The Last Ranch: The truth is stranger than the book

  • San Luis Valley

    J.D. Marston
  • Sam Bingham

 

In 1992, I followed a year in the life of a third-generation ranch family named Whitten in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. I was exploring an idea. I supposed that a fresh understanding of nature might save the world from becoming desert. The impetus came from a long association with the ideas of Allan Savory commonly known as Holistic Resource Management, but along the way I encountered other original thinkers as well - among them an Indian mathematician whose mastery of fluid dynamics stopped a colossal water-exporting scheme in its tracks, and an old cowboy who had built an international consulting practice on his understanding of human and bovine psychology.

On my final day of research on that sharp October day in 1992, when the cattle were shipped away to feedlot and slaughter, I closed my notebooks and went home to write my story. For the people and places I wrote about, however, the story continued - through hunting seasons, bull sales, 4-H, high school basketball, and meetings down the alphabet of county roads.

My manuscript took a year to write and would spend another three in a fitful editorial purgatory. I saw no justice in that at the time, but God's mercy is subtle. I had picked my subjects and my year to make a point, willfully ignoring the humiliation that time often visits upon the scientist.

When I checked back in the fall of 1995, George Whitten gave me a long list of happenings in the San Luis Valley, and although not completely bad, the news was bad.

The water users of lower Saguache Creek had finally organized a strict enforcement of upstream diversions, and water ran farther out into the valley than it had in years, despite the groundwater pumping of a big industrial farm.

But acrimony within the public-lands grazing association to which the Whittens belonged had escalated to threats of violence - rancher against rancher. Only George Whitten continued to pursue the holistic demonstration project that I had so carefully documented; the BLM agent who initiated it was considering early retirement.

Valley activists had fallen into disunity. They had not responded when an enigmatic local man, Gary Boyce, and his millionaire wife had bought all the land that had been at the heart of the effort in the early 1990s to export the valley's water (HCN, 5/30/94) and launched a new campaign to sell water out of state.

The director of the Alamosa-Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge had lost his fight with national environmental organizations over his novel use of grazing to manage vegetation and had been demoted to a meaningless desk job with explicit orders not to meddle in the San Luis Valley. When noxious weeds broke out, airplanes were called in to spray herbicide in the name of preserving a natural system.

Cattle prices had fallen drastically, pushing virtually all valley ranches to the brink of insolvency, including the Whittens', despite all their holism. To make matters worse, George's brother Donnie was living in a rented cabin near Aspen with a married woman he'd met at a poolside condo party in Florida. He had left his three children and signed over to his wife the cattle, sheep, doublewide trailer, and his share of Grandpa Whitten's century-old ranch.

"Donnie's different now," said George.

I considered recalling my manuscript and destroying it, and probably would have, had I not in the intervening time become much less ambitious about "proving" anything. After all, hadn't I argued in my book that the insistence of science on linear proofs had blinded us to much of the brilliance of nature?

Not long afterward, my car broke down in the middle of the night, not far from where Donnie had moved, and I met him in the local pancake joint for breakfast. His hair was longer, but he wore his old boots. He didn't dwell on his holistic past. He told how the past winter his well-off neighbors had invited him to accompany them to Florida to island-hop around the Caribbean for a couple of weeks. He had snorkeled off exclusive beaches, cruised on their yacht, and seen martinis vanish by the quart. He had met Stacy, who had grown up in that world. He had also flown to Haiti, where he saw dead bodies in the street during the day and lay awake all night listening to voodoo drumming and contrabandistas fighting in the next room.

"I never imagined that a country could be that devastated," he said. "There's hardly a tree or a blade of grass left, and that Dominican Republic next door is so green you can't believe it, coming from Colorado."

Hearing him talk, it seemed to me that all these experiences had astounded Donnie equally. Meeting a bona fide Saguache County cowboy had evidently destabilized Stacy in like degree. Two more casualties, perhaps, of an oversimplified view of life.

I still believe my thesis that true progress, progress not borrowed against the health of the Earth, must come from individuals learning to do the right things at the margins, in the San Luis Valleys of the world where the desert bares its teeth at our fabulous global economy. Since leaving the valley, however, I've become much more philosophical about our human capacity for this. It became a very personal concern, as I spent most of 1995 in continuous travel in western and southern Africa lecturing about Holistic Resource Management on the account of the World Bank and a stew of development agencies.

I can't say that I saw worse land degradation than I've seen in the American Southwest, but it is dramatic. And it is recent. It actually kills people. I met men younger than I (I'm 51) who told of stealing meat from lions as teenage daredevils, where today's children only eat meat at funerals and may have never seen a wild animal bigger than a hare. They remembered perennial grass growing taller than a man and streams full of crocodiles and hippos and walking the 15 miles to market in the shade of trees. Now the trees were 95 percent gone. The streams ran four months out of 12, and "grass poaching" had become a serious crime because people could not find thatch to maintain their huts.

I acquired the habit of asking recognized opinion-setters why they thought the land had gone to hell, and almost everyone answered in the same vein.

"The young people are not initiated. They do not make the sacrifices," said a village chief. "Some follow other religions, and in the city you see women wearing pants. So of course it doesn't rain." The Assembly of God minister in the same district referred me to the Bible. "Without question, we have entered the Last Days. It's all written out in Revelations." A climatologist at an international conference in Tucson with the remarkable title "Desertification in DEVELOPED Countries: Why Can't We Control It," said that more study was necessary, but climate change caused by global warming caused by industrial pollution was probably the main factor, plus, of course, population growth.

It really didn't matter whom you asked. They all blamed forces so vast and abstract that nothing could really be done about them, not at least without a great deal more study. So I would ask why they kept going at all: Why spend the last of your energy preparing your fields in May, when the rain will probably not come in June?

Stupid question. Fatalism is a luxury of people who have time to chat. People who must act must hope.

Sam Bingham's new book, The Last Ranch: A Colorado Community and the Coming Desert, $27.50, was published in September by Pantheon Books, 201 E. 50th St., New York, NY 10022.