News feature: Billy Martin’s last hand

SUPERIOR, Ariz. — Billy Martin understands it, but in a way, he doesn’t.

His family’s been on this land on the backside of the SuperstitionMountains since the early part of the century, and he’s tried to do everything right. But he’s not making money.

“My accountant said to me, ‘Well, they can never get on you for living high on the hog. It’s just not there,’” Martin says from beneath the brim of his beat-up hat.

With his sad blue eyes and classic cowboy face, Billy Martin is an example of the small rancher trying to make a living off his land, and the problems that small rancher is having doing it. Martin, who ranches 350 head of cattle about 50 miles east of Phoenix, and thousands of others across the West are caught in the clash between the romantic myth of the Western rancher and the harsh political and economic realities of the new century.

In 1970, there were nearly 2 million ranches in the country. In 2001, there were barely 1 million – and the trend is a downward spiral.

U.S. beef exports are up from what they were 20 years ago; but so are beef imports, which are growing at roughly the same rate as exports.

Adjusted for inflation, Americans spent $354.80 per capita on beef in 1980. In 2001, they spent $200.22.

There’s a herd of other problems, too. The court system is enforcing long-standing but often ignored environmental laws. The public doesn’t know what it wants to do with ranchers, even as it seems to know that it doesn’t want cows around. The feedlot industry can bulk up a calf to slaughter-weight faster and more efficiently than a rancher can.

Americans are eating less beef per person than they ever have. And the people who want ranchers off public lands have, in the past few months, shown a willingness to offer money to achieve their goals.

A look at the national numbers of ranch operations shows an industry not just in a long, slow decline, but struggling to redefine what it is. And there’s something else: a gap is growing between ranchers.

“We’re losing the middle in all of agriculture,” said Aaron Harp, director of the PolicyAnalysisCenter for Western Lands, based in Idaho.

In that middle is neither the dot-com rancher who comes down on weekends nor the corporations that run 15,000 head on 1 million acres. In the middle is the rugged-individual rancher, the great-great-great-great grandson of the guy who fought off the Apaches to homestead 160 acres of rocky land.

You can ranch under 100 head as a hobby, or you can ranch more than 1,000 and make a living. You can run a feedlot and grow huge cows fast and make a lot of money. But try to be in between – try to make a living just working your 350 head of cattle – and there’s a good chance you’ll lose your cattle, your land and livelihood.

Going to extremes

Jim Salmond’s great-grandparents left Virginia City, Mont., to stake a claim on the rugged Rocky Mountain Front in central Montana in 1886. Even today, it’s not a move that’s recommended unless you can take extremes.

The Rocky Mountain Front is a brutal place where hurricane-force winds come peeling off the slopes so loud that couples laying in bed can’t always hear one another speak. And then there are the snow storms, which turn everything white and regular and which you can smell coming two days ahead of time.

But people kicked at the landscape until it bled a living. There’s a lot of grass out there, and regular precipitation to regrow it. That’s cow country. And for a long time, profitable country, too.

Three decades ago, Salmond had 20 neighbors ranching near his place close to Choteau, Mont. Now he’s got two, and one of them is David Letterman.

“It’s for the rich and famous now on the RockyMountain front,” Salmond said. His brother sold out 2,600 acres to Letterman a few years ago. Salmond wants to hold on, but he’s not sure how long he can. Regulations are beginning to get to him.

In this, he is not unique. Though environmental laws have been on the books since the 1960s, only in the past two decades have the nation’s court systems really begun enforcing them with any regularity. The Clean Water Act – passed in the 1970s – affected where ranchers could graze their cattle. And that’s deprived many ranchers of their best forage areas – the creek bottoms.

But it is the Endangered Species Act that’s really put the hurt on ranchers. The ESA has become environmental groups’ most potent weapon. The courts in recent years have become friendlier to those groups as they pursue litigation aimed at protecting disappearing species.

The species almost don’t matter – each part of the West has its own list, each county seems to have its own species. In South Dakota, it’s the black-tailed prairie dog. In Idaho, it’s the sage grouse. In Arizona, it’s the loach minnow.

For Jim Salmond, it’s the wolves and the grizzlies. He’s got a new wolf pack that moved into the mountains west of him. He figures he’s losing between 5 and 8 percent of his herd each year. Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, will pay for any damages caused by the animals, but his losses are difficult to prove in the rugged country near his ranch. Salmond may only see a specific cow in his 800-head herd once a summer. By the time he finds a dead one, the carcass often is so badly decomposed it’s impossible to see what killed it.

“That might put me out of business between the grizzly bears and the wolves,” Salmond said. “At one time, we could take care of our problems, but we can’t anymore.”

Down in Paradise Valley, Nev., Fred Stewart watches the goings-on between environmental groups and ranchers with an interested, if relieved eye. In the 1980s, the Stewarts – whose 10,000-acre Ninety-Six Ranch was the subject of a 1985 exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History – sold off their federal grazing permits to other ranchers. They would go it on their own land.

