The 'New Ranch' poster child hangs on by a thread

  • During a long, dry winter, Jim Williams shows the willow erosion barriers built in a Quivira Coalition workshop

    Michael Berman
  • John Horning, director of Forest Guardians, says Quivira Coalition isn't addressing the basic question about grazing in the arid Southwest: whether it's even appropriate

    Michael Berman
  • Jim Thorpe: Jim and Carol Thorpe bought their ranch in the late 1990s, after their family business - a lodge in Santa Fe - collapsed. The ranch is in broken mesa lands in eastern New Mexico, about halfway between Santa Rosa and Tucumcari, and, says Jim, 'about 150 miles from the nearest mall.' Since they started using rotational grazing methods, the couple has seen grasses and other forage spread, eroded areas stabilize, and wildlife, including wild turkeys, increase. 'It's some of the best cattle country in the world, when it rains,' Jim says.

    Michael Berman
  Jim Williams steps out of his small, brown, wooden ranch house, and glances out over the shrub-dotted grasslands he has called home for all of his 61 years. Despite the pelting early-spring snow, the land looks sparse. Short and scraggly clumps of blue grama grass poke up along the dirt roads that slice through Williams’ private land and the Agua Fria grazing allotment he leases on the Gila National Forest.

Williams is a grizzled, dark-haired man, who walks around hooked to an oxygen tank because of emphysema from a one-time cigarette habit. He has plenty to be unhappy about: It is now year five of a drought, and his cattle herd is down to 130 head, from 230 a decade ago.

"I always said we could survive almost anything except a drought," he says.

Yet Williams sounds contented as he drives across the high mountain mesas. Beef prices, in free-fall for many years, are high again. Better breeding and new grazing practices allow him to produce market-ready calves 150 pounds heavier than his father could raise a generation ago. Best of all, Williams can see the light at the end of a very long bureaucratic tunnel.

Ten years ago, his federal landlord, the U.S. Forest Service, cut two-and-a-half months out of his grazing season. The agency’s range scientists felt the land couldn’t support cattle year-round. The cut crippled Williams economically and sent him to the courts to fight the agency.

Then, in 1998, when things looked bleakest, he discovered the Quivira Coalition. Williams changed his management philosophy, the way he grazed cattle, and, in effect, his life. Today, seven years and many meetings later, things have improved so much that the Forest Service may allow his cows back on the public land year-round.

"I’ve sat in the litigation chair (with the Forest Service) where feelings were so bad, we were barely on speaking terms," Williams says. "Now, we are in the chair where we are working things out and getting things done. I damned sure would rather be there."

It is hard to say how Williams’ case will turn out. Restoring land to health, especially in the drought-prone Southwest, is a slow, arduous process, and scientists disagree about the land’s carrying capacity. But a lot of eyes are watching Williams, who has become the "New Ranch" movement’s poster child.

Williams’ story

Starting in the 1940s, the Williams family ran two herds of cows separately, one on their private land, the other on the public land. Then, in the early 1990s, environmentalists sued the Forest Service for failing to analyze the impacts of grazing, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. In 1995, the agency abruptly announced that it would try to scrutinize 4,000 allotments across the West in a year.

The verdict on Williams’ allotment was not good: According to the Forest Service, it lacked adequate cool-season grasses — obscure but highly important varieties, such as western wheat, Indian rice grass, foxtail and mountain muhly, that grow during the spring, when temperatures are chilly at 8,000 feet. As a result, the agency slashed his grazing season from year-round to nine and a half months.

Williams took the agency to court as part of a class action suit filed by Catron County. The county lost.

"It wasn’t the cut so much that bothered me as the choices they gave me," Williams told Quivira last year. "They only gave me two: a straight reduction in numbers, or less time on the forest. There was no flexibility in management, or anything. It was their way or the highway."

Then, in July 1998, Williams and his wife, Joy, attended a Quivira Coalition workshop in neighboring Pietown. Impressed with the group’s nonconfrontational approach, the Williamses invited Quivira to tour their ranch. A few months later, with Quivira acting as intermediary, Williams sat down with Forest Service officials in search of a compromise.

The first thing the team did was put the Williams Ranch on a map, recalls Quivira director Courtney White. When topographic maps were pinned to a large sheet of plywood, Williams, for the first time in his life, had a bird’s-eye view of his whole ranch, which is half public and half private.

Williams and the Forest Service agreed to manage the public and private lands as a single unit. They wanted to get the land back to the point where it could sustain year-round grazing.

