just like the Sierra Club or the Oregon Cattleman's Association."
But consensus, not conflict, was its game, and that changed everything. "We made the system work," said Mary Hansen, an Oregon fisheries biologist and working-group member. "If the BLM gets hit up from both sides of a controversy, they won't do anything. But if they see that both sides of a controversy - in this case, ranchers and conservationists - are agreeing and moving forward, they are much more accommodating."
Forming the group was simple. The hard part lay ahead. Under pressure to act quickly (no one wanted to be hit by an Endangered Species Act lawsuit), the Whitehorse Ranch, which grazes the most environmentally sensitive Trout Creek allotment, made a major concession. Beginning in 1989, it stopped all grazing for three years in areas containing cutthroat trout. Seven other ranches made significant changes, too.
Yet it was Whitehorse Ranch manager Britt Lay, who seems a classic cowboy - rough on the surface, suspicious of strangers, a gentleman inside - who had been rude at the McDermitt schoolhouse. It was Lay who couldn't answer the Hatfields' question: "How would you view things if you were an environmentalist?" When I phoned to ask for an interview, Lay was reluctant; he asked me what I thought about the working group. I muttered something positive. Then I asked Lay: "What do you think?"
"I think it's bullshit," he snapped. "But come on out. I'll talk to you."
I rolled in the next day about 12:30 and met Lay at the ranch kitchen. He slid into a chair and lit a cigarette. "Grab some grub," he said.
I ate. Lay talked. "I didn't mean to say the working group is bullshit," he said. "But a lot of this environmental stuff is bullshit. Every time you turn around, you hear ranchers are ruining everything. I certainly don't think we are ruining anything.
"The hardest part is having environmental people, with no clue what they are talking about, come out here and tell us everything we're doing is wrong. Granted, there were mistakes made in the past. Certainly, there was overgrazing from time to time. But like any business, you either get smarter or you don't get anywhere."
So why join the working group?
"You can't survive by butting heads anymore," Lay said. "Without the working group, I think we'd be off the mountain completely."
I asked Lay how such changes affected the ranch's bottom line.
"Bottom line?" he said, raising his eyebrows. "We don't have a bottom line. Our bottom line is way down there." He glanced at the floor. "We're just looking down a well. (Owner Ted Naftzger) paid this place off in 1978," Lay continued. "If he hadn't, we'd be in deep shit. We're in decline, is the best way to put it. You've heard the joke about ranching, haven't you? You know the easy way to get to be a millionaire in this business? Start as a billionaire.
"Ted doesn't have the corporate attitude that if your bottom line is not in the black, you sell out. He believes in sticking it out. He has told me many times that his goal is to leave the land here in better shape than he found it."
While the mountain rested, the working group worked - mapping out a long-term grazing strategy. Things did not go smoothly. "For the first few years, it was not a working group," Lay said. "It was a shouting, screaming and arguing group."
Kathi Myron, a conservation member who eventually left the working group, said she was treated shabbily in the early days. "After a cattle trespass incident in 1988, I brought some of my concerns up to the group and had my concerns minimized. I was subjected to out-and-out mocking," she said.
But the Hatfields persisted. The key seems to have been their imaginary round table - the circular gathering with which each session begins and ends. "How do you feel about being here?" Doc or Connie would ask. "What is your vision for the future of the Trout Creek mountains?"
"Some of this stuff sounds almost corny, but it works," said Kindschy. "But by getting out and standing in a circle, pawing the soil with your boot, sharing your worst fears and your expectations, you begin to see and appreciate the other person's viewpoint. You become a team."
In 1990, the group agreed on a grazing strategy. No longer, they concluded, could the Trout Creeks tolerate intensive, April to October grazing. Instead, livestock should be limited to two months in pastures with sensitive riparian zones, no grazing should be allowed in riparian pastures after July 15 (when cattle start to turn their attention from grass to willows), and many areas should be rested - like fallow farmland - after periods of heavy use. That meant ranchers would have to better manage their own land at the base of the range. It was a dramatic departure from traditional Western grazing operations. The BLM took the suggestions and shaped them into a long-term grazing plan for the Trout Creeks.
One year later, another tremor rocked the mountains. After years of uncertainty, Trout Creek native trout were formally recognized as Lahontan cutthroats, a threatened species. That brought in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But that agency, too, after some fine-tuning, approved the grazing plan.
After the three-year rest, grazing resumed in 1992. "That was the key," Doc Hatfield said. During the seventh year of the worst drought in Oregon history, cows were turned out onto the mountain, into allotments with watersheds containing Lahontan cutthroat trout. "The thing that's keeping those ranches on the mountain is that endangered fish," Doc said. "Those are the securest grazing permits in Oregon. They've gone through the bureaucratic and legal process - and the process is bulletproof.
"They don't have to worry about whether they are going on the mountain next year," he said. "It would pretty near take an act of Congress to blow them out of there."
