By Ed Marston
For almost four years
I have been biting down on Sid Goodloe's story as though it were a
suspicious gold coin. I have also been telling bits and pieces of
it to audiences, testing ideas I wasn't ready to put on
Putting it on paper meant confronting the
audacity and complexity of Goodloe's story, and the fact that so
many experts dispute his conclusions (see essay on page 12).
Goodloe's story is about land. It is about a ranch in New Mexico
that he has spent his working life transforming from a
tree-covered, waterless scrub land into a savanna - an open
grassland dotted by stands of trees, ponds and a flowing stream.
The land speaks for itself. The audacity comes
in the conclusions that Goodloe draws from his work as a landscape
gardener on a large scale. He says that the Southwest has been
deprived of fire for a century, and that now, before it is too
late, we must move against the piûon-juniper forests, P-J, as
they're called, that have come to cover much of New Mexico and
Arizona. He says we must also act against the neighbors of P-J, the
upland thickets of ponderosa pine. Unless we move decisively, he
warns, the region's watersheds and wildlife will be lost as surely
as we have lost those of Los Angeles and
The West in these unhinged times is not
short of radical thinkers. But Goodloe is different. His ideas,
instead of flowing out of some fevered ideology, flow off his six
square miles of land.
Goodloe is anything but a
New Ager - he's an Aggie, with two degrees from Texas A&M; and a
deep Texas twang to prove it. Nevertheless, he was led to his
vision of the land by 600-year-old drawings Indians had incised
into rocks on his land. Any doubts he had about the meaning of the
petroglyphs were erased by a sign from the more recent past - notes
from 1880 left by federal surveyors.
another audacious thing about Goodloe: He apparently developed a
working grasp of ecosystem management long before he, or most of
us, had heard the phrase.
We live our lives by
the stories we tell. Goodloe's story is powerful because he
promises us, and the land, redemption.
If you ask
Goodloe why he bought a 3,500-acre, beat-to-death, unfenced ranch
with 50 starving mother cows in south-central New Mexico exactly 40
years ago this month, he gives a careful
"This ranch was badly abused, so I could
afford it. But I also saw the potential. I knew I could make a
living cutting firewood to buy food and clothes. I knew the soil
was good. It was close to wildlife, so I could rent the land out to
hunters in the fall. I knew if I integrated all the resources, I
could make a living. I wasn't going to operate the way they taught
us at Texas A&M.; If I'd have been a purist cattleman, I'd have
starved to death."
When Goodloe says the ranch
"was close to wildlife" he is being euphemistic. In plainer
language, his ranch had so little grass that wildlife stayed away.
And what had been Carrizo Creek when Anglo settlers came to the
area in the 1880s was by 1956 a deep, eroding arroyo that ran only
when the snow melted or rain fell.
use windmills to make up for the lack of flowing water. But lack of
grass was a much more serious problem. One of his first acts after
taking ownership was to evict a team of archaeologists exploring an
Indian village. Researcher Jane Kelley, recalling that event 40
years later, says, "I worked on the ranch in 1955. In 1956, we went
back. Goodloe had just bought the ranch. He said to us: "I can't
stand it. You're running over blades of grass." So we left."
The archaeologists didn't go far. The region is
thick with ruins, and they found research sites on neighboring
ranches. Kelley, now professor emeritus at the University of
Calgary in Canada, came back to the area year after year. She kept
an eye on Goodloe's ranch, and says that it became clear that his
land, bit by bit, was becoming healthier.
let us back on the ranch in the 1980s. He had been incredibly
successful in turning a raw arroyo into a stream with grass and
sloping banks - it was hard empirical evidence of what he's done."
Jane Kelley says she wondered why Goodloe was
almost the only rancher in the area to transform his land. In the
course of her research, she had become good friends with one of
Goodloe's neighbors and she asked him why he didn't restore his
ranch. He agreed that Goodloe had improved the valley and the
hydraulic system, but Kelley says he had no interest himself in
changing how he did things.
