Saturday, May 10, 2014

Lighting out for the Territories, 7: Wild men and wild horses

These really are the last cowboys:                                                                           
I got interested in the West while working for the Washington Post, years ago. I wanted to write about the vast public lands, what I saw as a "kingdom in the country," and since the editor didn't know what they were, I took off in a van on my own. Below, part of  one chapter from the book that was later published by Houghton Mifflin and has just been re-written and reissued in paperback:        
                                       Mustanging Nevada

The range as we know it wouldn't be complete without those famous itinerant workers who often own neither cows nor land — the cowboys. They originally came out of Texas, having been taught to ride by Mexicans, hardly an all-American experience; yet they evolved into an American myth of valor and individualism. In reality, they were closer to nineteenth-century hippies than to the image projected by John Wayne.
During the course of my trip I would work briefly with contemporary cowboys in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Most of them did something else for a living and wrangled on the side for friends, relatives, and themselves. With the solitude and the sense of freedom their avocation entailed came some dirt and brutality. No one who has taken part in a spring roundup will soon forget the choking dust, the acrid smell of burning hair and hide, or the moans of a calf beneath the white-hot dehorner and the castrator's blade. That is not where the cowboy legend lies, however, but in the notion of movement, risk, and an endless succession of purple mountains and green valleys. These last ceased to be a reality in much of the West soon after cows and cowboys moved into them, but no matter.
Wild longhorn cattle originally made cowboying an extremely dangerous profession. Longhorns, too, are a thing of the past, but wild horses are not. They exist in great numbers in the West, and pose some danger to those responsible for rounding them up. I heard that the men who did it were considered mavericks by ranchers and government agents who dealt with them, just as their forerunners had been.

Southeast Oregon meets Nevada in alkali flats, dry lakes called playas, and stringy mountain ranges of deceptive height and distance, furred by blue bunchgrass growing on their flanks. The valleys stretch away under sage and greasewood — and squirrel tail and Indian rice grass, if the BLM brochures are to be believed. The BLM owns 86 percent of Nevada, and a lot of the country looks very lean.
On the edge of the Great Basin, roads far from the Interstate run for miles toward some immense stony wrinkle before making an abrupt turn and running for miles more. The lights of Winnemucca, Nevada, floated in a trough of evening shadow, as I came to the end of a long day of desert driving. The casinos on the main drag cast bright nets for passing motor homes. Winnemucca was no tourist attraction, but then gambling is a local pastime in Nevada, where townsfolk drop a five-dollar bill on the roulette table as casually as some people buy a newspaper.
I parked on a side street and ate tuna fish from a can for dinner, watching cowboys and girls in Levi's jackets tromp between the pools of glitter and Winnemucca's grainy darkness. I needed a place to park and sleep, and found my way to the BLM headquarters a couple of blocks from the last casino. I woke up the next morning to a full parking lot and the sight of people working in the offices.
They were expecting me. An hour later, I rode west across more desert with a soft-spoken, intense range con who for two years had been trying to get out of Winnemucca. "If you're a GS twelve, you have to move every four or five years," he said, "or you lose your effectiveness. People at the office get used to looking at the same face. The ranchers you've trespassed think you're an SOB."
A trespass was a citation for grazing more cows on government land than were allowed; judging by the view, any stock at all should have constituted trespass.
He said, "What can I tell you about Nevada? It has its share of unconventional people, is the main thing. We've got outlaws and renegades right here. They stab people, steal things, run mustangs."
Each of the six BLM management areas in Nevada is larger than Massachusetts, and each harbors wild horses that have to be rounded up. That requires a special sort of cowboy.
"This one's the best in the business," said the range con, indicating a collection of trucks isolated in big country at the foot of the Humboldt Range. A steel corral had been set up amidst the sage, and a few lone riders sat casually on their cow ponies, looking toward the mountains. We left the BLM Suburban near the road and hiked up. The contractor's name was Dave Cattoor; he was a small man with a horny hand and a slightly misaligned eye. The brim of his straw cowboy hat had been mended with epoxy, and his jacket bled goose feathers.
