Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.
ALMA, N.M. - Eight years ago, long before the Forest Service signed the agreement to reduce cattle numbers along rivers in the Gila National Forest, Sewell Goodwin voluntarily pulled his 300 cattle off the San Francisco River. With a little help from the agency, Goodwin, now 71, quietly strung barbed wire across a little more than one-eighth of a mile of river, the only section of the Alma allotment not already walled off by the pinkish, rocky bluffs on either side.
Today, a walk along the allotment's 1.5-mile stretch of river takes on a tropical feel: Willows reach 15 feet tall. Cattails and reeds sway in the breeze. Tall grasses overhang the riverbank, making a cool hideaway for fish. Last December, a Forest Service report said that a 1998 survey rated the Alma's riparian condition as "properly functioning," one of the few along the river with that ranking.
Like his allotment, Goodwin himself is something of an anomaly. Unlike many Catron County ranchers, he has never been politically active. "I don't go to a lot of meetings," he says. "I don't want to hear the same talk over and over again." And he says he removed the cattle for their own sake, not to save endangered birds or fish.
"I'm not an environmentalist," Goodwin says. "But I believe in common sense ... I just want to take care of what I got."
Goodwin's decision to protect his riparian area stems from his experience as a young cowboy in southeastern Arizona. Back in the 1940s and '50s, he says, while working around Nogales and Patagonia, he learned that when the Sonoita Creek and Santa Cruz River were open to cattle, the herd would stay there and become ill and weak.
"You would have to move them away on horseback ... You built tanks to draw the cattle from the river," Goodwin recalls. When those rivers were fenced off, and the cattle were forced to exercise in pursuit of upland forage, the problem was eliminated, he says.
He worked on seven Arizona ranches before moving to Catron County. His private land along the river was already fenced, but the federal land in his allotment wasn't, and the same phenomenon occurred: "The cattle would congregate there, they'd sit there, as green feed would come up they would nibble on it. They'd get weak. It makes them lazy."
The river itself looked like most of the rest of the San Francisco: "It was bare. It was just sand and rocks. The (cattle) had it grubbed off," Goodwin recalls.
The district ranger at the time promised to help him fence the river, but was transferred before it could happen. But eventually the Forest Service gave him fencing material and he spent $450 of his own money on labor. To keep his cattle alive, he carved out dirt water tanks on higher ground, up to 10 miles from the river, using solar-powered pumps to pipe the water from wells and springs on his private land.
Today, unlike most of his colleagues, he says he's doing well financially. "I tell you what; I've been in the ranching business for 50 years and I'm still here, and I don't believe in putting eggs in one basket; I've got investments in other things."
Last October, after 10 inches of rain caused a major flood to blow down the river, Goodwin says his allotment looked terrible. Banks were eroded, floodwaters had jumped the banks, leaving behind piled-up brush. In some spots, the river had created new channels; in others, it had flattened cottonwoods. But by this summer, a lot of new trees were coming back, and the river was healing again, a testimony to one man's willingness to change.
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Tony Davis