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Know the West

Ranchers charge tourists for a dose of reality


SALINA, Utah - Jeff Powell and Susan Rottman are schooling about 60 ranchers in the vocabulary of the New West: Family farms are destination vacations, chores are recreational activities and cattle drives are adventure tourism.

This is a crash course in "recreation ranching," a fledgling industry in the mountain states and, some say, the economic salvation of the rural West.

"This is for people like me who had to leave the farm and are hoping someday to find a way back," says Russ Cowley of the Six-County Association of Governments, at the first of three seminars around Utah this spring. "We're going to have to look at value-added agriculture to save our operations."

To that end, Wyoming ranchers Powell and Rottman teach Utah families how to market their farms to tourists. "If you've got a gully that keeps washing out, you can find people who will pay to come out and fix it," says Powell. "Ranch work can be exciting, at least for people who didn't grow up with it."

These aren't dude ranches, where the sole purpose is to entertain city slickers with faux cowboying. Recreational ranches are agricultural businesses run by people who earn most of their living through livestock or crops.

State Rep. Brad Johnson has been guiding and outfitting hunters on his ranch for 40 years and recently began letting tourists participate in cattle drives.

"I had 18 ladies, all liberal Democrats, and me a conservative Republican, on one of our cattle drives," says Johnson from beneath a black cowboy hat. "By the end, some of them were saying I had changed their minds about the image of ranchers."

But farm families may have to make some adjustments if they choose to open their homes to "greenies."

"You may not have to be friendly to your cows all the time, but with visitors you have to or they won't come back," Powell says.

"Travelers today do not want to rough it. They want a hot shower every morning and while they may sleep under the stars one night, they'll want a bed the rest of the weekend," adds Rottman.

And some traditional ranch chores may not be popular with all tourists. "A dude will love branding a cow, but she may not enjoy seeing the ears docked and the castration," Rottman says. "They want to see horses and pet them, but they may be afraid to get on and ride them."

There is one drawback to introducing outsiders to rural Western lifestyles: The visitors may like it too much.

"If they come, you want to make sure they go back home," says Rottman. "We still haven't figured out a way to convince them to stay at home and just send their money."

Christopher Smith reports for the Salt Lake Tribune.