The ranch restored: An overworked land comes back to life

  • Trout Creek Mountains in Oregon and Nevada

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • THEY LOOKED FOR SOLUTIONS: Connie and Doc Hatfield

    Ed Marston photo
  • Willow Creek was mostly devoid of willows in the 1980s

    Photo courtesy Bob Kindschy
  • Planting tree cuttings along the creek in the 1970s mostly failed

    courtesy Kindschy
  • SURROUNDED BY WILLOWS: A tour of Trout Creek in the 1990s

    courtesy Kindschy

Page 4

One year later, another tremor rocked the mountains. After years of uncertainty, Trout Creek native trout were formally recognized as Lahontan cutthroats, a threatened species. That brought in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But that agency, too, after some fine-tuning, approved the grazing plan.

After the three-year rest, grazing resumed in 1992. "That was the key," Doc Hatfield said. During the seventh year of the worst drought in Oregon history, cows were turned out onto the mountain, into allotments with watersheds containing Lahontan cutthroat trout. "The thing that's keeping those ranches on the mountain is that endangered fish," Doc said. "Those are the securest grazing permits in Oregon. They've gone through the bureaucratic and legal process - and the process is bulletproof.

"They don't have to worry about whether they are going on the mountain next year," he said. "It would pretty near take an act of Congress to blow them out of there."

But that doesn't stop ranchers from grumbling. "It has made it a lot more difficult to operate," said Fred Wilkinson. "At one time, cattle moved a lot on their own. There was no set date when you had to move them up into the mountain, or move them out. In the old days, they wouldn't leave the mountain until October. Now we have to get them out by Aug. 1."

Like other ranchers, Fred Wilkinson and his son, Nick, have seen their operations pared back more than they would like. "You just keep getting stepped down the ladder all the time," Nick said. "If I came in and cut your retirement fund in half, would you like it?

"But don't let us get you wrong," Nick continued. "Things have worked all right. It might not be easy to operate. But it's as good as we can get. No one has closed up shop. If it hadn't been for the working group - and Doc and Connie - and people thinking positive, I think all these places would have been shut down."

"Consensus is not kind and gentle," Doc said. "Consensus is agreeing not to agree on a lot of things, but working together on the things you can agree upon.

"I always thought you got married and lived happily every after," Doc continued. "I was frustrated for the first 25 years when that didn't occur. Then I finally learned you have to work at it and everything isn't peace and harmony. It's about confronting the real problems that arise and finding solutions. The same is true for a working group."

Few people, though, quibble about Trout Creek riparian areas. They're looking great. That was apparent on last year's tour, which began along Willow Creek on publicly owned allotments used by the Whitehorse Ranch. From March 16 to April 30, 871 cattle grazed the area. But you wouldn't know it by looking at Willow Creek. It was a riot of vegetation and alive with cutthroat trout.

Years ago, "there were virtually no fish in this lower region. The creek was deeply incised," retired BLM biologist Kindschy said to the group. "The water was hot in the summer and often of low quantity because of the Safeway parking lot-style run-off.

"Now it's a sponge," he said. "It's holding water. It's releasing it slowly. You've got a lot of shade. There is increased sinuosity in the stream, which dissipates energy and causes sediment deposition. Everything is working as we thought it might. To see this come back is really gratifying."

Jerry Taylor, a BLM area manager, pointed out a small fenced area - called an "exclosure' - from which cattle had been excluded for a quarter-century. Vegetation outside the fence, accessible to cattle, was as lush as inside. The soil was soggy. As the water table rose higher, sagebrush was dying out.

"Grazing certainly can occur," Taylor said. "The question is timing and duration. This is early season use and short duration. We could stock a lot of cows, as long as we get them out in time for regrowth to occur."

Higher up, we came to a dramatic recovery site - a place called the Pole Patch on Little Whitehorse Creek. "Holy cow!" said Tom Miles, a BLM range specialist, as he caught a glimpse of the area. "This place has gone bananas. It's getting to be an impenetrable forest down there."

We sat down for lunch amid thick grass. "When I first came here in 1990, this spot was solid dirt," Miles said. "It was literally a dust bowl. Now, a good portion of what we're sitting on is perennials.

"The exciting thing is that young aspen are able to grow, whereas before, they were constantly getting beat down because the cows would eat the grass and then go for the aspens. We didn't know any better," Miles continued. "This riparian stuff is relatively new. I remember doing range surveys in the late "70s and early "80s, and riparian areas were sacrifice areas. You didn't even look at them."

In December, I asked Rose Strickland, a Sierra Club grazing activist, what she thought of the Trout Creeks. "I'm happy with a lot of things," she said. "What blew me away, the last time I was there, was that in one square yard, there were 10 or 12 Great Basin grasses - with their seedheads! When you see that, something is happening right.

"Some conservationists are convinced you can't have decent conditions on public lands with grazing, that grazing will never be properly managed," Strickland said. "And on their side is the history of public-lands grazing.

"I can see that in certain places, like the Trout Creeks, grazing can occur. But I can count the number of those situations on the fingers of one hand in Nevada. Good public-land management is still the exception, not the rule."

On the range tour, we continued to a promontory, overlooking half of southeast Oregon. The Hatfields were not there, but their presence was. Cowboys, conservationists and BLM folks gathered into a circle. This was the end of the tour. One by one, people started talking.

"The key to success is taking away the argument of the other side. The success demonstrated here takes that argument away," said Edwin Singleton, manager of the Vale, Ore., BLM district. "We get almost no requests for information on the Trout Creeks from anybody in an adversarial position, because they know it's working."

"It's been four or five years since I've been here," said Dan Heinz, a Nevada conservationist. "There are four or five times more willows in the bottoms of the creeks. We're getting some resilience built into the system, and that's encouraging."

"I really enjoyed the trip today," said rancher Evan Zimmerman. "It looked really fine, especially the Pole Patch. It looked so bad when we first started."


Tom Knudson is a Pulitzer Prize winner who writes for the Sacramento Bee in Truckee, California.

You can contact ...

* Doc and Connie Hatfield, 541/576-2455;

* Jerry Taylor, BLM, 541/473-3144;

* Bob Kindschy, BLM, retired, 541/473-2590;

* Rose Strickland, 702/329-6118.

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