His lariat had a piece of chain attached to the end, for looping over the saddle horn after he roped a mustang. "It'll stay on the saddle that way," he said, to no one in particular. "Saddle might not stay on your horse, though."
He and his partner had earned half a million dollars in the last eight months. That seemed a lot of money, he said, until you realized that the weekly fuel bill for the helicopter alone was more than fifteen hundred dollars. Two had crashed since Thanksgiving. The previous year, a big semi belonging to the outfit had overturned in northern Nevada, and Cattoor and his men had set up a corral beside the highway and winched forty live mustangs out of the wreckage.
Cattoor and his partner, the helicopter pilot, paid all those expenses, plus wages and board for four men, and a bonus if things worked out well. They were paid sixty-nine dollars for each mustang they captured, and had to earn two thousand dollars a day to break even. However, they were making money. The wranglers all bunked at the Two Stiffs Motel, in Lovelock, for weeks. So did the pilot. We could hear him working the canyons, the rhythm of the engine changing as he turned and began to push the sound toward us.
"Here he comes," said Cattoor. "Get behind the horse trailer and stay out of sight."
The chopper flew low to the ground, while half a dozen horses raced ahead of it. They passed a mile to the north, bound for another canyon, but the chopper flanked and gradually turned them. They came charging into full view, coats dark with sweat. Cattoor had tied his horse behind the trailer and led a pony down to the open end of the corral, camouflaged with hay bales and sage. He crouched, waiting for the herd.
"That's the Judas horse," the range con said. The Judas horse stood patiently while the wild ones — a bay stallion, three mares, and three ponies — charged past. They wheeled as the chopper cut them off and drove them back toward the trap.
Cattoor released the Judas and it trotted obediently between the fences, followed by all but the stallion. At the last moment it turned and reared, making for the narrow slot between iron bars and that clattering machine. I could see the pilot clearly now inside his glass bubble, in a Windbreaker over an old plaid shirt, faded Levi's, and boots, a technological cowboy unhappy with this recalcitrant stallion forty feet from his rotors. Even I could tell that the horse was not going into the trap.
Men rose up with a long tarpaulin and ran across the mouth of the trap, cutting the rest of the horses off from escape. The stallion charged the helicopter. The pilot performed a sleight of hand inspired by the vision of a severed equine head, buckets of gore, a broken rotor blade, and oily black flames. The chopper swung heavily to port — reeled, really —the pilot silently screaming at an animal that had not known of his existence half an hour before.
Out of my peripheral vision charged two riders, leaning forward in their saddles, at a clip not commonly seen outside racetracks and the speeded-up versions of old TV Westerns. Men and horses seemed to vibrate with the effort, over rough country full of prairie dog holes. The stallion disappeared in a draw, followed by the riders, then emerged, a little smaller, the men seemingly close enough to reach out and put a hand on that sweaty flank. One tossed his lariat and missed, then Cattoor tossed his and the stallion came up hard at the end of it, pawing the air.
The range con beside me said, "Goddamn, he got him." The lariat cut off the mustang's breath, bringing it gradually to its knees. It rolled over, and Cattoor dismounted and cautiously approached. With a hank of rope he tied fore and hind hooves together before the horse revived, then left it to be picked up when the truck came around collecting hog-tied animals as if they were battle casualties.
"That Judas horse almost ironed me out," Cattoor said a few minutes later, seeking shelter in the horse trailer from some rare Nevada rain. The horse had kicked at him when he released it. Another BLM agent had brought more observers to the roundup. One was a wild horse advocate from Austin, Texas, named Deedee. She stood for a while with her hands deep in the pockets of her jeans, watching Cattoor. Then she told him that she had a special interest in his profession, being a founder of the American Mustang and Burro Association, which was a relative newcomer to the extensive wild horse lobby.
"We have members in thirty-eight states," she said. "We're one of the fastest-growing wild horse interest groups."
Someone said, "It ain't supposed to rain in Nevada."
Deedee's organization had joined the much larger American Wild Equine Council, and had paid for her to fly to Nevada. In addition to exercising influence there, she was on the lookout for another mare for her Texas household. She planned to adopt one of the mustangs. "We like the idea of horses running free, their manes flying in the wind," she said.
