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for people who care about the West

Restoring the West, goat by goat

 

In the early 1990s, Leslie Barclay bought a ranch a half-hour south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was from back East, and like many newcomers to the West with some money and energy, she was romantic about the region and the land. She understood that it wasn't in great shape, but she thought it had great potential.

In other words, she had the same dream that has brought millions of us to the West over the last 150 years.

Before long, she was defeated by the 3,100 acres of arid rangeland she'd taken on. So she sort of looked away from that nearly 5 square miles of ranch for years, sometimes running a handful of cows, hoping it would spontaneously return to life.

She was "resting" it. But in that arid climate, rest was doing no good. Barclay says she came to understand that her land was just another beaten-up piece of Western landscape, of which there are several hundred thousand square miles. She could rest it forever without bringing it back to life.

The presenting symptom, as the doctors say, was thousands of tamarisk, an Asian exotic tree, each of which sucked 200 to 300 gallons of water a day out of the ground. Like skeletons at a feast, these trees line the ranch's Galisteo Creek and five large, dry, man-made lakes.

A bizarre sight on her land is a diving board that sits above one of the lake beds. Barclay was shocked when she ran into a relatively young woman who remembered diving off that board 30 years ago. Those lakes once held water and fish, and going back further, beaver trappers described Galisteo Creek as a narrow and shaded trout stream. Today, the "creek" is as wide and barren as an interstate highway, with only a trickle of water and no fish.

To bring it back to life, the New Mexico Game and Fish agency offered to bulldoze the tamarisk. Clearing the land would allow the grasses to grow and rain and melting snow to soak into the ground. Then the water table would rise, the lakes fill, and Galisteo Creek would flow once again.

At best. And even then, only for a while. Pretty soon, the tamarisk would sprout again, filling the ecological niche that was still empty, waiting for these weedy trees.

Besides, Barclay wanted something she could feel good about. And she didn\'t think she'd feel good about seeing bulldozers root out the tamarisk. She found what she was looking for last winter at a seminar in Pueblo, Colo., when she heard former Wyoming cattle rancher Lani Lamming talk about her 2,000 goats. Lamming said her herds love chewing the limbs of tamarisk and ripping off their bark. The goats' narrow, triangular, tough mouths will devastate even a cholla cactus, and they chew weed seeds so thoroughly, the seeds become fertilizer rather than a source of new plants.

Barclay was convinced, and so in April, Lamming and 604 cashmere goats appeared at Barclay's ranch. Lamming says that if the goats return to the ranch for a few weeks at a time over the next three to five years, the tamarisk will weaken and die. As the tamarisk retreat, the river's and lakesides' grasses and willows and cottonwoods will gradually come back, filling the ecological niche.

Lamming, thanks to her ranching background, makes handling the goats look easy. She knows how to put up the temporary fences to contain the goats until they've trashed the tamarisk. And how to train her Border collies and deploy her burro to protect the goats against their main enemy - dogs.

It takes patience. It takes skill. And it costs 30 cents to $1 per day per goat. Lamming pays her herders well.

So this is not a quick fix. But why should it be? We have spent 150 years, give or take, destroying the West's middle elevations - the land above desert and below alpine characterized by sagebrush and pinon pine and juniper trees and ponderosa pine. This was once the West's working landscape.

We've reduced that landscape to a condition where it's good mainly for ranchettes for ex-urbanites who think desert with small trees and broad washes is "pristine." But here and there, as on Leslie Barclay's ranch, the Old West and the New West come together to try to restore the land to health.

It's a gallant effort.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.