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 3

But consensus, not conflict, was its game, and that changed everything. "We made the system work," said Mary Hansen, an Oregon fisheries biologist and working-group member. "If the BLM gets hit up from both sides of a controversy, they won't do anything. But if they see that both sides of a controversy - in this case, ranchers and conservationists - are agreeing and moving forward, they are much more accommodating."

Forming the group was simple. The hard part lay ahead. Under pressure to act quickly (no one wanted to be hit by an Endangered Species Act lawsuit), the Whitehorse Ranch, which grazes the most environmentally sensitive Trout Creek allotment, made a major concession. Beginning in 1989, it stopped all grazing for three years in areas containing cutthroat trout. Seven other ranches made significant changes, too.

Yet it was Whitehorse Ranch manager Britt Lay, who seems a classic cowboy - rough on the surface, suspicious of strangers, a gentleman inside - who had been rude at the McDermitt schoolhouse. It was Lay who couldn't answer the Hatfields' question: "How would you view things if you were an environmentalist?" When I phoned to ask for an interview, Lay was reluctant; he asked me what I thought about the working group. I muttered something positive. Then I asked Lay: "What do you think?"

"I think it's bullshit," he snapped. "But come on out. I'll talk to you."

I rolled in the next day about 12:30 and met Lay at the ranch kitchen. He slid into a chair and lit a cigarette. "Grab some grub," he said.

I ate. Lay talked. "I didn't mean to say the working group is bullshit," he said. "But a lot of this environmental stuff is bullshit. Every time you turn around, you hear ranchers are ruining everything. I certainly don't think we are ruining anything.

"The hardest part is having environmental people, with no clue what they are talking about, come out here and tell us everything we're doing is wrong. Granted, there were mistakes made in the past. Certainly, there was overgrazing from time to time. But like any business, you either get smarter or you don't get anywhere."

So why join the working group?

"You can't survive by butting heads anymore," Lay said. "Without the working group, I think we'd be off the mountain completely."

I asked Lay how such changes affected the ranch's bottom line.

"Bottom line?" he said, raising his eyebrows. "We don't have a bottom line. Our bottom line is way down there." He glanced at the floor. "We're just looking down a well. (Owner Ted Naftzger) paid this place off in 1978," Lay continued. "If he hadn't, we'd be in deep shit. We're in decline, is the best way to put it. You've heard the joke about ranching, haven't you? You know the easy way to get to be a millionaire in this business? Start as a billionaire.

"Ted doesn't have the corporate attitude that if your bottom line is not in the black, you sell out. He believes in sticking it out. He has told me many times that his goal is to leave the land here in better shape than he found it."

While the mountain rested, the working group worked - mapping out a long-term grazing strategy. Things did not go smoothly. "For the first few years, it was not a working group," Lay said. "It was a shouting, screaming and arguing group."

Kathi Myron, a conservation member who eventually left the working group, said she was treated shabbily in the early days. "After a cattle trespass incident in 1988, I brought some of my concerns up to the group and had my concerns minimized. I was subjected to out-and-out mocking," she said.

But the Hatfields persisted. The key seems to have been their imaginary round table - the circular gathering with which each session begins and ends. "How do you feel about being here?" Doc or Connie would ask. "What is your vision for the future of the Trout Creek mountains?"

"Some of this stuff sounds almost corny, but it works," said Kindschy. "But by getting out and standing in a circle, pawing the soil with your boot, sharing your worst fears and your expectations, you begin to see and appreciate the other person's viewpoint. You become a team."

In 1990, the group agreed on a grazing strategy. No longer, they concluded, could the Trout Creeks tolerate intensive, April to October grazing. Instead, livestock should be limited to two months in pastures with sensitive riparian zones, no grazing should be allowed in riparian pastures after July 15 (when cattle start to turn their attention from grass to willows), and many areas should be rested - like fallow farmland - after periods of heavy use. That meant ranchers would have to better manage their own land at the base of the range. It was a dramatic departure from traditional Western grazing operations. The BLM took the suggestions and shaped them into a long-term grazing plan for the Trout Creeks.

High Country News Classifieds