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A dissident speaks up for the Badlands


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