“Dad kind of saw the handwriting on the wall,” Stewart says. “It was going to get tougher and tougher to deal with the federal government.”

And sometimes the handwriting on the wall is something that ranchers don’t want to read. So they do a very modern thing: they go to court.

Witness Jim Chilton, who owns the Flying X Ranch near Arivaca, Ariz.. The Flying X is a typical Southwestern ranch: there’s a small amount of private property, but the majority of the cattle grazing happens on national forest land. And a few years ago, the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service told Chilton he had to obey the Endangered Species Act because of the presence of the endangered Sonoran chub and the lesser long-nosed bat on his grazing allottment. Obeying the act would eliminate 1,200 acres of grazing along the banks of the dry-half-the-year California Gulch.

Chilton argued back. The chub couldn’t be on his property, since none of the streams on his property ran during the summer. The bat had never been seen near his grazing allottment. The legal briefs went back and forth, becoming more acerbic each time. Environmental groups got involved. The process got uglier.

Finally, in 2001, four years after legal discussion began, a judge reversed the Forest Service’s biological opinion – grazing could continue.

But the experience embittered Chilton, as it has many other ranchers. Chilton is a passionate man whose voice goes up an octave when he starts talking about the litigation (which the federal government is now appealing).

“The species are just a tool, a surrogate,” Chilton says. “(Environmental groups) sole objective is eliminate grazing from western states and land use that been, in our area, in existence for over 300 years. It is outrageous that a surrogate would be used to destroy our customs, our traditions.”

Chilton is right about one thing: the species are being used as a surrogate. The Center for Biological Diversity’s executive director has admitted as much in discussions about the Mexican spotted owl, another endangered species, and one which the fight over virtually eliminated the Southwest’s timber industry.

And, for the environmentalists, that’s not a bad thing.

What makes ranchers like Salmond maddest is that they see endangered species as a surrogate for environmentalists’ real goal, to push them off of the land.

“A surrogate?” asks John Horning, a watershed protection specialist with Albuquerque, N.M.-based Forest Guardians, an environmental group that has sued the Forest Service multiple times over Endangered Species Act violations and has five suits in court now that could change the face of public-lands ranching in the Southwest. “Sure. We’re using the species as a way to represent the entire ecosystem that we’re looking to restore. If we can make that ecosystem healthy for that species, than we’ve made that ecosystem healthier, in general.”

But there are many ranchers who believe that the endangered species argument is just another way of getting private hands off public lands.

Mixed messages

There was a time when ranchers – or the rancher myth – occupied a special place in the hearts of Americans. Kids played cowboys and Indians and the heroic frontiersman dominated popular imagery. But as America became increasingly urbanized, the knowledge that food came from the farm moved from the forefront of the national psyche.

With the Western economy booming, and the housing market with it, land became more valuable. And throughout the West, houses began to compete with cows for the same spaces.

“At one time, ranchers had a little something,” says Billy Martin, the rancher from Superior, Ariz., and a member of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, . “But things on the ranch have changed so dramatically from the standpoint of people. We see more people up here on a weekday than we used to ever see, even on weekends.”

As the mid-1990s came and went, there was a strong push by environmental groups to reduce the agriculture industry’s reliance on the federal government. There were calls to lower crop subsidies to farmers. And to remove public lands from grazing, where ranchers were paying an average of $7 per animal-unit less than they would have on private land.

But the American public doesn’t always know what it wants. A 1996 study in Steamboat Springs, Colo., concluded that most visitors found their outdoors experience enhanced by the trappings of a ranch – corrals, cattle and cowboys. A study three years later at the GrandStaircase-EscalanteNational Monument in southern Utah – where grazing was grandfathered into the monument’s use plan – showed that 68 percent of backcountry visitors felt seeing cattle had detracted from their visit; only 8 percent thought it had added something.

There are ranchers who have voluntarily given up their grazing allotments. But even they are resentful of the movement to push them off the ancestral land.

The Grand Canyon Trust, a Flagstaff, Ariz.-based environmental organization has been quietly trying to retire grazing allotments on the Colorado River plateau for the last three years. The Trust has been moderately successful at it, retiring more than 325,000 acres of public land from grazing.

“In our part of the world, most of them have jobs outside the ranch and a lot of them are in debt to,” says Bill Hedden, the Trust’s Utah conservation director. “They all have a gripe of one kind or another – ‘Oh, the government regulations are pushing me out,’ or something like that. Very few of who come to me are saying ‘Oh, I think this is wonderful.’”

On April 10, the world changed for ranchers. On that day, a coalition of environmental groups proposed that Congress allot money to retire grazing allotments of ranchers’ choosing. The groups that proposed it want to offer $175 per animal-unit-month (a term reflecting the privilege to enough grass to feed a cow and a calf for one month) to ranchers, a lot considering the average market value for a grazing allotment in the West usually runs between $50 and $75 per animal-unit-month.

The proposal took the ranching world by storm. Western members of Congress responded by vowing to kill the proposal. Many ranchers in the West are looking at it with suspicion. Environmentalists see the proposal’s lack of acceptance as more evidence that ranchers are evil.