The range con later told me he badly wanted out of wild horse work, one of the most time-consuming and frustrating tasks in the BLM. "You can't imagine how much coordination goes into it."
I asked how many roamed Nevada. He thought there might be as many as forty thousand.
"Forty thousand?"
Mustangs are destroying what's left of the range, he said, but public interest groups prevent the government from dealing with them the way it deals with other, less harmful creatures. Coyotes are shot from helicopters or poisoned, but wild horses roam free, eating four and five times as much of the sparse ground cover as a cow. Some are trapped and shipped to feedlots, at ruinous expense, where they live until they drop of old age. Thousands of horses behind government fences eat their way through government forage because a few people consider them related to the old Spanish war mounts, and a symbol of wildness. So they cannot be sold as meat or turned into dog food, as an old steer might be.
The horses may be adopted, and for a year government agents have to visit these orphans to make sure they are being properly cared for. This part of the program, like the expense and the ban on productive use of wild horseflesh, arouses ridicule in the men who round up mustangs.
Mustangs aren't a good symbol of the wild, unspoiled West. They have nothing to do with the conquistadors but are the progeny of mares and studs turned out on public land during the Depression, when their owners couldn't afford to feed them. A few may be descended from draft horses let loose when the cavalry disbanded in the 1890s. Yet there are sixty-nine organizations fighting for their rights.
Behind Deedee, in the corral, tattered, bony, murderous animals with bloody legs, white scars on flanks and withers, and chunks missing from their own hides routinely sank their teeth in other horses. The fighting went on more or less continuously, and not just in captivity. Now the whinnying reverberated for a mile and more, hooves rattling against the metal bars and drumming on other equine rib cages.
A wrangler urged them into the collecting pen, careful to stay clear. Once the roundup was complete, the animals would be trucked to Palomino Ranch, a BLM feedlot north of Reno set up just for mustangs, where they would be processed, inoculated, and fed. Prospective adopters occasionally came by; most were discouraged by the sight of equine orphans kicking one another and demolishing the odd horse trailer.
A little mare lay in the weeds. A wild horse had stood on her neck until someone noticed and moved him. Now the mare's eyes assumed a terminal glassiness.
"Shock," the range con said.
"Our sign fell down," said one of the cowboys.
He dragged the dead horse away, tied to the pickup, and left her in a sage clump where predators would take over.
I later found out that in fiscal 1985 the BLM had spent $17 million on wild horses. Congress had passed the Wild Horse and Burro Act fifteen years before, at the urging of the wild horse lobby, stipulating that mustangs had a place on the range. The BLM operates its wild horse program under a continuing resolution; the program includes squiring around visiting journalists and horse lobbyists, holding public meetings, hiring permanent wild horse and burro specialists, conducting environmental studies and horse counts, and hiring cowboy entrepreneurs like Dave Cattoor. It also involves publishing expensive brochures that reflect the political reality of wild horse sentiment: "Like the relics left by ancient Indian tribes," says the BLM's Special Wild Horse Issue of Our Public Lands, "and the still visible ruts made by wagon trains, wild horses and burros are important links to our heritage." The wild horse program provides high visibility for the BLM's new role as preservationists at relatively little cost, while overgrazing, mining, and timbering continue.
Cattoor asked the BLM range con for a time extension. Ordinarily roundups stopped at one o'clock, to keep the wild horses from overheating, but it was damp and cold now, and Dave had not made his minimum. The range con radioed the BLM's wild horse specialist, who was sitting in his Suburban down on the highway, and got permission. Within half an hour the chopper was pushing forty more mustangs down out of the Humboldts.
A BLM investigator with a carbine under the seat of his Bronco would spend the night there, to guard the herd from renegades. The horses would be loaded and trucked the next day. Dave and the others drove back to Lovelock, and I followed them. They seemed close to the real notion of cowboys, in a state that in one way, at least, closely approximated the Old West: Nevada was still largely unfenced. I suspected that the men who went after mustangs were similarly unrestricted, but my questions about their occupation were met with disbelief, and amusement. Cowboys don't like talking about what they do when they are doing it, because the work is hard and exacting. They don't like talking to strangers about it when it's over, because those who have never done it can't imagine what it's like. Also, cowboys see almost everybody else as aliens, opposed to their way of life or, at best, unsympathetic.
