As we signed the papers, I knew I was a hypocrite.
But every time we watched the setting sun make the red and beige sandstone glow from within, every time my dog lit out after a jackrabbit it was never going to catch, and every time I found a new potsherd in an unexpected place, I wanted this land to be ours. More than that, I felt it was meant to be ours.
The local ranching cooperative, which had survived nearly a century of drought and price fluctuations, could not withstand today's more insidious threat to open space, the reality that it is more profitable to sell the land than continue to scrape by running cattle. A few years earlier, the co-op had divided the land among its members. Many had either passed the land onto their children — many of whom were not interested in ranching — or sold it to pay the taxes on the rest.
Now I was an accomplice to one of the most hated trends on the Western landscape: subdividing. My dismay at the loss of open space has given me a new perspective on ranching.
While living in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s, I'd first seen national forest and wilderness land so overrun by cattle that it was hard to find a camping place without cowpies. In the early 1990s, I attended a "Cattle Free by '93" rally that was working to remove all livestock from our public lands. I knew how inefficient it was to produce beef by grazing animals in the arid West. I'd learned about the federal subsidies and corporate ranches, and I found the argument that ranching was a "legacy" to be laughable. I believed that the greatest threats to pristine open spaces were cows and stubborn cowboys: This was the New West, with new pressures on wildlife and open space, and it needed new solutions.
But where I live in western New Mexico, the largest tracts of open space — hundreds of thousands of acres of mountains, mesas and grasslands — are private ranches. Drought has withered the range and, coupled with changes in tax laws and the skyrocketing price of land, it has led to ranch closures on all sides of me. Where there once was sagebrush and grassland, subdivisions and trailer parks are sprouting. Beat-up rangeland can always recover with rest and restoration, but once the ranchettes arrive, the land is fragmented, fenced and lost forever.
During the midst of changes in state tax laws aimed at preventing frequent subdivisions, my wife and I came upon the most beautiful 20 acres we had ever seen. Gently sloping north at about 7,400 feet in elevation, the upper third is covered with old-growth ponderosa pine on a rocky sandstone slope. The lower two-thirds is a blue grama piñon-juniper savannah. The small valley is surrounded by the beige and red sandstone of El Morro National Monument and Navajo Reservation land, and looks out onto the Cibola National Forest. We bought it immediately at the asking price of about $895 an acre.
For several years, we camped and picnicked there with our kids. We drove out on Sundays to cross-country ski, or gather firewood under the cautious circling of a red-tail hawk that nested in the pines. After a few years, we built a 500-square-foot adobe cabin, a place to warm up and drink something hot or spend the night year-round. It has no electricity and it's heated by wood. The next spring, the red-tailed hawk returned, circled and perched in the tree to watch us. But she didn't nest. The spring after that, she didn't come back at all.
I console myself with the knowledge that someone was going to buy our land, and we are leaving a very small footprint on it. But it's cold comfort when I think of this process multiplied by the thousands every year.
I still believe there is significant room for reform of grazing practices, especially on public land. But now, I'm a firm supporter of any efforts to keep private ranches in business.
Steven Albert is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Zuni, New Mexico, and works as a biologist on wildlife and watershed restoration projects in the Southwest, mainly for Indian tribes.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.