RANGE magazine

Give Me a Home where the cattle still roam

By Catherine Shepard. Photos by Pam White.

I slept in peaceful bliss in the cab of a Ford pick-up when a burst of adrenaline startled me. Holding my breath, I got my bearings and raised my head just high enough to peek out the driver's side window. Nothing but empty desert; everyone else had ridden away on horseback about an hour earlier. Keys in the ignition swayed as the truck rocked back and forth. I swallowed and looked into the side mirror. With a disgruntled "Mrrr...," a black and white cow stepped into view from behind the truck.

I came to the Owyhees in Oregon to interview Michael Hanley, IV, a target of environmental activists. A neighbor of Hanley's had referred me to him as a resource for an article I wanted to write about the area's unique way of life. Ranch family culture still revolved around pioneer values of hard work and responsibility. Ranchers used 19th century practices, equipment and gear introduced by vaqueros from Northern California.

When I began to research Owyhee, I hit a jackpot of references to books and websites opposing federal lands grazing. Much of the material contained derisive language about ranchers. Some of it referred to Hanley. Curious, I called him for an appointment, confident that living over 20 years in Berkeley provided me the ability to see through uninformed opinions. I packed my jeans and boots-with my attitudes and preconceptions-and flew to Boise.

I drove southwest to the town of Jordan Valley, just over the southern Idaho-Oregon border. The remains of the town nestled around the backward "L" formed by Interstate 95 where it turned west. The only grocery store stood empty, a "For Lease" sign propped in a window. The Basque restaurant's marquee read "Out of Business." High desert terrain surrounded the small, depressed town and stretched toward distant, snow-topped Steens Mountain.

About a mile past the end of town I pulled up in front of a small stone house with a hand-lettered sign that read "Hanley Ranch." A white, two-story home with a steep green roof stood down the road. Two corrals, a barnyard and a rusty, yellow house trailer connected the old stone house with the newer one. A hospitable, pre-school-aged boy opened the door to my knock. When I said I'd come to see Michael Hanley, he took my hand and led me through the kitchen, out the back door, and down the steps, where he pointed to a stone barn.

"Papa's out there."

After a moist hand-nosing by a friendly border collie, I spotted Hanley in the carriage barn, gathering parts and tools. He reminded me of a white-haired Ron Howard and, although 60, moved with the agility of someone half his age. Hanley leaned against a red and yellow stagecoach and hooked his thumbs into the front pockets of mud-encrusted jeans. His stance and clothing would have looked contrived on anyone else, but his clear, intelligent gaze set him apart from western stereotypes. I asked about activists' threats to close down the ranch that had been in his family for four generations.

"It doesn't have to be confrontational, you know," he said. "Most of us are interested in conservation. We'd rather work with environmental groups to restore the land. But they don't want it to look like they capitulated.

"Haven't they heard of property rights?" he continued. "Ours go all the way back to English common law. You've heard of the Magna Carta..."

I smiled, aware that Hanley had been a history major in college.

"People don't understand why ranchers are so committed," he said, kneeling to bend a metal band around a wooden wheel. "We're part of this land. We depend on it for our survival."

I asked for an example.

"When I was eight, my father took me on a cattle drive. It was spring turnout and much of the time it was blizzard conditions. We drove the cattle over 30 miles in three days, overnighting them every 10 miles or so. When we got there, I remember sitting on my horse, eating a sandwich in the freezing weather with my father next to me on his horse. Even though I was small and cold, I felt pretty big right then.

"This kind of sacrifice makes you feel invested in your work and it's why we do what we do. I'm sorry that there are people who don't understand."

When we finished talking, he offered to drive me to the grazing area. We walked outside and watched his son, Mike Rose, lead horses up a ramp into a long silver trailer attached to Hanley's 4x4.

Two eager border collies paced in the truck bed. One of the four ranch hands grabbed my elbow and helped me into the cab. As we bounced along on unpaved roads, Hanley shouted over the engine and gravel noise explaining how his and neighboring ranches grazed their herds together. He said that ranch owners inherited a commitment from their forebears to care for the land, whether they owned it or leased it from the government.

I asked about the environmentalist Jonathan Marvel, his outspoken adversary.

"The first time I met him, he came up and said, 'I'm going to do whatever it takes to get rid of you and your cows.' He got close to my face and poked his finger into my shoulder. He wasn't laughing. Now how do you talk to someone like that?"

After an hour's drive, Hanley stopped. The ranch hands put on their chaps (called "chinkaderos" or "chinks" in this part of the country), saddled the horses and trotted into the desert, led by the yelping dogs. Hanley and I drove back about a mile so he could look for strays. Grabbing his used-to-be-white felt hat from the seat, he saddled Douglas, his black horse, then appeared at my window.

"I'll be about an hour," he said. "Might be a good time for a siesta."

How had he known? Worn out from traveling, I leaned over, put my feet up on the seat and fell into a deep sleep.

