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John Faulkner and the flock,
Story by Carolyn Dufurrena. Photos by Linda Dufurrena.
|John Faulkner gets ready to move a band of 1,500 sheep across a narrow iron bridge. Recreationists now demand clean trails so the local recreation district brings a tractor and broom to sweep the path.|
John Faulkner stands in the golden October morning, in a grassy
meadow, a bench above the Wood River in Idaho. He is a tall, square-shouldered
man with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, wearing a Carhartt
coat and a low-crowned silverbelly Stetson hat. Steam clouds rise
from around his conversation with one of his herders, a small
Peruvian holding a red roan horse in the early light. The river
gurgles over smooth stones below the bench, winding its way down
through aspens, between steep brown hillsides dotted with patches
of fir and lodgepole pine. Further up the valley, the peaks are
already white. Faulkner is getting ready to cross a band of 1,500
sheep over a narrow iron bridge.
Just beyond the band of sheep, behind Faulkner and his herders,
stretches the lower valley. Things have changed here in the 60
years of the Faulkner sheep business.
The valley used to be all farms and ranches. Trains went out every
day in summer with 40 to 60 carloads of lambs, for this valley
and the surrounding area shipped more sheep and wool to market
than anywhere but Sydney, Australia.
Then, in 1936, the Sun Valley ski resort was founded just a few
miles above this crossing. In fact, Faulkner recalls, the Ketchum
Livestock Association owned 800 acres in Sun Valley, and the entryway
to Sun Valley Lodge was mistakenly built on Livestock Association
land. We sold it to em for a dollar. Piece by piece, the rest
of the deeded land was to follow, and now there is no more Ketchum
Livestock Association. Today, the backdrop to the trail is not
just aspens and craggy canyons, but the ski lodges, million-dollar
vacation homes, trendy restaurants and ski shops that are the
seasonal haunts of getaway glitterati, who fly in to the Hailey
Airport in private jets with their staff and their nannies. Remote
controls inside cockpits turn on the heating systems in their
mountain getaways as they are on final approach.
We have passed by many of these lovely homes on our way to this
bench above the river. There is a cluster in the immediate background
behind this band of sheep. Many of them are empty: its not ski
The other people who have come up the path behind the herders
are tourists, here for the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, of
which this band of Faulkners sheep is the main attraction. People
with whom I speak have planned this trip for months. Theyve driven
a long way to help walk the sheep through Ketchum. After they
cross this bridge, the sheep will proceed, hopefully at a walk,
down main street, along the bike path, through Hailey, and into
pastures below town. Many of these people are here to help herd,
weekenders from Wisconsin and Wales, Georgia, and New York. They
are just out for a jaunt, curious, interested. Faulkner welcomes
them. They seem to like seeing the sheep, he says. We are none
of us that many generations removed from the farms of our ancestors.
All around the West, development, recreation and agriculture find
themselves operating in the same spaces, sometimes pretty uncomfortably.
More people, more wealth, means more recreation; more recreation
has meant more grazing land under restriction from the creation
of national monuments and recreation areas. Development has moved
ranchers inch-by-inch out of the valleys where their fathers made
a place for themselves.
Locals worry about the Aspenization of this valley. One example
is the trail easement, a 50- to 100-foot right-of-way next to
the railroad right-of-way used by sheepmen throughout the history
of the valley. Its now been paved through Ketchum, and is used
as a bike and hiking path. Faulkner has tried to accommodate locals
peeved by sheep droppings on the bike path.
The Recreation District brings a tractor now with a broom on
it to sweep the path, he tells me. It follows the sheep down
the bike path, so people dont get anything stuck in their rollerblades
or up their backs. I tell em, fenders on your mountain bike would
do the same thing, but they dont think thats too funny.
Faulkners family and their sheep have trailed down this valley
since the Depression. His father Ralph started with a band of
25 sheep, which he bought for a dollar apiece down in Gooding,
below where this valley widens into the broad Camas Prairie, where
these sheep are headed. The Faulkner home place is down there,
with 2,800 acres planted to sugar beets, corn, and grain; feeder
lambs spend eight weeks on pasture there before being trucked
to Greeley, Colo. for the winter. Ewes lamb on alfalfa pasture
in Blythe, Calif., and return to Idaho in the spring. We graze
BLM land in March, then move onto some private land in April and
May. By June were up on the national forest. In October, they
make the journey back through this valley, to be sheared in preparation
for the trip to California. You can tell he loves the sheep business
by the way he talks.
My father started a community band, ran other farmers sheep
in Gooding. In 1935 he got 500 AUMs [animal unit months] from
the BLM, and started to build from there. Ralph gradually bought
out the farmers. He was running four bands by the time his eldest
son John got out of the Army after graduating from the University
of Idaho. He had 12 bands by the time his three sons were grown.
Jim followed John to school in Moscow, and also joined the Army.
Fred stayed home on the ranch after army life. Jim split off from
the sheep operation in 1983 and now raises Simmental cattle and
horses near Bliss, Idaho. (We were getting along great, and thats
the best time to split up.) Fred and John split the business
again in 1992. We still have breakfast together about every day,
Faulkner says. He now runs the business, 10 bands of Columbia-Rambouillet
ewes and Suffolk rams, numbering some 11,500 head, with his wife
of 45 years, Jody, sons Mike, 42, Mark, 40, and Jack, 31.
Faulkner has taken me on a drive to point out some of the other
bands that are in the valley. I ask him about working with the
federal government. We have a pretty good relationship with the
Forest Service, he says. Last summer they worked out details
together for putting in several more campgrounds. He realizes
the importance of taking care of the land. In the Sawtooth, theres
a lot of granitic soil. You dont want to abuse it, graze it down.
Not even to reduce the risk of fire? We dont have a lot of fires
on the north end up there. He tells me that the nickname for
the Sawtooth is the asbestos forest. The moisture up there is
good, the grounds higher than on the south end, across the Snake
Hes encouraged about the sheep business; relieved with the results
of the election. I think well see more professionalism in the
Forest Service leadership, he says. The people here have been
so bogged down in paperwork for the last years but theyre feeling
better about the way things will go.
What does he want for his kids? The boys and their families want
to keep going in the sheep business. I think we can get along
with the Forest Service and with recreation interests. In 1950
we were lucky to make a hundred pound lamb. This year the lambs
averaged 136 pounds, and theres more forage left behind on the
mountain. The gauge of it is the quality of the lambs. The forest
is a renewable resource, and its better than 40 years ago.
That sounds like a recipe for the future.
Carolyn Dufurrena is a geologist, teacher, rancher and writer from Denio, Nev. Her mother-in-law, acclaimed photographer Linda Dufurrena, lives on a sheep and cattle ranch close by.
Editor's Note: Trailing of the Sheep 2001 will be held October 12-14. For information contact the Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce at 800-634-3347.
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