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
 

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The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which parceled the range into allotments and created the modern BLM, was supposed to stop the damage. It didn't. By the early 1960s, less than 1 percent of the range in the Vale, Ore., BLM district was classified in excellent condition.

So began another dose of federal range reform. Beginning in 1962, the "Vale Project" brought more than 1,800 miles of fence, 574 small reservoirs and over 200,000 acres of crested wheatgrass seeding to southeast Oregon, all aimed at improving the range. While the $14 million-dollar project improved conditions for cows and made ranchers happy, streams continued to degrade.

Consider the following account from Bob Kindschy, a retired BLM wildlife biologist. In 1970 Kindschy was talking with Ted Naftzger, a California businessman and owner of the Whitehorse Ranch on the north side of the Trout Creeks.

"Ted wanted to know what was happening to the trout," Kindschy told me. "Ted was an avid fisherman. But he was seeing fewer and fewer trout. So we put together a horseback trip to check things out.

"We rode 21 miles that first day," Kindschy said. "The hospitality was fabulous. We stayed in a fine bunkhouse with unlimited booze and vittles." The land, however, was not fabulous. "The upper watershed," Kindschy wrote in his journal, "is gullied and in poor condition."

One incident stands out. "We had come to a fence line on Whitehorse Creek," Kindschy said. "Beavers had gotten in there and cut a bunch of willows. On one side of the fence, the stumps had resprouted and were growing like mad. But on the other side, they were just hedged down, just two- or three-inch stubs.

"'Ted,' I said, 'what do you suppose has happened here?'

"'Oh, the beaver got them,' he said.

"I said, 'Yeah, but how come there's growth on one side but not the other?'

"And he said, 'The cows ate ... Oh, I see what you mean.'"

Alarms sounded. Willows were planted. More crested wheatgrass was planted to reduce riparian grazing. Still, cattle roamed the Trout Creek Mountains spring to fall, gathering late in the season in riparian areas. Two decades later, continued overgrazing and drought would trigger even more spectacular damage and give birth to yet another round of range reform.

By the late 1980s, the land was in shock. Streams did not murmur across grassy meadows, as they once had; they gnawed through eroded gulches. The water table crept lower, creating a welcome mat for desert vegetation. What moisture did fall, ran off quickly, repelled by bare ground. And the trout were in danger of extinction.

"We were at 11:59 p.m.," Kindschy said. "It was almost the midnight hour."

It was time for someone to gallop into the Trout Creeks and work a modern miracle. Two people showed up, coming not from the federal government but from common ground, neighboring cattle country to the northwest. They were Doc and Connie Hatfield, a ranch couple known for their innovative marketing of hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and for their belief that a healthy environment and economy go hand in hand (HCN, 12/26/94).

I caught up with the Hatfields at their High Desert Ranch in central Oregon near the town of Brothers on a gray November day. Doc is 60; Connie, 57. They seem younger. The Hatfields have a reputation for forging solutions out of strife. They have spent considerable time on the road, working public-range war zones like a U.N. peacekeeping team.

"The reason I got interested in the Trout Creeks is they were the biggest challenge I could imagine for public-lands grazing - wilderness study areas, a threatened species, huge pastures, deep canyons, limited water, high elevation," Doc tells me. "If you can graze cattle in an ecologically sensitive manner in the Trout Creeks, you can graze them anywhere."

They began with an experience common to many successful efforts - with failure. Doc and Connie, along with Wayne Elmore, a BLM riparian specialist, had been asked to give a talk to Trout Creek ranchers in the border town of McDermitt.

"There were five ranchers sitting on one side of the room. They looked like the toughest, roughest, meanest, crudest ranchers you could imagine," Connie said.

"Wayne was just starting to give his presentation. Immediately, one of the ranchers was very rude. The other ranchers just kind of followed suit. They weren't going to hear or listen. It was a very negative afternoon.

"The next day, we went on a tour of the Trout Creeks with the ranchers - and boy, it didn't look too good. We stopped at a place on Little Whitehorse Creek and there were raw cut banks and one big old aspen, with some life on the top of it, and a couple smaller ones ... And there wasn't anything else, really."

Doc remembers something else. "There were four vans: the BLM van, the rancher van, a multiple-use advisory-board van and the Whitehorse Ranch van. There was no comingling, except for Connie."

"Every time we stopped, I'd get in another van," Connie said. "I would hear grumbling from one van and grumbling from another."

"At the end of the tour Connie sat there and told everybody what everybody else was thinking," Doc said. "And one ranch hand says, "This is the third year we've come out here like this and nothing ever changes." Connie got all upset and said, "You ranchers can't let this continue." "

"I knew, from starting a marketing cooperative, that things can change," said Connie. "As we were driving home, I said to Doc, "We've got to get something going." "

One month later, in July 1988, another meeting was arranged at BLM headquarters in Portland. "We were due to start at two o'clock," Doc said. "The BLM managers, bless their hearts, were on a conference call to the national director in Washington. The call went on and on. Finally, I lost my cool and told the office secretary to get them off the phone. I was just furious. They got off, but they were not happy about it."

What happened next was quintessential Doc and Connie Hatfield.

"We had everyone sit in a big circle," Doc said. "What made a difference was when we began the role-playing exercise. We said: "How would you view this situation if you were the BLM, or an environmentalist, or a public-land rancher or the Whitehorse Ranch?" "

"The BLM's reaction was kind of like, "What is this?" "''''Connie said. "But finally they got into it. With one exception, everyone handled it pretty well."

With that meeting, the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group was born. "The mission was to see that changes occurred so the land would improve," Doc said. "It's critical to understand we invited the BLM," he continues. "The BLM didn't put this on. The working group was - and is - a private collaborative pressure group, just like the Sierra Club or the Oregon Cattleman's Association."

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