* * *

A few days later, I walked into an office in Boise where Jonathan Marvel had offered to meet, saving me the three-hour drive to his headquarters in Hailey, Idaho. An architect in this scenic area near Sun Valley for 20 years, he designed over 160 houses. Marvel founded the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization working to protect and restore western watersheds. The WWP and similar organizations filed lawsuits against government agencies and individuals for enforcement of environmental protection laws.

Marvel had just returned from an all-day meeting. Dressed in a short-sleeved plaid shirt, khaki pants and brown suede Nikes, he was polite and attentive, not what I had expected from several unflattering newspaper articles. He invited me to sit on the porch.

While he finished a fruit drink, I glanced at the WWP's Spring, 2002, newsletter, Watersheds Messenger. The cover featured a drawing of a snouty, bloated cow labeled "Public Lands Ranching." The sorry beast stared ahead with dull, drooping eyes, munching dollar bills in its rhinoceros-like mouth. Numerous cow pies dotted the surrounding dry creek bed. The caption read "The Real Welfare Queens."

Marvel leaned back in a white plastic chair, fingertips together, and gazed at the cloudless sky. Assuming this was my cue, I asked about plans to restore a ranch the WWP had purchased. He turned toward me, eyebrows furrowed in concentration.

"Ranching is an atavistic lifestyle," he said, "an unusual relic of the past that has nothing to do with reality. It's not financially viable, so how can it be a business? They need to sell their land and get jobs like everybody else."

To make sure I understood him, I asked, if inevitable, why not let the family ranch die a natural death? He smiled and said, "We're here to accelerate the process."

According to Marvel, ranchers saw themselves as superior to others who settled western territory because they thought that their image best represented the West. "The cultural value of self-importance," he called it. Ranching wasn't a business, it was a "lifestyle choice" subsidized by the federal government's low-cost grazing leases.

"Ranching doesn't represent the development of the West anyway," he said. "Cities do. Mining, logging and railroads created commerce. Livestock were brought in to feed miners; ranches were a by-product."

Marvel added that, although he respected Hanley, they came from two different "belief systems."

"Go down and meet him if you can," he suggested. "You'll like him. Everyone likes him."

Studying my notes that evening, I saw why Marvel and Hanley might hold different views. Marvel grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, where his father, a lawyer, owned a small farm. "I've pitched hay just like they have," he had said, referring to the ranchers. In contrast, Hanley relied on ranching to support his family. He didn't have a back-up job.

I drove back to Jordan Valley where, to my surprise, I felt more comfortable.

"Whad'ya think of Jon Marvel?" Hanley called out as I approached his barnyard. A ruddy-faced man in a turquoise plaid shirt, new jeans and a shiny silver belt buckle pointed to a red pick-up. "Help yourself to a beer."

I told Hanley that I was confused, grabbed a Coors Light from the cooler and sat on the steps leading to Jordan Valley's old general store. Hanley had moved it to his property just before its scheduled demolition. He and his friend in the plaid shirt wandered over.

"Catherine, this is my friend and attorney, Roy Crawford," he said. "Roy, here, is trying to help us straighten out the mess we're in. The Bureau of Land Management [BLM] has ordered a large reduction in grazing on the neighbors' and our allotments. We can't survive on that."

His grazing limit had been lowered as the result of a BLM Field Manager's Decision regarding the renewal of his lease.

I flew home with more questions than I'd brought. The activist view, as described by Marvel, didn't make sense to me. Why wouldn't they work with the ranchers? What was the point of disparagement and ridicule? A friend expressed disappointment that I'd "bought" everything Hanley had said.

After arriving home, I looked up articles and books, seeking explanations for the inconsistencies I had observed. The following quote, and others like it, pointed me in a new direction.

"On the surface, social change movements appear to be spontaneous bursts of energy, a sweep of people, outraged, rising to demand a change. But in truth they flow from careful organizing, massive public education, sustained agitation, and at time[s,] inspired collaboration across the divides of race, gender, and class. These movements are driven by human energy, intelligence, courage-and money."

I began to place confusing events in a different context. For instance, the term "sustained agitation" applied to a mental note I'd made. Several Jordan Valley residents had expressed concern about certain "pro-environment" activities that seemed pointless, malicious and/or destructive. Someone said that a cow had been shot several weeks earlier.

The WWP and similar organizations' members were not affected financially by their decisions. Donated funds paid for litigation. Ranchers, most of whom lived at subsistence level, took big financial hits for legal defense. Some went bankrupt, freeing up their grazing leases. Environmental organizations expressed interest in acquiring them.

The tactics used by extreme activists made me wonder if environmental restoration was just a faŤade, a means to another goal. Although Marvel had said that he objected only to ranching on federal land, his general disdain for livestock raising suggested other motives.

Wasn't this just the same old story-power and money buying control in the guise of hiking boots and backpacks?

The next time Forests Forever calls, I won't be available. I need to start adjusting my attitudes and preconceptions. *

Catherine Shepard started writing after a 20-year career at the University of California in Berkeley. Her work has appeared on Salon.com, and in the Denver Post, the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and Skirt! magazine, among others. She lives in Berkeley.

Winter 2004 Contents

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