The group worked out a grazing plan that divided the land into 18 pastures. Each year, each pasture would be grazed at a different time of year, and each pasture would then be rested for nine to 14 months. Previously, Williams had used a rotation system, but he left his cattle longer in each pasture and brought them back as often as every six months.

The new system reduced the total grazing pressure on both private and public lands, according to Forest Service range staff member John Pierson. Cattle grazed the main riparian area along Largo Creek mostly during the dormant months of fall and winter, and only briefly during the growing season.

"It wasn’t really all that hard," Williams says of creating the plan. "It was getting with other people and working it out."

Now, twice a year, Pierson, Williams and Quivira consultant Kirk Gadzia visit the pastures together, to study the plants’ vigor, the amount of bare ground and the composition of the entire plant community. Despite the drought, Pierson says that the land has recovered enough since 2000 that it ought to be able to support a 12-month grazing season. A formal decision to that effect is two years away, following another detailed environmental analysis.

Dueling scientists

Williams did more than move his cattle around. At Largo Creek, he cleared 300 acres of piñon and juniper trees to make room for grass. Trees and grasses along the creek quickly started to return, he says, but they largely disappeared once the drought caused the creek to dry up.

The Quivira Coalition and a retired Forest Service biologist helped Williams corral volunteers, including "at-risk" youth, to lay weirs, baffles and other structures into a quarter-mile stretch of Loco Creek, a heavily eroded tributary to Largo. The goal was to "re-meander" the 30-foot-wide creek and slow the water down, so more grass and riparian plants will establish themselves, reducing erosion and creating a new floodplain.

Still, not everyone agrees with Forest Service assessments that Williams’ allotment could be ready to resume a year-round regime.

In late March, Guy McPherson, a University of Arizona ecologist and range scientist, toured Agua Fria, along with Jim Williams, Courtney White and Forest Service officials. McPherson was once a Quivira backer, but he’s turned skeptical. He spent three hours cruising three pastures on Williams’ private land and national forest allotment. And while he complimented Williams on his stream restoration and forest-thinning work, he had serious reservations.

Grazing this kind of land is unsustainable, particularly during prolonged droughts, McPherson said. What really struck him was how short the grasses were — seldom an inch tall, when they should be four to six inches.

"(Williams) is swimming upstream," McPherson said. "This is a dry, unforgiving environment. When you graze, you interfere with natural processes, most notably the fire regime and hydrology. Your cattle trails and roads are all sources of erosion."

Williams said that the group would see significantly higher and thicker grass after two good seasons of rain: "You’d be amazed what we can produce in a good year." He took offense to McPherson’s assertion that grazing is unsustainable, "but when you listen to the rest of it, he’s right."

A month later, some new tests brought unexpected results: Samples of Williams’ Agua Fria allotment showed healthier land than samples of an ungrazed plot of national forest land across a fence. While both plots had declined in quality since 2000, the ungrazed area had declined more. "Maybe reinstating the 2.5 months a year of potential grazing to Agua Fria is justified," says Gadzia. "Please, give the Forest Service some credit for their experience. They took away the 2.5 months based on whatever data they used. Why is it a problem if they reinstate it on the same basis?"

McPherson, however, says he sees little in this new data — the first written data from Agua Fria since 2000 — to change his view that the longer grazing season isn’t justified.

An uncertain future

Paralleling the debate over the ecological condition of Williams’ ranch and allotments is the question of economic sustainability.

Courtney White says the Williams project, which is still a couple of years from fruition, is not something that his organization can replicate on a large scale. The group lacks the resources to do that, he says, and even if it did have the resources, it wouldn’t be desirable to concentrate power in one group. "I don’t want Quivira Coalition riding to the rescue," says White. "I want to connect landowners with the resources they need to solve problems."

Williams says his business is in better health than it was seven years ago, despite the drought. He believes that Quivira’s rotational grazing methods have boosted the weight of his animals, increasing what he earns per animal — but he gives the most credit to rising cattle prices.

Since that first meeting with the Quivira Coalition, the one-time enemy of environmentalists has opened up his ranch and his life to them. He has become more of a nature-lover, even allowing an Albuquerque bird-monitoring group to count hawks on his private land.

"As long as people are working together," he says, "it doesn’t matter whether they are all politically the same.

"We don’t have any comparisons of what it would be like" if Quivira hadn’t helped with the grazing plan, Williams adds. "The main thing is that we are still in business, after we’ve gone through 10 years of extremely high drought."

But that may not be true for long. Williams hasn’t ruled out selling his ranch if he doesn’t get his year-round grazing season back. "A guy gets enough strikes against him," he says, "you don’t know what you’ll do."