A tale of two ranches

  • From Basque country to Nevada: The Inchauspes at Silver Creek Ranch

    Jon Christensen
  • Restoring the range: Jerrie & Tony Tipton with niece and granddaughter


Note: this feature article is one of several in this special issue about the Great Basin.

For Tony and Jerrie Tipton, a couple in their 40s who live in a trailer and run cattle on public land in the Toiyabe Mountains of central Nevada, it is the best of times.

For their neighbor Paul Inchauspe, a 69-year-old Basque sheepherder who came from the old country alone in his 20s and built up a ranching empire, it is the worst of times.

Environmentalists have targeted Inchauspe's grazing allotment as a test case, says Dan Heinz of American Wildlands and the Sierra Club. "The land is beat to shit," he says.

And after years of getting along with the ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management is going along with environmentalists. Inchauspe's grazing permit is being cut by 64 percent this spring.

Inchauspe is a self-made millionaire who started with a small flock of sheep. Not surprisingly, he resents outsiders meddling in his family business. He has had angry confrontations with environmentalists and the BLM range conservationist who oversees his allotment.

The allotment covers the entire broad-shouldered northwest end of the Toiyabe Mountains and takes in five streams, which have cut banks up to 12 feet deep through dying aspen groves and weedy, dried-up meadows before reaching the Reese River. The allotment is 28 miles long and 10 miles wide from the river to the crest of the range. A 1993 interagency commission concluded that Iowa Creek which runs through the allotment "is in a complete state of collapse."

Just across Highway 50, south of the small mining town of Austin, Nev., the Tiptons have been allowed to run up to four times the number of cows officially listed on their grazing permit. The Forest Service and the BLM have encouraged them in an experiment to restore overgrazed rangeland. And environmentalists have gone along.

The Tiptons' allotment runs in a narrow one to three mile strip for 20 miles along the steep, lightly forested western slope of the Toiyabes. It also crosses five beat-up streams and a spring that is the source of drinking water for the town of Austin.

The Tiptons encourage outside interest in their operation. They are using a consensus-style management group to try to balance the need to repair damaged ecosystems with their need to make a living. They are often cited by environmentalists and agencies as ranchers who are trying to make a difference.

The two ranches run livestock on some of the same public land. In early summer, Inchauspe's sheep move through the Tiptons' Forest Service allotment along the crest of the Toiyabes. But they are at opposite ends of range reform. The Tiptons are bending regulations in the name of environmental restoration; the Inchauspes are resisting environmental regulation and facing cutbacks.

The two families are living in a whirlwind, if not a revolution. Never has so much attention been paid to these remote Nevada ranches. How families such as these deal with the scrutiny and the changes will determine the success or failure of range reform in the Great Basin.

The Inchauspes live in a weathered stone house nestled between two forks of Silver Creek at the north end of the Toiyabe Range, surrounded by cottonwoods and lilacs, stone barns, farm equipment, and sheep pens of roughhewn timbers. A sign hangs by the front door reading "Ongi etthori' - -welcome" in Basque.

Dressed in a sweat-stained cowboy hat, blue jeans mended in a dozen places and beat-up work boots, Paul Inchauspe extends a rough handshake as he introduces his wife Grace, daughters Pauline and Eveline, and granddaughter Katrina. The family sits around a dining room table surrounded by icons of the old country. A carved wooden relief of a Basque sheepherder in wooden clogs hangs on the wall.

A younger son in a family of seven, Paul Inchauspe left France after World War II to herd sheep for an uncle in eastern Nevada. After just three years, Inchauspe began leasing sheep to build a flock of his own; when he came back from a visit to the Basque country with a wife, his uncle offered to become partners with the Inchauspes in the Silver Creek Ranch.

Over the years, the Inchauspes saved money, bought more land and grazing permits on public land, and became one of the biggest permittees in Nevada. The names of the shepherds who have worked for them - Basques, Peruvians and Mexicans - are carved on the aspen trees in the surrounding mountains.

In 1986, Inchauspe bought out his uncle and cousins. Now that he owns the ranch free and clear, he says, "They want to take it all away."

Anger sets in the lines of his sun-darkened face. "See that pile of papers telling us how to run the ranch," he says, pointing to an inch-thick document his daughter Pauline brings from an office in the next room. "We know how to run the ranch."