It wasn't his way,
the rancher told Kelley.
Goodloe sympathizes. He says
he was able to turn his land into a productive ecosystem only
because he was an outsider, and saw things freshly. Even so, "It
wasn't an overnight deal. It took me 15 years before I could see
what to do. And if I had been an old-timer, it'd never have
One of the first hints about the true
nature of the land came from archaeologists who told him 1,000
people had lived in a village on his land.
didn't strike me for years - the meaning of all those people living
on my land 600 years ago. In the 1950s and 1960s, I was working for
New Mexico State University or for the neighbors 10 to 12 hours a
day. I had five little kids and a little ranch. I left home at dawn
and came home after dark. I didn't have time to meditate on
Goodloe recalls that "it finally hit me
some time in the mid-1960s, when I saw fish and beaver petroglyphs
at the village." He realized that not only had the land supported
hundreds of people, where he was having trouble supporting seven,
but that there had also been live, year-round streams with fish and
Archaeologists say that just because the
Indians were drawing fish and beaver doesn't mean fish and beaver
were on the ranch. It could have been wishful thinking, like the
Norman Rockwell paintings many Americans are still so fond of. But
Goodloe takes the village and its art literally. His next insight
into the land came when he decided to fence the ranch in the 1960s.
To find the property lines, he got the notes the U.S. survey team
had made on its trip through the region in 1880. With their help,
he found the brass caps set in concrete that mark the section, or
But he also needed the
quarter-section corners. The surveyors' notes said they were marked
by cut stones because there were no witness trees nearby. When
Goodloe, starting at the section corners, used a compass and tape
measure to find the quarter-section corners, they were in the
middle of a piûon-juniper forest that looked as if it had been
"The penny fell from my eyes right
there. I said: "There's something drastically wrong here." "
It took 10 years, Goodloe
says, but he finally put it all together. His ranch had once been
an open grassland with a stream and fish and a village housing
several hundred people. Now he had to figure out how to bring back
that lost landscape.
He had made one major
attempt at improvement the year after he moved onto the ranch. With
help from the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, he brought in a crew
to drag a huge anchor chain, hung between two bulldozers, across
half of his 3,500 acres, knocking down the piûon and juniper
trees. The same thing was being done all across the Southwest.
Ranchers and federal land managers were trying with varying degrees
of urgency to turn back the "brush" that was invading the region's
federal and private grasslands. All efforts depended on the same
thing: generous help from the U.S. Treasury.
chaining worked for Goodloe. Grass grew and wildlife moved onto the
ranch. He expanded his herd. And, he got another clue. After the
chaining, the arroyo started to run. With the piûon and
juniper trees no longer soaking up and transpiring all the rain and
snowmelt, and with grass now on the land, the water table had risen
and was emptying into the arroyo. The arroyo was still eroding and
rockbound, but it was no longer dry.
Then, in the
early 1960s, about five years after he had chained, Goodloe got a
shock. He realized that the big trees the anchor chain had knocked
down and left for dead were alive. "The chain had just pulled the
trees over, but some roots were still in the ground."
Even worse, the smaller piûon and juniper
trees had been bent over by the chain, and then had snapped back
up. With the big trees barely alive, the smaller trees were
"released," as foresters say. They began to grow quickly. Goodloe
realized that if he didn't do something, the land would soon be
worse than before it was chained.
Using all the
time he could spare from working jobs off the ranch on the task, he
bulldozed downed trees into windrows and burned them. When he
wasn't bulldozing and burning the big trees, he was on his tractor,
"popping the small trees out of the ground" before they grew too
large to handle.
It took him four years, from
1962 to 1966, to clean up the mess that the 1957 chaining had left.
He hasn't chained since.
