Restorative Grazing

Ranchers and environmentalists have fought for years over grazing practices, which many say damage grasslands and streambeds. But now some are finding that cattle can help restore degraded land.
For nearly 10 years Dan Dagget, the author of this article, was conservation chair of the Northern Arizona Sierra Club, where he fought to stop grazing on public lands. His commitment to restoring degraded land led him to study a wide variety of approaches until he finally concluded that carefully managed cattle grazing need not harm grasslands; in fact, large animals may be needed for the health of these ecosystems.

This theory is not without controversy, but it is taking hold among some ranchers and agrarians. Washington State University has developed an outreach effort that has resulted in groups forming in dozens of rural communities to explore these grazing techniques and the consensus-building processes that practioners say is crucial to success.

In 1978 Tony Tipton rented a bus, filled it with his Winnemucca neighbors, and drove to the state capital in Carson City to join what was then called the Sagebrush Rebellion. This band of ragtag populists backed Nevada state legislators in an effort to force the federal government to turn control of federal lands over to state and local management. “We were fighting for our livelihoods. We were desperate,” says Tipton.

The grievances that drove these people to such desperation are of a type and magnitude that most of us rarely encounter. People who ranch public lands serve as chairman of the board, chief cook and bottle washer, go-fer, and buck stopper of operations that can cover nearly as much territory as some eastern states, and they frequently have to stay afloat on an income skimpier than what one might get for installing doorknobs in tract houses. And to do this they invariably have to participate in negotiations as complex as any that have ever challenged an international tribunal.

The Sagebrush Rebellion eventually foundered as it attracted the full wrath of urban opposition, but the experience had planted a seed within Tony Tipton. To him the rebellion's failure had made it clear that, in spite of ranchers' near legendary reputation for winning political battles, if they tried to win by fighting they would inevitably lose. At first this realization was of little use to Tipton because he knew of no alternative. He would have to lock horns with the government and environmental regulation one more time to stumble across one.

That opportunity came when Tipton was trying to come up with a justification for allowing cattle to graze the streamside areas on a ranch in Grass Valley, Nevada, that he was trying to buy. When he heard about a course in Lincoln, Nebraska, that taught that cattle grazing could actually be good for the land, he signed up. The course in Holistic Resource Management (HRM) was taught by Allan Savory, a former wildlife manager from the savannas of Africa. Most of the 35 people who attended were lawyers, lobbyists, and environmentalists of various stripes.

Tipton came away from five days with these people he had called enemies for most of his life a changed man. “I walked away from that course believing that environmentalists were my best friends,” Tipton says. “We were best friends because we wanted the same things – healthy ecosystems, biodiversity, healthy water and mineral cycles, and land covered with plants instead of bare dirt.” The old Sagebrush Rebel had found his alternative. To keep doing what he wanted to do, what he loved and lived to do, he now realized that he would not only have to join his opposition, but he would have to get them to join him.

Burning with the fire of the born-again, Tipton arranged for a basic course in HRM to be taught in his home town of Winnemucca and sent invitations to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) staffers and grazing permittees across the state.

Good things frequently come in bunches, and it was during this time of change and hope that Tipton met his wife-to-be, Jerrie Cline. Jerrie is from an old ranching family in the mountains of central Arizona. She tells her own horror stories about getting along with the feds. “My dad was one of the best cooperators the Forest (Service) had, served on the grazing boards so long they finally had to retire him,” Jerrie recalls. “But we had as much trouble as anyone.”

The Cline family's frustration also led them to join an activist group, but instead of the Sagebrush Rebellion, they became active in the Arizona Cattlegrowers' Association.

“The cattlegrowers exist off of memberships,” Jerrie explains, “so the only way they could get money from us was if there was a fight. After a while we began to feel they had more of a vested interest in having fights than they did in solving problems.”

The Cline family's flight from confronta-tionalism led them to the same alternative as Tony Tipton. They started attending HRM classes, and Tommie, Jerrie's sister, went from working for the cattlegrowers to working for the Center for Holistic Resource Management in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Tommie Martin made her transition with enthusiasm. “Before long Tommie was getting calls from all over the West to facilitate meetings or teach courses,” her sister Jerrie says. “But Tony and I got tired of passing out bibles. We decided to make our statement on the land.”

They set out to apply the HRM model to the Austin, Nevada ranch they had acquired as an alternative to the fence-partitioned allotment that had sent Tony to his first HRM course.

Identifying the whole

To get started, the HRM planning model is crystal clear on what must be done. First you identify the whole: the land, the livestock, the wildlife, the bugs, the birds, the grasses, the trees, the weeds, the ecological processes, and last but not least, the people who have an interest in this land and its management or will be affected by it – all of them.