We ate a quick meal full of cryptic references and plate-rattling silences in Lovelock, around the corner from Rose's Chapel of Love.
"Some guys say they dally-rope mustangs," said a wrangler. "Sure, and watch their fingers fly off."
"I used a sloppy loop on that ole chicken-necked sorrel." 
"You think that tarp'll hold 'em if they decide to turn around?"
"Sure it will."
"When they put the hammer back," said Cattoor, "you'll know it."
Talk turned to recreation. Someone said, "I hear they're having them camel races in Virginia City this weekend."
"I didn't see any camels last year, but I saw a lot of drunk people."
"They had some mighty friendly whiskey up there. Wasn't nobody on the fight, or nothing."
"I told myself then," said Cattoor, "that if I was ever in Nevada when the camel races were going on, I'd be there."
"Not many colts today," said Jim Hicks, the chopper pilot. His face and arms were covered with scar tissue left by burns, and the backs of his hands bore the permanent imprint of bandages. "Mountain lion's working the hills, or maybe a human type." 
"You said you couldn't herd no more," said Dave. "Then you came down with a whole shitload of mustangs. That's attitude improvement."
They had been working together for eight years and had collected twenty-five thousand wild horses. Jim had flown in the Vietnam War, doing low-level reconnaissance over the Cambodian border in the late sixties. Back in this country, he flew predator control over public lands in the West. One night when driving a fuel truck outside Elko, Nevada, bound for his helicopter, he blew a front tire and the truck turned over. Gasoline covered the highway and ignited. He crawled out the window and through the flames in a T-shirt; the only part of him that wasn't burned was the palms of his hands.
When he got out of the hospital, he tried selling asphalt roofing but couldn't stand it, and was soon back in the wild horse business. "There's a challenge to this. These old horses are wild, and smart. You can't fly a helicopter like a cutting horse — it's too hard on the machine. And once those horses realize a helicopter can't hurt 'em, then you're in trouble. Then you need a roper."
"It's high risk," said Dave. "It's hard to work around wild horses day after day and not get hurt. You've got to go full speed over them dog holes. These old horses kick and bite. We've been lucky." 
"Been a bad year for helicopters, though. In November I had engine failure at forty feet. Rotors cut off the tail boom when I hit. That's standard. We had it rebuilt, and the exact same thing happened two months later."
I asked how he had escaped unhurt.
"Oh, you just wait for things to stop flying around. Then you jump out."
"The insurance companies don't love us no more," Dave said. "The premiums are horrendous. Sometimes we don't collect from the government until we're sixty thousand dollars in debt. The credit card people get mighty nervous," he added, handing his American Express card to the waitress.                                                     

They were up before dawn, a Saturday, eating sticky buns out of cartons tossed onto pickup dashboards, and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups, racing for the Humboldts. I rode with Cattoor. The horses would be shipped to Palomino Ranch that day, and the state brand inspector was already at the corral when we arrived, checking the few brands among the herd and squirting these horses with gentian violet paint, so they could be picked out later.
While setting up the loading chutes, Dave talked about mustangs. He had never seen one made into a decent mount. Mostly they were "chicken feed horses," best used in processed pellets, except that the mustang lobby had made it impossible to productively use the animals.
At one point the government had attempted its own roundup in Colorado, Dave said. "I told 'em I wanted the contract, and they said no, we want to learn how to run horses. I said your life's not long enough. But they did it anyway and spent about a million dollars to get seven hundred horses. The ones they couldn't catch they shot."
Dave's driver backed the semi across the desert and up to the chute, and the wranglers started prodding the horses into the trailer. Halfway into the first load a big mare reared, driving its head against the metal cover of the trailer, and collapsed.
"Horse down!"
"She'll get up again."