1966, Goodloe had some open meadows and a fair amount of grass. But
he knew the ranch wasn't healthy. And economically, it still
couldn't support him and his family. Looking back, he says, he just
didn't have the knowledge to see what had to be
"When I was in the university the first
time, there were no words "riparian" or "ecosystem." I had no
background that would help me. I didn't know anything but to get
rid of brush and rotate cattle."
So in 1966, in
search of cash and education, Goodloe leased his ranch - -with
strict limits on how many cattle the tenant could graze' - and
headed for Kenya with his family to manage a ranch.
There, he says, "I learned the true meaning of a
savanna that functioned properly." On Kenya's wildlife preserves,
he saw how periodic grass fires kept the land free of small trees,
while allowing the large trees and grass to remain
He also heard in Africa of a remarkable
game warden in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), so he flew to that country
and met Allan Savory. At that time, Savory's holistic
resource-management approach to grazing was unknown in the U.S.
Goodloe wrote the first American paper about Savory's methods.
In 1968, Goodloe and his family returned to the
U.S. with $10,000 they had saved. Goodloe still didn't feel ready
to tackle the ranch. He didn't know enough, he says, "so I decided
to invest that money in me." He went back to Texas A&M; for a
master's degree in range science. This time there were courses on
ecology and watersheds and hydrology.
the Goodloes returned to the Carrizo Valley Ranch. "By then," he
says, "I had things figured out." The phrase probably didn't exist
at the time, but Goodloe was about to try ecosystem
What Goodloe had
doped out was how cattle had altered the balance of the land,
allowing trees to conquer grass, not just on his land but
throughout much of the Southwest. He saw that it began with the
fact that a 30-year-old piûon or juniper stands only a few
feet high. It has spent most of those years putting down roots. The
trees grow so slowly, it takes much of a ranching generation for
them to become noticeable. By the time the rancher sees what's
happening, it's too late. Thousands, or tens of thousands, of trees
would have taken over, the grass would have disappeared, and the
rancher and his cattle could be starved off the land. By the time
this had happened, even the federal treasury was of little help. As
Goodloe had learned, sloppy chaining practices of the 1950s and
1960s were no match for the trees.
rancher's point of view, the worst thing was that he had done it to
himself by grazing the land too heavily.
pre-Anglo times, Goodloe thinks, grass fires started by lightning
swept away the seedlings, keeping the land open. Because the trees
stay small for so many years, the fires wouldn't have to come too
often, or burn too hot, to kill them.
always been piûon-juniper trees in the area, trees that by
luck, researchers say, had escaped fire. These had regularly seeded
the grasslands, and then the seedlings, except for a few lucky
survivors, had been burned off. But then came enormous herds of
sheep and cattle to slick off the range, stop the wildfires and
allow trees to take over.
Goodloe says that once
established, the trees are fierce competitors, sending roots out
long distances just below the surface, crowding out grass. As a
result, he says, the ground is bare in a mature piûon-juniper
He has spent a lot of time on the land,
digging fence holes, stretching barbed wire from post to post,
searching for cows. Sometimes - not often enough, he complains - he
has been caught in thunderstorms.
the water flow out from under the piûon-juniper. Trees are
supposed to halt erosion. But this water comes out brown. It's
heavy with soil." Soil-laden water flowing off of grassless land
led Goodloe to see the trees, or at least too many trees, as his
Because of what he had seen in Africa,
Goodloe no longer wanted to totally clear his land. He cored each
tree before he decided to cut it. If a tree were older than a
century or so - if it had been around when the first Anglo settlers
arrived - he let it stand.
"If I was a purist
cattleman, I'd want to get rid of all of them. But I leave
corridors for the wildlife. And I leave trees for me, for the
aesthetics. A place that's completely cleared off is the pits. I
want to look out on beauty."
Once Goodloe had
created meadows by cutting down the post-settlement
piûon-juniper, he went into the stands of old growth to cut
out the younger trees. In the old days, he says, periodic lightning
fires would have protected the large trees by burning out their
youthful competitors. But even on Goodloe's ranch, fires are rare,
and he plays the role fire once played; he cuts down the young
trees before they can kill the older trees by taking their water
mid-1970s, Goodloe had much of the ranch under control: he had
cleared out much of the brush and created open meadows. The ranch
was looking more and more like the savannas he had seen in Africa.