Then you bring people together to talk about goals for the land and to commit to work together to achieve those goals that are shared. For their first meeting the Tiptons sent out more than 200 invitations to representatives of Earth First!, The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Nevada Cattlemen's Association, and other interest groups, as well as to all the government land management agencies with an interest in the more than 40,000 acres of public lands that their grazing management plan would affect.

The mailing list was selected according to one of the cardinal principles of ecology: diversity creates strength. No one was overlooked because his views were too radical. That is still the case. Opponents of grazing as well as its friends are invited. Among those who get a regular invitation is Dan Heinz, a critic of collaborative groups who says, “I've never seen consensus management work.”

The response was sparse at that first meeting (no environmentalists and only a few government staffers showed up), and the mood was guarded. Some of the agency representatives were aware of Tipton's Sagebrush Rebel roots. They had heard that he wasn't above slamming someone against a wall to make his case. “He was known as a real hothead up in Winnemucca,” remembers one BLM staffer.

In spite of the low attendance at the Tiptons' early meetings, enough optimism was generated to form the Toiyabe Wetlands and Watershed Management Team. The name in itself is a stretch, a means for the group to challenge itself. Much of the land included in the team's “whole” is high desert – sagebrush dispersed over rapidly eroding exposed soil. It looks like anything but a wetland, but the Tiptons have learned not to take anything at face value.

To get to know what their land was capable of doing the Tiptons decided to learn, as best they could, what it had done in the past. They dug through BLM archives, old USGS maps, and photos saved by Austin families. Their research revealed that the land their ranch occupied had changed dramatically in the years since modern habitation. They found that, when miners settled there in the late 1800s, land that is now mostly bare dirt had produced vegetables to sell in the mining camps. They puzzled over a picture of a neighbor's great-grandfather standing next to a water wheel by a stream that now is little more than a dry wash.

Amazed, they went out onto the land looking for evidence of its fertile past. There they located survey points where turn-of-the-century notes said there was once shoulder-high grass and now there is little more than sage and rabbitbrush. They found a land comatose and emaciated – dying.

Betting on ungulates

For Tony and Jerrie this was a time both terrifying and exhilarating. Just as the members of their team had to be convinced that their newfound methods would work, so did they.

To do the convincing, they picked the most challenging test they could find – a steep, barren pile of clay; a dam that held back a settling pond for a gold mine located on the same Forest Service lands that the Tiptons' cattle graze. The dam was a scar visible for miles. In nearly a decade that had passed since the dam had been constructed, erosion had removed most of the topsoil and started to cut into the dam itself. A few tumbleweeds were all that grew where grasses had been seeded, and even the tumbleweeds were slowly disappearing.

The Tiptons offered to cover that eroding scar with green living grass, using only cattle and hay and enough fossil fuel to haul the hay into place. If they succeeded, they hoped to convince the Forest Service and their management team that their livestock could be used to improve the land.

But how do you get cows to make grass grow when they're almost universally recognized as one of the planet's most effective agents at making it disappear? That pile of clay never had supported much more than dust devils. To effect a change that sounded like magic and worked like common sense, hay would be spread over the surface of the dam, enticing the cattle to climb its steep slopes. There they would eat, tramp, defecate, and urinate – fertilizing, tilling, tamping, and planting the seeds of the hay and the five-way wheat grass mix that had been broadcast in case the hay seeds weren't enough.

The idea wasn't as crazy as it sounded. The principle behind it has been stated by ecologists from Allan Savory to Paul Ehrlich. “The grazing of the animals is responsible for the very existence of the grassland,” Ehrlich wrote in his book, The Machinery of Nature.

To prove that their ungulates could create a grassland where none had existed before, the Tiptons would spread 32 tons of hay over nearly 10 acres of land sloped so steeply that you almost had to crawl to get up it. The huge amount of hay would ensure that the animals wouldn't eat everything, but would churn much of it into the dirt. Along with their dung, that debris would create a mulch to hold moisture and fertilize the soil, thereby creating the conditions for growth.

The objective was to recreate an ancient symbiosis. Once the Tiptons' animals had eaten and fertilized they would leave, just as a herd of natural grazers would leave. Then, if grass did grow, they would not be there to eat it before it could become established or to overgraze it once it had. As natural grazers, when the animals did come back they would come as restorers, removing material that had grown during the previous season that was now of no use to the plants except to attract restorers. And as the cattle grazed, they would plant even more seeds, fertilize them, and once again leave.