But she didn't. It lay amidst clambering hooves, its neck bent double, evidence of the delicacy of the equine spine. A short, sturdy, blond wrangler named Scott climbed in with a length of chain, drove the others back, and wrapped it around the rear hooves. It took three men to drag the mare through the straw and fresh manure. The animal's head dangled over the lip of the trailer like a fish, then its body sprawled onto the ground, awkward in death. Dave wrapped the chain around its neck and dragged it off behind a pickup, onto a sage flat, the mare's legs moving as if in a dream of trotting.
The truck rolled off toward Reno and another took its place. Horse hooves drummed on the metal floor of the trailer. Occasionally I could hear wind whistling in the hollow ends of the metal poles, and the sound of childish laughter. A rancher had brought his wife and kids up to watch, joining two BLM range cons, the wild horse specialist, the investigator, the brand inspector, a TV cameraman and reporter, and one print journalist. The wild horse advocate had gone back to Texas.
"It's a goddamn carnival," Dave said. "Some days you can walk among the horses and they'll never touch a gate. But, oh, they're skittish today."
The second semi was gone by one o'clock. The rest of the catch went into a spare corral on the neighboring ranch, where the trucks were kept. The rancher wanted the mustangs off his grazing allotments and his neighbors', and was very accommodating to the contract cowboys.
We gathered, during a sudden cloudburst, to water the mustangs and the working horses, and to scatter alfalfa over the ground. The cowboys' boots were caked with mud — gumbo, they called it. Then they stood around Dave's pickup, cutting slabs of Spam with folding knives and sorting out the rest of the day.
A young wrangler named Bob took off for Lovelock in another truck. Greg, the only one wearing specs, got a chance to fly with Jim, who had to deliver the chopper to town for a flywheel inspection. Greg seemed thrilled at the prospect of hopping over the Humboldts, although the sight of those dark canyons would have discouraged most prospective passengers.
"The wind up there almost ate my lunch today," Jim said.
Four of us piled into Dave's front seat, to go back to the horse trap, where the helicopter was parked. Dave offered to race Jim and Greg to town, they in the chopper, we in the truck. When Jim accepted the challenge, Dave let them out half a mile from the lonely glass bubble parked in the cheat grass, to give us a head start.
"You son of a bitch," said Jim.
Dave's pickup flew over the empty road. "They'll be sitting on the runway before we get out to the highway," he said, but I wondered. The fog and the rain higher up looked grim.
"Do you think of sixty-nine dollars every time you catch a mustang?" I asked.
"I usually don't even count 'em. I just do as good as I can, and at the end of the season we work it all out and see where we stand."
He lapsed into one of his characteristic ten-mile silences. We were on the Interstate before he spoke again. "I've been on the prod since June. I've been away from home so goddamn much. My kids are old now, they're doing their own thing." His daughter was married, his fourteen-year-old son helping look after 153 cows on the Cattoor place in Colorado. That sounded tame compared to life in Nevada, and a long way off. He wouldn't be back there before November, ten thousand mustangs to the good.
We could see the other side of the Humboldt Mountains now; it looked just as stormy. If Dave was worried about the helicopter he didn't show it. "It's hard catching horses in that rough old country," he said, with affection. "I like the helicopter, and I like working the horses. I'm doing what I want to do."
Outside Lovelock, the clouds broke up. We looked over to see Jim and Greg flying along beside us, grinning. The storm had tied the race, forcing them around the mountains, and they sailed off toward the airport.
The truck drivers had delivered their loads to Palomino Ranch. The one named Mike had spent the rest of the afternoon lying around the Two Stiffs, drinking wine coolers. He greeted us from the open motel door, his capped teeth shining in the setting sun. Some days he made two and even three round trips in the big semi, over alkali roads that in dry weather turned him white from head to toe.
Dave went to his room and stripped. There were clothes piled on the floor, empty potato chip packages, and no mementos. Dirt ringed Dave's neck, eyes, and wrists, and caked the backs of his hands. He stepped into the bathroom for a shower, and emerged with wet hair carefully combed. When Jim arrived Dave was sitting on the edge of the bed, wiping the brim of his good felt Stetson with the damp towel.
He said, "You better hurry up."
"Oh, shit," said Bob, who was standing in the door nursing a can of Michelob. "We're going to Reno!"