The document is an "emergency" BLM decision forcing the Inchauspes to cull two-thirds of their herd of 2,400 cows and calves. The agency is also cutting four winter months from the Silver Creek Ranch's yearlong permit and tightening the schedule for moving the cattle and 3,000 sheep through the quarter-million-acre Austin allotment. The BLM has been under steady pressure from environmentalists and agency biologists to change management on the allotment. The agency's own blue-ribbon commission recommended "complete rest for a few years," followed by "an intensive holistic management plan for grazing."

"The land is forgiving up to a point," says Swede Erickson, a Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist. "Unfortunately, we passed that point. It's time to make a stand."

The BLM's "full force and effect" decision means immediate changes, regardless of whether the Inchauspes appeal the agency's ruling. So the Inchauspes are pulling in, selling off cattle, and planning to sue the BLM in federal court.

"It's pretty hard to swallow, what they're doing and the way they treat us," says Inchauspe. "We've been good for the country. And they kick us in the ass. They don't need us. I spend all my life building this. Now the kids take over and there's no future in it. Maybe it's better to forget the whole deal, it'll be so bad here. You could hardly make a living at it."

"We were lucky we started when we did," says Grace. "The only thing Paul had was the will to work. And somebody took a chance on us. Hopefully, the girls can hang on."

But 35-year-old Pauline is not hopeful. "I'd just as soon get a job washing dishes," she says. "There's no future in ranching."

Thirty miles south along the west side of the Toiyabe Mountains, Tony and Jerrie Tipton live in a beat-up trailer beside Big Creek, just downstream from a popular Forest Service campground. A tangle of portable metal corrals is the only other sign of settlement.

In the early 1900s, there was a mining camp of 1,000 people here, Tony says, as he leads us through a dusty patch of sagebrush to the creek. "They farmed the hell out of it," he adds.

The Tiptons reconstruct the town in words, describing the headgates for irrigation ditches, the gardens and field crops that depleted the soil during the short-lived boom, and the decades of grazing that led to the six-foot banks of Big Creek. Then they point out plants growing along the creek, the beginnings of a restored watershed, they say.

Tony Tipton is a reconstructed Sagebrush Rebel. He once shoved a BLM employee against a wall in an argument over a grazing form. Now he is the Nevada rancher whom Toiyabe National Forest Supervisor Jim Nelson points to as a positive example of "change on the range."

The great-granddaughter of an Arizona pioneer, Jerrie has played a big part in Tony's transformation.

"My grandfather said if you don't improve you don't deserve to stay," Jerrie says. "I believe we have rights. But if we are not stewards we have none." Jerrie's family has been involved with Allan Savory's Holistic Resource Management Institute in Arizona. Her sister works as a facilitator with consensus groups around the West.

Although they use "holistic resource management" techniques, the Tiptons are trying to shed the label. "You know how it is when someone finds a religion and tries to convince you?" Tony says. "When someone does that to me I shell up. HRM makes people's hair stand up on their backs. We're trying to drop any denomination."

Although Jerrie grimaces, Tony talks about "ground that needs you to beat the hell out of it." He says, "I think we should have cattle out there for no charge."

"A cow used the right way can create great things," Jerrie agrees.

"I try not to say cows and grazing anymore," Tony responds, a sly grin belying his poker face. "We have formed a vision and goals and a time frame," he continues seriously. "We're out there trying to create that."

Under a five-year memorandum of understanding with the Forest Service and BLM, the Tiptons are grazing from 600 to 1,000 leased cattle on their 21,000 acre allotment, using "short-duration, high-intensity grazing." Cows are bunched together and herded frequently through different fenced pastures along the steep slopes of the Toiyabes.

The Tiptons say they're making progress but losing money. They have sold most of their private land. They talk of starting a nonprofit and seeking grants for restoration projects.

This experiment is supervised by agency range conservationists and a consensus group called the Toiyabe Watershed and Wetlands Management Team, which meets quarterly in Austin. Anyone can attend. The BLM and Forest Service range managers who oversee the Tiptons' allotment are always there. State wildlife biologist Swede Erickson is usually there. So is Betsy Macfarlan, executive director of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association. There are often other ranchers and range consultants who are curious about the group. The Tiptons have personally invited just about every environmentalist in Nevada. Some have attended meetings. But none participate regularly.

Agency range managers say they are seeing improvements on the ground. The agencies have issued "findings of no significant impact" to allow the group free rein. But they are withholding final judgment until the end of the five-year experiment, in 1996.