Things are about normal in the West.

Cow factories

In the early part of the 20th century, it could take a calf five years to reach its slaughter weight. In the 1950s, advances in feed management made it possible to bring a calf to slaughter in two or three years. Today, the combination of 100 years of research into bovine growth, coupled with a better-living-through-chemistry attitude, has made it possible to get a calf to slaughter at 16 months.

Once a calf enters a feedlot, it’s subjected to massive feedings of corn, protein supplements and growth hormones. The result is business that, like your local discount superstore, makes its money on volume. The faster a calf hits the market, the faster a profit can be turned and the fewer costs are incurred.

It’s the present and the future of the cattle business – since 1970, the number of cattle on feedlots across the nation has gone up 6 percent. But the factory-style method of raising cows has hurt the small rancher, even though the rancher may be raising calves to sell to the feedlots.

The J.R. Simplot Co. in Idaho is a good example. The Simplot family runs its cattle on nearly 2 million acres of state and federal grazing land. Each year, between 20,000 and 25,000 head of cattle from those lands are sent to the company’s feedlots in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. There, they’ll join nearly 500,000 other head of cattle consuming the waste of Simplot’s french fry-processing plants.

Add in other factors, such as Canadian and Mexican ranchers who have an advantage granted by a favorable exchange rate, or the fact that Midwest beef growers can feed their cattle heavily subsidized corn that’s cheaper than hay, and the small rancher that built the West has his back against a barn wall.

“It seems like there’s always been something to keep us from getting ahead,” said Martin. “This year, it’s two things. One is that we have the numbers to sell. The other is the price of the ones we do sell. Usually, our yearlings (1-year-old calves) average around 600 pounds. This year, our highest was 600, and we were selling some as low as 295.”

Phil Davis, a fourth-generation rancher from Cascade, Idaho, has a different way of putting it. “The potential for loss is always bigger than the potential for gain.”

Not for the money

So why do it?

Why spend the years on the ranch, investing the blood and sweat and heart in something that’s dying? Is it for the kids?

“You don’t do it for the money, that’s for sure,” Martin said. “You do it for the lifestyle.”

Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe that’s where Frederick Jackson Turner’s rugged individualist has come to rest. Ranching is an acceptable way of life because it’s a way of life, and an avocation, too.

But then there’s Margene Eiguren, a fourth-generation rancher from Jordan Valley, Ore., whose three sons are trying to keep the ranch going. She wants to talk about how good they are at handling horses; that’s what people in the Idaho-Oregon borderlands say about her sons. She doesn’t want to talk about the myth of ranching. She’s proud of its reality.

But the frustrations her extended family faces over endangered species laws and land-use plans takes over the discussion.

“They’re in meetings three times a week and in one lawsuit after another,” she said. “It has totally destroyed their quality of life.”

Since 1986, the number of ranchers in the United States has gone from a shade over 1 million to about 831,000. Some of it is the feedlots. Some of it is the laws, and some of it is the rapidly disappearing land of the West, so much of which, Davis notes, “is only good for growing grass.”

So the ranchers diversify.

“When I first came here (27 years ago), the ranchers used to feel like the aristocracy of this part of the world,” Hedden said. “They still feel they’re the real, true people of this world, but when you run a backhoe or work in a convenience store to make a living, it changes things.”

Randy Kieser is pretty blunt about it. He’s a long-time rancher, but since 1999 has turned his Gray Rocks Ranch into a guest ranch. For $1,200 a week, guests can come to the 26,000-acre ranch near Guernsey, Wyo., and work the 325 head of cattle Kieser runs.

“The state of the industry is pretty much a disaster,” Kieser said. “It’s a little diversification, a little cash flow. In ranching, you’ve got drought, you’ve got grass regrowth, you’ve got fires, you’ve got markets.

“I wanted to get into a business that was growing, rather than a business that was waning.”

The impact of diversification is stunning. The average ranching family in Arizona gets more than 50 percent of its income from off-ranch jobs.

On the Gray Rocks Ranch, the guest ranch makes up about 15 percent of the ranch’s gross receipts. But when you look at the net, it changes. The guest ranch operation, which has never had less than 18 guests and never had more than 27, makes up 40 percent of the ranch’s net income.

Part of the landscape

Billy Martin’s mother used to put him on a horseback when he was a baby and ride him around the family ranch when it was still thriving. Today, the cattle business is lousy. Martin is 77 and his hands are gnarled from years on the ranch, knuckles looking like they have crab apples shoved beneath the skin.

His son hasn’t committed to returning to the ranch. So Martin keeps working it with those swollen hands.

“I’d like him to come back, and hopefully he keeps it as a working ranch,” Martin said. “But soon enough, I’ll be in a place that won’t matter.”

Billy Martin has tried to live the clean life, and when he talks about being in a place that won’t matter, he isn’t talking about retirement. He was born on this land, on a little rise of green and brown among all the other rises and dips of green and brown on the backside of the SuperstitionMountains.

He’ll die here, too.

–Idaho Statesman
June 16, 2002