Speaking to groups, he likes to include an African landscape,
complete with wildebeests, among slides of his ranch. It takes a
moment or two for even a professional audience to realize that they
are no longer looking at New Mexico.
the macro-landscape was in good shape, down on the ground, the
ranch was still in trouble, with only one kind of grass. "Ninety
percent of what I had was sod-bound blue grama grass."
Blue grama, he says, grows only in hot weather.
Over the decades, the cattle had wiped out all the grasses and
legumes that grow in the cool seasons. Goodloe's cattle and
wildlife had enough to eat in the summer, but were on thin rations
in spring and fall.
Ranchers with irrigation
water and a summer grazing allotment in the mountains solve the
lack of natural year-round feed by growing grass or alfalfa hay on
their irrigated valley land, and putting it up in bales to feed
cattle during the winter.
Goodloe, however, has
no federal grazing permits and no irrigation water. Buying hay from
other ranchers would bankrupt him. To survive, he needed to
convince his land to produce grasses for all seasons.
It was a situation made for Allan Savory's
short-duration grazing method that Goodloe had brought back from
Africa. In 1970, he divided the ranch into 12 paddocks. The
paddocks allowed him to move the cattle around, protecting the
cool-season grasses from overgrazing. And all the time, he kept
cutting trees, waiting a year or two for the grass to grow and dry,
and then burning the cut-over land and seeding it with native
grasses. Gradually, Goodloe says, he created a diverse array of
Today, unless he is hit by an
exceptionally heavy winter, he survives most years without having
to feed much hay. His cattle get through the winter because he
keeps them off two of his hot-season paddocks during the summer.
These grasses grow high, where high means about 10 inches, and then
dry out. When the snows come, he turns the cattle into these
paddocks to feed all winter. It's not totally free, he says. He
still has to feed them supplements. But it beats having to feed hay
Come spring, Goodloe turns the
cattle onto the ranch's higher elevation paddocks (the ranch runs
from 6500 to 7200 feet), which are dominated by cool-season
grasses. "I let them start eating that about late April. Then they
go to oak brush from about May 10 to June 15." Goodloe loves the
oak brush, which he burns each year. New oak brush, he says, is
very nutritious, and "every bite of oak brush is one less bite of
By June 15, however, the cattle are done
with oak brush. "That's when I usually get in trouble. Our monsoon
rains don't start until July 10, and then we get our warm-season
grasses. But from June 15 to July 10, things are tight in this
With the trees
under control, and with a broad array of grasses on the ground,
Goodloe turned his attention to a riparian area - to the eroding
but now flowing gash in the ground known as Carrizo Creek.
The arroyo was flowing because Goodloe - unlike
almost all land managers - had started his restoration project by
healing his watershed, rather than by protecting his stream. His
theory, he says, is that it makes no sense to restore a riparian
area if the watershed above it is sick.
first big rainstorm will send enough water and mud down to simply
rip out your new stream and its vegetation."
Goodloe says he began protecting Carrizo Creek
in 1970 through cattle rotation. He fenced off the stream in the
early 1980s, keeping the cattle out completely. Then grasses grew
in the eroded streambed each spring and acted like the teeth of a
comb, screening dirt out of the flowing water and gradually
building the arroyo back into a stream, with a flat bed and
Goodloe says his downstream
neighbor was not happy about his improving land. Before Goodloe
brought his watershed back to life, the land had shed the spring
snowmelt from the Lincoln National Forest the way concrete would,
giving his neighbor a nice burst of irrigation water each spring.
