Sunday, July 22, 2012

Of Ranches, National Monuments, Calves, and City Councillors

While the City Council was considering the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument resolution Monday, I was at a branding, on a remote ranch many hours north of Las Cruces.

A small group of people, aged 10 to 70+, were working hard on a hot day, gathering cattle from a large pasture, then roping, vaccinating, branding, and neutering them, all the while trying to avoid getting kicked. The adults exercised skill with the horses, ropes, and calves – and patience with the kids, for whom it was a learning experience. Together they were a team, with the same spirited mix of praise for a good move, teasing about a weakness, and self-deprecating humor you’d find on a good baseball team.

It was challenging work. I’d reckon it wasn’t much fun for the calves. Still, each calf got up and trotted off afterward, giving every appearance of having already forgotten the incident. (The cows scored occasionally: one knocked over the stove holding the branding irons, and a couple knocked over men.)

The ranch was miles from town. From a distance, the windmill flanked by home and barn made a lonely triangle. Inside, friendliness and good humor – and good food. Outside, vast pastures. Fences stretched toward each horizon through fields dotted by occasional small trees. Trucks and tractors were scattered about, some rusting.

"There ain’t a thing on my ranch you couldn’t start up and drive off tomorrow," one rancher remarked.

"You could start everything here, but I’m not too sure you could drive it off," said our host.

"What about that tractor?"

"You could start that – if Joe would return the carburetor."

The conversation touched on rattlesnakes, fences, and stories of roping deer, antelope, wild pigs, and even bear.

"Now what would you want to go and rope a bear for?" asked our host.

"Because it’s there. And I’m there, on a horse, with a rope," said the friend who’d brought me there.

"Then what are you gonna do with it?"

"That’s not part of the equation," he grinned. The stories about roping deer ended in victory for the deer, except one: a rancher’s teenaged daughter roped a big buck, then kept a tree between her horse and the buck’s antlers until the deer was tied to the tree.

I like the people and respect the life – of ranchers who actually work their ranches full-time. (Not folks with capital who merely own ranches.)

Driving toward Las Cruces, I wondered how the City Council meeting was going. My only discussion of the Monument proposal had come around dawn. I asked my friend what he thought of it. He said he couldn’t see the point in it, and thought "a bunch of knuckle-headed environmentalists came to town and felt like they had to do something."

I think there is a point in it. (No disrespect to my friend, who’s smart and goes to great lengths to make sure his cattle live as free and unstressed as possible and eat only what’s natural.) Although the land is already under BLM control, the BLM can sell or trade it. Monument designation would guarantee protection of natural and cultural treasures, and provide at least some boost to tourism and the local economy.

The Monument designation will also protect existing grazing rights. (Arguably, by locking in existing uses the designation might help preserve the ranching heritage.)
I empathize with the ranchers’ concerns. If I’d spent generations or decades of sweat and muscle building a going concern in the middle of nowhere, I’d be against anything with the slightest chance of endangering it.

I can’t sympathize with anti-Monument leaders (primarily anti-government, although many of them live off that government) who lie or mislead people. Some who know there’s still grazing on every sizeable National Monument on BLM land in the West keep saying designation will end grazing. They talk of the Monument grabbing private land, which wouldn’t even be legal. Others decry "giving away the land," as if someone were making the land a Chinese colony. Others tell half-truths or cite a weak and ideologically motivated study supposedly showing that monuments hurt local economies, when more robust studies show the reverse.

Similarly, the "People for Our Western Heritage" acknowledge only their own version of that heritage. Last week we spent three hours with Paul Taylor at his home. The Robledos, which the Monument would protect, were named after Pedro Robledo, an ancestor of his who died there in the 16th Century. Mexican and Anglo, like our state, Paul grew up on a farm near Chamberino. He is our western heritage – and strongly supports the Monument.

Too, I regret that so many ranchers support politicians who serve the oil and gas interests.

The threat to local ranching isn’t the Monument. It’s drought, with or without climate change. We’re over-developing a parched desert. More development, more pecan orchards, and continuing inattention to rapidly worsening environmental problems will leave more and more people fighting over less and less water.

Up at the ranch, when the talk at lunch turned to politics, I got teased for my liberalism (and for not eating meat) but we all agreed that folks deeply involved on different sides of these issues should cooperate more.

Maybe our biggest danger is people whose ideologies, careers, economic interests, or plain stubbornness make them take and hold positions, their ears closed to contrary evidence and conflicting needs.

[The foregoing column appeared today, Sunday, 22 July, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]

For those who don't live around here: there's a grass-roots movement to ask President Obama to proclaim the Organ Mountains and certain other beautiful or historically significant places in our county the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.   A strong majority appears to favor this proposal; but within certain specific groups, including ranchers and the Tea Party, solid majorities appear to oppose it. 

The City Council meeting I missed was a loud one, with probably more than three houts of public comment on the issue.  At least one somewhat overbearing gentleman appeared to threaten the councillors -- at which two of the councillors commented that they did not respond well to threats.  Apparently not.  The vote was 6-0 to express the Las Cruces City Council's support of the Monument proposal.  One councillor, an environmentalist who works with a group backing the proposal, did not participate or vote.  The local newspaper, the Las Cruces Sun-News, has also expressed support for the proposal editorially as has the County Commission.

I was content where I was, hours away from Las Cruces.  Good people, quiet countryside, interesting conversation -- and a close look at an aspect of ranch life I hadn't witnessed before. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this post, which I saw in the LC Sun on Sunday. You're correct on so many points. Makes me feel a little less alone here.