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for people who care about the West

In New Mexico, Sid Goodloe sets an example for the federal government

  Sid Goodloe grows grass. Lots of it. His ranch near the village of Capitan is a green oasis in a southern New Mexico desert seared by drought. It's not that his land isn't hurting. Ponds and creeks are drying, and hip-high grasses now reach only to the knee. Still, his ranch has some water and grass.

Yet his Carrizo Valley Ranch is not a preserve; it is a working landscape where economics and ecology go hand-in-hand to ensure a good living for Goodloe and a sustainable living for the plants and wildlife that live on the ranch's 3,450 acres.

When Goodloe bought the ranch in 1956, the land was beat up. Roads from early homesteads had turned into deepening gullies, and cattle numbers had climbed to 60, which was double what the ranch could actually bear. He knew he had a problem when he found a rock cairn marking a section corner in a dense pine and cedar stand. Then he figured it out: The surveyor had put it there in 1880, because back then there was no witness tree to mark the corner or, for that matter, any tree at all within100 yards.

With the zeal of Johnny Appleseed, but with a much different goal in mind, Goodloe has spent almost three decades working the Carrizo Valley Ranch back to health. He thinned the forest that had invaded the ranch. He recreated an open cedar-pine savannah at lower elevations and, at higher elevations, an open ponderosa pine forest that would, in 1994, stop the Patos Mountain burn right at his fence line.

Grass grew as it had not for 50 years. Runoff from rainfall slowed, soil was held in place, water storage increased and more grass grew. The rock dams Goodloe placed in the gullies turned torrents into trickles and allowed soil to fill in century-old road cuts. The landscape healed.

Goodloe says his ranch has produced more than he could imagine in 1956. The land produces three times the tonnage of beef as before, yet leaves much grass ungrazed for wildlife and watershed health. More important in this dry land, it produces water; creeks that ran only when it rained now run year-round. That means mule deer in jeopardy elsewhere in the West are thriving on the ranch and producing hunting income. Erosion has stopped, gullies have healed and creeks are running clear.

And while fires rage destructively in next-door Lincoln National Forest, Goodloe's managed fires burn purposefully on the ranch, mimicking nature's way to keep ponderosa pine stands of old-growth, open, healthy and productive for humans, livestock and wildlife.

Goodloe's ranch also produces firewood for nearby Ruidoso, and those earnings pay for more land restoration. He says an occasional harvest of an old-growth ponderosa for adobe vigas commands top dollar.

All of this activity on the ranch produces open space at the very moment development near the ranch is turning $180 an acre range into $4,000 an acre home sites.

Goodloe hopes his Southern Rockies Agricultural Land Trust will protect this open space through voluntary, private conservation easements. He is putting am easement on his own ranch to ensure his family will always have a place to call home.

His working landscape is working overtime with his ideas to develop a cogeneration plant using forest slash and building a market for wildlife viewing. At the same time, his ranch is teaching others how to conserve their landscapes. After years of resisting his vision, public land managers are mimicking his practices.

There's every reason to believe that landscapes that work for private lands will also work for public lands. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton is committed to the President's vision of a nation of citizen stewards and to the belief that working landscapes are central to conservation. This is the heart of the Secretary's 4 C's agenda: conservation through consultation, communication and cooperation. It is also the spirit of the Bush administration's environmentalism.

The real lesson from Sid Goodloe's ranch is that the job of conservation on federal lands is too big and too important for government alone.

The role of the federal government is to make the work of citizen stewardship easier and more effective. That is why the Interior Department will be unveiling ideas for 4 C's initiatives to make citizen stewardship the national standard for conservation.

If Sid Goodloe's working landscape is the legacy he plans to leave to his children, it is also a vision worthy of the West. It's a strategy that can save America's wildlands and wildlife, reconciling people and nature, economics and ecology.

Lynn Scarlett is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].