But that doesn't stop ranchers from grumbling. "It has made it a lot more difficult to operate," said Fred Wilkinson. "At one time, cattle moved a lot on their own. There was no set date when you had to move them up into the mountain, or move them out. In the old days, they wouldn't leave the mountain until October. Now we have to get them out by Aug. 1."
Like other ranchers, Fred Wilkinson and his son, Nick, have seen their operations pared back more than they would like. "You just keep getting stepped down the ladder all the time," Nick said. "If I came in and cut your retirement fund in half, would you like it?
"But don't let us get you wrong," Nick continued. "Things have worked all right. It might not be easy to operate. But it's as good as we can get. No one has closed up shop. If it hadn't been for the working group - and Doc and Connie - and people thinking positive, I think all these places would have been shut down."
"Consensus is not kind and gentle," Doc said. "Consensus is agreeing not to agree on a lot of things, but working together on the things you can agree upon.
"I always thought you got married and lived happily every after," Doc continued. "I was frustrated for the first 25 years when that didn't occur. Then I finally learned you have to work at it and everything isn't peace and harmony. It's about confronting the real problems that arise and finding solutions. The same is true for a working group."
Few people, though, quibble about Trout Creek riparian areas. They're looking great. That was apparent on last year's tour, which began along Willow Creek on publicly owned allotments used by the Whitehorse Ranch. From March 16 to April 30, 871 cattle grazed the area. But you wouldn't know it by looking at Willow Creek. It was a riot of vegetation and alive with cutthroat trout.
Years ago, "there were virtually no fish in this lower region. The creek was deeply incised," retired BLM biologist Kindschy said to the group. "The water was hot in the summer and often of low quantity because of the Safeway parking lot-style run-off.
"Now it's a sponge," he said. "It's holding water. It's releasing it slowly. You've got a lot of shade. There is increased sinuosity in the stream, which dissipates energy and causes sediment deposition. Everything is working as we thought it might. To see this come back is really gratifying."
Jerry Taylor, a BLM area manager, pointed out a small fenced area - called an "exclosure' - from which cattle had been excluded for a quarter-century. Vegetation outside the fence, accessible to cattle, was as lush as inside. The soil was soggy. As the water table rose higher, sagebrush was dying out.
"Grazing certainly can occur," Taylor said. "The question is timing and duration. This is early season use and short duration. We could stock a lot of cows, as long as we get them out in time for regrowth to occur."
Higher up, we came to a dramatic recovery site - a place called the Pole Patch on Little Whitehorse Creek. "Holy cow!" said Tom Miles, a BLM range specialist, as he caught a glimpse of the area. "This place has gone bananas. It's getting to be an impenetrable forest down there."
We sat down for lunch amid thick grass. "When I first came here in 1990, this spot was solid dirt," Miles said. "It was literally a dust bowl. Now, a good portion of what we're sitting on is perennials.
"The exciting thing is that young aspen are able to grow, whereas before, they were constantly getting beat down because the cows would eat the grass and then go for the aspens. We didn't know any better," Miles continued. "This riparian stuff is relatively new. I remember doing range surveys in the late "70s and early "80s, and riparian areas were sacrifice areas. You didn't even look at them."
In December, I asked Rose Strickland, a Sierra Club grazing activist, what she thought of the Trout Creeks. "I'm happy with a lot of things," she said. "What blew me away, the last time I was there, was that in one square yard, there were 10 or 12 Great Basin grasses - with their seedheads! When you see that, something is happening right.
"Some conservationists are convinced you can't have decent conditions on public lands with grazing, that grazing will never be properly managed," Strickland said. "And on their side is the history of public-lands grazing.
"I can see that in certain places, like the Trout Creeks, grazing can occur. But I can count the number of those situations on the fingers of one hand in Nevada. Good public-land management is still the exception, not the rule."
On the range tour, we continued to a promontory, overlooking half of southeast Oregon. The Hatfields were not there, but their presence was. Cowboys, conservationists and BLM folks gathered into a circle. This was the end of the tour. One by one, people started talking.
"The key to success is taking away the argument of the other side. The success demonstrated here takes that argument away," said Edwin Singleton, manager of the Vale, Ore., BLM district. "We get almost no requests for information on the Trout Creeks from anybody in an adversarial position, because they know it's working."
"It's been four or five years since I've been here," said Dan Heinz, a Nevada conservationist. "There are four or five times more willows in the bottoms of the creeks. We're getting some resilience built into the system, and that's encouraging."
"I really enjoyed the trip today," said rancher Evan Zimmerman. "It looked really fine, especially the Pole Patch. It looked so bad when we first started."
Tom Knudson is a Pulitzer Prize winner who writes for the Sacramento Bee in Truckee, California.
You can contact ...
* Doc and Connie Hatfield, 541/576-2455;
* Jerry Taylor, BLM, 541/473-3144;
* Bob Kindschy, BLM, retired, 541/473-2590;
* Rose Strickland, 702/329-6118.© High Country News