For four days in November 1989, Jerrie, Tony, and Tommie, with the help of a hired hand and a few team members, skidded 100-pound bales of hay down that slope – slipping, sliding, and falling as they scattered the organic material over the clay. Then they climbed and crawled back up to do it all over again, cussing cows and their own stubbornness as they went.

Betting on Cows

In typical Nevada fashion, their neighbors placed bets, sitting in their pickups, watching. The Tiptons worked daylight ‘til dark, keeping a steady stream of hay spreading across the dam site.

The cows did their job, eating, and stomping. And when the work was finished, the slope was broken by innumerable terraces cut into the hillside by the passing of the animals, and the surface was thatched with trampled-in debris. Then the cows were removed and the land was permitted to gestate.

When spring came, all those with a vested interest – the Tiptons, the team, the bettors, almost everyone in Austin – watched the white scar on the mountain slope. Ever so slowly, it turned to brilliant green. Bets were paid and, by the end of summer, the Tiptons and their team waded through the thigh-high grass, clipping and weighing samples as they would to estimate the production of a hay field. Their tests revealed that their cow-cultivated mine site had produced more grass than some of their neighbors' irrigated hay fields – and had done it on less than six inches of moisture!

Standing on the top of that pile of clay, looking off across the immensity of the Nevada basin and range, Tony and Jerrie Tipton's 10-acre mine reclamation project shrinks into insignificance in comparison to the job that faces anyone with sufficient hubris to think he can restore the West. But it is here, among the grass enabled to grow by the Tiptons' cows, that one can begin to make sense of one of the most revolutionary claims Tony Tipton has made.

Ranchers and watershed stewards

“I'm out of the cattle business,” he has declared wherever anyone has been willing to listen. “I'm into the land management business.” Tony Tipton is saying that, in order to survive, ranchers must become more than just producers of beef: they must become stewards of the land. In order to do that, the Tiptons work long, backbreaking hours. They work to bring water back into desiccated ecosystems. They work to make the grass shoulder tall again. To bring elk back to the Toiyabes and to restore the numbers of sage grouse and curlews and even to put bigger nuts in the pinyon cones. They labor under the belief that someday Corky Campbell might stand beside the creek in Pipe Canyon where her great-grandfather stood next to that water wheel and think about building another one.

Tony and Jerrie believe that herein lies the future, perhaps the only future for public lands ranching. By creating this alternate form of support for ranching, Tony and Jerrie believe that they can convince at least some of their peers to manage in the same way they manage. They believe that if they can prove that they can be agents of restoration and stewardship, they will be joined and rewarded by the same people who spend money to stop the overgrazing and desertification of the West.

Many will write this off as a scam, as self- serving chicanery. But they have not seen what the Tiptons have been able to do. On this high, dry, severe land where rainfall averages as low as four inches a year, the Tiptons' unorthodox methods have reduced plant spacings in some places from 16 inches to five inches. They have transformed near monocultures of sagebrush into diverse stands of grass, broadleaf annuals (forbs) and shrubs. Water persists longer in streams flowing from watersheds where they have applied their methods. And they have expanded the size of at least one meadow sufficiently that a road had to be moved because it became too boggy to travel.

Not all the reviews have been positive. Dan Heinz, a free-lance grazing consultant for a number of environmental groups, continues to have reservations about what is happening on the Tiptons' ranch. “I don't deny cattle impact is a tool that Savory (HRM) grazers have revolutionized and demonstrated the benefits of, but they also need to realize that extended rest can have benefits too, especially on riparian [streamside] areas.”

Heinz also makes no bones about his skepticism of the collaborative process. “The people that come to the table with such enthusiasm now wouldn't be there if there hadn't been confrontations.” But about the Tiptons, Heinz is clearly positive. “Their attitude, their enthusiasm, the places they've turned around, their ready admission of the fact degradation has occurred – they're light years ahead of anything I encountered 15 years ago,” he says.

Some ranchers are critical of the Tiptons' admission that change is needed, viewing it as a chink in the bumper sticker solidarity that proclaims “For a Rancher, Every Day is Earth Day.” Others, however, have begun to emulate an alternative they see as stronger than slogans.

These ranchers are aware of the fact that the Tiptons have received a validation of their success in the form of a signed memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Forest Service. That document affirms that Tony and Jerrie and their team have transformed the Tiptons' animals from a commodity produced upon the land to a tool for improving it. To them that MOU serves as an affirmation, a benchmark, a beacon. It confirms what many of them know in their hearts is right: that fighting or selling out are not the only alternatives; that there is a way to work together. And it refutes a contention that many of them know just as deeply is wrong: that the only way they can improve the land is to leave.

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