I found a recent photograph that shows three people in cowboy gear – I’m the one pouring coffee from a thermos into beat-up cups. We’d all just gotten down from our horses, and the guys are leaning on a pickup truck marked U.S. Forest Service. Here’s the surprise: We’re all laughing.
I’m a rancher, and the picture was taken the day I accompanied two range technicians while they did annual monitoring work on our cattle-grazing permit in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. Usually, that’s about as much fun as going to the dentist. I dread the ordeal, mainly because it usually includes a scolding from the federal grass cops about “Things Gone Wrong,” subtitled “Cows Eat Grass.” In recent years the government’s answer to any problem has been “fewer cattle, fewer days on national forest lands.” This can make it hard for a rancher to make a living.
That day last summer, as the photo shows, it was sunny and warm, I had a good horse to ride in beautiful country, and the range conservationists were good company. I hadn’t met them before, but we visited easily as we stepped through the hoops of walking, counting, recording. After all, it’s not rocket science, measuring blades of grass. We’d been short of rain in Wyoming, and it was a relief to agree that the grass would be ready for our cattle when they completed their climb to these high ranges.
Usually, the day carries tension and finger-pointing, but to my surprise, these guys avoided that approach. They were more interested in the country around us and its history, asking questions about the original boundaries and previous permittees, landmarks and trails. They wondered if I knew the origin of obscure names such as Brindle Creek, Aagard Springs and Divorce Ridge. They asked about gone-away sheep permits on the Bighorns, and whatever happened to sold-off ranches and their owners, and about the early-day trails and roundup customs. We laughed as I retold the funny stories I knew from my 50 years of ranching here. My husband, I said, could tell them more, since he was born here and his father and grandfather used this range before there ever was a Bighorn National Forest.
We talked about the future, too, and I tried to be optimistic about what would become of local ranches amid trends for ever-more housing developments, second homes and resorts close to these public lands. The ride was finished before we finished the conversation, so I broke out the coffee and some fairly clean cups from under my truck seat. When the fellows left, I said I hoped to see them again, and I meant it. It felt like an unusual day. They’d given me a lot to think about.
Like some other ranchers in the West, our family has been in the same place for a hundred years or so. Local folks like ourselves are the “stickers,” as Wallace Stegner wrote, since we seem to be the ones who stuck it out, sustaining our communities and keeping their history alive in our memories. How refreshing it was -- the sincerity and respect for local knowledge these young Forest Service employees displayed. Our conversation that day reinforced my view that grazing permits and the ranching industry remain a positive use of public lands.
The ranchers who have survived have had to learn from mistakes and change practices to become better caretakers of public land. Now, those of us who are left on the land provide stability for the surrounding areas. I realized that this has been little understood and not much appreciated. Forest Service personnel usually move frequently around the region, and they must adapt to policy changes from Washington as they go. Ranchers, on the other hand, stay put, so that while their knowledge may not be as wide, it sure is deep.
I hope the two range men I spent time with show up again in a rancher’s picture somewhere, and I hope that someday they rise toward the top of the heap in the Forest Service. They reminded me that ranching shouldn’t be regarded as a detriment to public-lands management, but rather as a contribution to the wellbeing of our federal lands system. Multiple use of public lands is a concept worth preserving, and the relationship between permittee and staff member ought to be harmonious, respectful and maybe even enjoyable.
In the meantime, I’ll keep the photograph.
Mary Flitner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a rancher in Wyoming.