Now Goodloe's land sops up the spring flood, releasing it only
gradually into Carrizo Creek.
fenced his riparian area, he planted willows. "Once the willows get
bigger, I will bring some beaver in and they can dam the stream. It
will be a complete reconstruction job."
will give Goodloe what he thinks the Indians on his land had 600
years ago. In the meantime, Goodloe plays the role of beaver. He
has dammed the stream next to his house, and created a pond that is
home to ducks and fish.
For years, Goodloe says,
he was grateful to the Forest Service for sending the soil that
rebuilt Carrizo Creek. But now he no longer needs more dirt, and he
has been campaigning for a land restoration project on the forest.
He has even helped out, cutting firewood and vigas off the forest,
hoping to repeat on federal land what he had done on his land.
Originally, Goodloe recalls, it was a tough
fight. The gods are ironic, and they gave him as a neighbor the
Smokey Bear Ranger District - home place of the small, burned bear
cub that became the Forest Service mascot. Goodloe's talk of
thinning trees and reintroducing fire did not go over well. But
over the past few years, the local Forest Service office has become
"They're working on it," he says,
"but they let this thing get so far ahead of them that they'll
never catch up."
Would a major flood off the
national forest wipe out Carrizo Creek? Goodloe says it won't. "I
think my watershed is strong enough that I can be physically
wounded but not destroyed."
Goodloe was wounded
in 1994. The forest's thickets of ponderosa pine above his ranch
burned. Heavy rains then washed a river of mud onto his land. He
used a bulldozer to divert the mud away from Carrizo Creek, but it
filled seven of his 35 ponds with silt. He was
"A stream," he warns, "is no healthier
over the long term than its watershed. It's like everything else in
This, then, is how
Sid Goodloe has spent the last 40 years of his life: using energy
and brute mechanical force to shove his ranch out of one ecological
state and into another.
While Goodloe is worse
for wear - one hip is now artificial - the same can't be said for
his land. "When I bought it, the ranch was overstocked with 50
cows. I now run about 100 head and I could run more in average
years. But I stock for drought years.
first year on the ranch, my calves weighed about 375 pounds on
average. Last year was a dry year, but the steer calves weighed 640
pounds. I won't tell you what the heifer calves weighed; no one
would believe it." That means Goodloe is getting almost four times
as much beef off the land as it was producing 40 years ago.
He is also getting beams called vigas, firewood,
Christmas trees, live trees for landscaping, wood for the small
kiva ladders he makes when he can't work outside, increased numbers
of wild turkeys and mule deer.
It's a holistic
system, he says. The deer do better because he cuts and peels young
ponderosa pine trees for vigas in the winter. The mule deer eat the
tree tops he throws away. That green browse, he estimates, has
increased the fawn crop by 30 to 50 percent. It pays off for
Goodloe in the fall, when hunters rent a cabin and the right to
hunt his ranch.
Turkeys are also a game crop in
New Mexico, but not on the Carrizo Valley Ranch. If you want to see
Goodloe angry, ask about the turkey season.
"This is where the game department is stupid.
The season is too long and too late. They're interfering with
Why does he care about the native
Merriam turkeys? "They absolutely keep my ranch free of
grasshoppers. And they go through the (ponderosa pine) needles and
scratch them up so they burn better. They're more important to me
than anything else in the way of wildlife."
Goodloe's mantra is "not all trees are good and
not all fires are bad." But he is no more a purist when it comes to
fire than he is a "purist cattleman." He uses fire where he can -
he religiously burns oak brush, and he'd love to see the ponderosa
pine forests above him thinned enough to allow for cool fires.
But when it is too wet or dry and windy to burn,
Goodloe climbs on a four-wheeler and rolls from seedling to
seedling, administering a drop of herbicide to
Goodloe estimates that his job at home is
done; he has brought almost all of his land back to its
pre-settlement condition. But he says the entire Southwest is at
risk of losing its watersheds, and that if the watersheds go, the
rivers and cities won't be far behind.
The Beldon II Fund and the
Lazar Foundation helped pay for this article.