A dissident speaks up for the Badlands

  • John Heiser shows a visitor through Theodore Roosevelt Nat'l Park

    Michael Milstein
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story

To get to John Heiser's home on the high plains of western North Dakota, you turn at the construction yard ("They'd like to pave everything over"), then bear left when you spot the microwave tower ("I think to myself every day how I'd like to shoot that thing") and pull in at the weather-beaten house ("I don't have time to paint the place.")

"I'm an environmentalist, so I try not to drive to town much," he explains while giving directions to his ranch roughly 100 miles from Dickinson. "You might want to bring a nice loaf of whole wheat bread with you."

Welcome to Heiser's ranch, where Thoreau is sacred but cows certainly are not.

A full-time cattle rancher, part-time ranger and "buffalo chaser" at nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and founder of the tiny Badlands Conservation Alliance, Heiser stands as one of the few environmental voices on this part of the Plains. And his voice is loud and clear. He has no patience for public-land ranchers who pay the standard federal grazing fee of $1.35 per animal unit month and blame their troubles on the government, predators and environmentalists.

"If ranchers can't make it on $1.35 for grazing, they shouldn't be in the business," says Heiser, who is 49 and unmarried. "The going rate around here for private land is 10 to 20 bucks. I can't believe we have created a class of ranchers who claim they can't make it on $1.35 grazing. I have no sympathy - zero sympathy - for people who can't make it on that. And then they bellyache to Congress. The other two-thirds of us who pay more for grazing have no one fighting for us."

Needless to say, Heiser does not run cattle on the national grasslands. He grazes cows only on his land near where his family homesteaded at the turn of the century and says dryly that he couldn't graze on federal land even if he wanted to, because federal grazing rights stay with the ranches that first obtained them. The only way for someone else to win such rights is to purchase or lease such a ranch.

Even in the counties dominated by national grasslands, fewer than half of the ranchers graze those lands; the rest, like Heiser, depend on private range. So it annoys him when others warn that giving wildlife more priority on the grasslands will do agriculture in.

Heiser's cows are descended from his family's original livestock; he knows the personality of each one. He doesn't like the idea of bison ranching. Working as a park ranger, he's spent years chasing runaways that would break out of the fence surrounding the national park.

"I won't participate in the domestication of a wild species," he says. "The ones that get out - they're renegades - I've chased those bison. I admire them. I applaud them. I won't shoot them. In a lot of places, the renegades get shot. Then you lose them from the gene pool and those are the ones you want in the gene pool, because they make things interesting.

"I think mavericks are essential, whether it's bison or people."

During the weekly nature walks he leads in the national park all winter long, Heiser asks the group to ponder whether "man's knowledge has exceeded his wisdom." He quotes Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner.

As a consequence of Heiser's strong feelings, most of his neighbors no longer talk to him, except to mutter behind his back about his environmental tendencies and the hypocrisy of the oil well on his land. They don't know that Heiser's family allowed the oil well long before he had a say in the matter, and that he now donates the royalties to the Sierra Club.

On a quick tour of the nearby grasslands, he chuckles with delight when a coyote darts across the road and happily points out needle-and-thread grass, blue grama, little bluestem, dragon sage and echinacea. All these elements together make the grasslands an often-overlooked "crown jewel," he says, that's much more than a proving ground for "dumb cows - and I know a lot about dumb cows." It's about time the Forest Service brought management of these lands into the modern age, he adds.

"Ultimately, it's population that's pushing this issue," he says. "People are being crowded in these urban areas and they're looking for new places that aren't crowded. It's our job as citizens not to hide our heads in the sand, but to recognize the changes. That's what this is all about - resistance to change."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Michael Milstein

High Country News Classifieds
  • SPORTING COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    To advance our mission, we are seeking a full-time Sporting Communications Coordinator to join our team, preferably in Montana or Colorado. (Due to COVID-19 all...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor, Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...