"We're looking for a way to make this work," says Forest Service District Ranger Dayle Flanigan. "It's important for the big perspective, not just this piece of ground. We have to get to the point where we're all in this together and not separated and isolated out here. I know with Tony and Jerrie we're all in this together."

So far, the Tiptons are the only ranchers in the area not to appeal their allotment management plan. "For that alone it's a success story as far as the BLM and Forest Service are concerned," says Tony. "They could go back to being resource managers instead of making book for a lawsuit."

What makes these two ranches so different?

"They're playing by a different set of rules," says Pauline Inchauspe, when I ask her about the Tiptons. "He talks their talk." Now the BLM wants to impose holistic resource management on their ranch, she says.

"He ain't got no rules," says her father. "If he don't show improvement, he's out. Five years from now, he won't be around."

Pauline has never wanted to do anything other than work on the ranch. Now, she says, she regrets not going to college to learn how to "talk the talk" of "utilization and endangered species." There "may be some validity" to criticism of the condition of their range but "you have to look at wild horses that are there all year," she says. "We try to compromise."

The Inchauspes have taken cuts before. Over the years, their permit has been slashed in half even before the most recent cut.

"Cutting numbers won't do a thing," Tony Tipton says when I ask about the BLM's plan for the Inchauspes. "That's the worst thing they could do to succeed. The saddest part is the resource won't improve. And the BLM knows it won't improve. But it's the only stick they've got."

"They need to develop their communication skills," he says. "Them and the rancher. They're like a mad cow. You piss it off, it won't see the open gate. It'll break down the fence. We've done that to environmentalists and agencies have done it to ranchers. You need to take people through the process. It goes back to communication and trust."

For Dan Heinz, who has been organizing environmentalists to put pressure on the BLM, it's not the process but the results that matter. "Systems don't work," he says. "People do. If it makes people pay more attention, get out there on the land, it'll work.

"I like the Tiptons," says Heinz. "They're working their hearts out. I'm for giving them leeway. But not anywhere else."

The Inchauspes, on the other hand, are "real primitive in their husbandry," says Heinz. "They just turn them loose. That's their business. But we shouldn't have to sacrifice public land because that is the way they choose to do business."

Some of the differences between the Inchauspes and the Tiptons come down to the land. A lot of the country in the two allotments looks similar, says Bill Lutjens, the BLM range conservationist in charge of both allotments. But the Inchauspe's allotment covers nearly a quarter-million acres with "competing multiple uses' such as wild horses and sage grouse strutting grounds. The Tipton's have a "small allotment without a lot of controversy."

Fresh out of college and on the job for just a year, Lutjens says he has learned that a range con's job involves managing people as much as managing resources. Lutjens says that "if everyone can walk away and feel they've had an impact and see changes on the ground," such as with the Tipton's consensus group, "it's definitely more positive. It means less time in court."

The BLM tried a cooperative scheme with the Inchauspes, but it didn't work, Lutjens says. "It is specific to the individual players involved." The Inchauspes are "hard cases," he says. "I've bent them about as far as I can."

"We can reduce numbers and require rest but we can't force a change in management," says Dayle Flanigan, the Forest Service district ranger who works with both families. He adds that the Inchauspes do a fine job of managing their sheep on the forest but he doesn't have to deal with their cows.

There has never before been so much attention paid to these remote ranches, and nobody seems to know now what works best here.

A cut in the number of livestock allowed on a grazing permit doesn't necessarily lead to a change in the way ranchers see their land and manage their livestock. Cutbacks may be necessary in the short term. But they usually lead to court, often to stalemate, and not yet, at least, to long-term solutions for people who live on the land.

Consensus is clearly no easy path either. Even where controversy is limited, the results may not be enough to satisfy everyone, especially those who refuse to come to the table.

Meanwhile, environmentalists have chosen to remain outsiders at a time when they have an opportunity to become insiders in range reform at the grass roots. They prefer to stay behind the agencies, picking their battles strategically.

In the midst of all of this, the Inchauspes and the Tiptons anxiously face the future more uncertain than ever about what they're doing on the land.

Pauline Inchauspe worries that she will lose the ranch she grew up on in a struggle she cannot understand. "All we can do is prolong," she says. "If you win one battle, there will be another around the corner. And the war you'll never win."

Tony Tipton worries that even though he has completely changed himself and his ways, what he is doing is still not sustainable. "It's hard to keep losing money," he says. "I can bust my butt and make a better environment. And I can have nothing that will allow me to stay. Then what incentive do you have to improve the resource?"

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