I got a head start in my van, but they passed me twenty miles west of Lovelock, doing ninety: two pickups with three men to a front seat. I saw Mike tip up another wine cooler. I lost them somewhere east of Fernley, in big sage country with perpendicular rocks looking black in the shadow of mountains — populated, I now knew, with a lot of wild horses. .
I caught up with the cowboys in Reno, at the Western Village Casino, behind the 76 Truck Stop. Their pickups were parked randomly at the casino door, the beds full of lariats, baling cord, plastic buckets, and bits of chain, the cabs littered with cups, chewing tobacco pouches, and empty wine cooler bottles. Inside, Mike drifted among the two-dollar blackjack tables, cradling his wine cooler, beaming at all the action. The others sat in a tight group next to the slot machines, drinking beer.
Dave slapped two keys into Jim's palm. "Two double beds in each room," he said. "We going to Virginia City?"
They had driven two hundred miles that day already, to work and back, and another seventy miles to Reno. Mike had driven twice that, in the company of fifty mustangs. Now they got into the pickups and happily drove another twenty tortuous miles into the mountains.
I rode with Bob, Jim, and Greg; Bob steered with great authority although he had been drinking Michelob for five hours. ''I'm definitely not getting drunk tonight," he said, and then amended that slightly. "I hope they don't have no Everclear where we're going. I love that stuff. A hundred and fifty percent grain alcohol — God, it's got a kick. You can pour some in a Styrofoam cup, and seven seconds later the bottom'll fall out."
It was dark when we arrived. Virginia City had spent itself that day on exotic animal races and booze. A few tourists and more drunks tarried on the plank sidewalks of what had been the gateway to the greatest gold bonanza in the West — the Comstock Lode. Virginia City in the 1860s had offered the finest collection of gartered women and rot-gut booze east of the Sierra Nevada, as well as a chance to get rich or at least, as Mike said, to get interesting.
Camels were bedded down next to the parking lot, looking like bizarre stuffed animals in Virginia City's fluorescent lighting.
"There's a bunch of sulkies." Jim pointed to the wheeled carts. "They must pull 'em with the camels."
"The sulkies are for the ostriches," said Greg.
We all gathered on the main street, in a cold wind, watched by a pair of skeptical deputies: five cowboy hats and one Cat hat, belonging to Mike, that said "Older Men Need Love, Too," and one bare head. Scott steered Mike up the street, toward a Chinese restaurant, the only one still open. Jim kidded Dave about the lack of action in Virginia City, but carefully; Dave's eyes narrowed to slits in the glare of the red-flocked dining room. Waitresses and a handful of patrons watched apprehensively as Scott and Greg maneuvered Mike among the tables and propped him in a chair.
"Can we get some groceries pretty quick?" Dave asked a waitress; he was ready to go back to Reno, but people had to eat. Dave was the titular head of the family, so ordered for everybody. "Where's that other guy?" he said, meaning me. I was not part of the outfit but had attached myself in such a way that he felt responsible. He had spent some time with me but didn't remember my name — not because of unfriendliness, but a simple matter of priorities. He knew the names of the men he worked with, and after that recognition of the rest of the world fell off rapidly.
Mike leaned toward me, displaying his dentures. "You gon wri a ni stor bou our lives," he said, nodding. "Tha gon be rea ni." The vegetables Hunan, fried shrimp, and Mo-shu pork went around once and disappeared. Mike slept with his head near the stack of empty platters. Greg made the sole comment upon the food — "That's the hottest fucking mustard I ever tasted" — and then we were leaving, Scott steering Mike back toward the door and the waitress chasing Dave with his American Express card. They had to be back at the Humboldts the next day and they weren't going to waste Saturday night savoring foreign food in a dead town.
Half an hour later we were in the Red Rose, in Reno, a cavernous dance hall where couples in Western gear two-stepped and Cotton-eyed Joed to music from a live band that included a fiddle. We had a round of drinks, but before they were finished Dave was leaving, bound for Whiskey River and more action. We piled back into the pickups. At Whiskey River Dave danced with a younger woman; he seemed competent but a bit stiff amidst the jostling bodies and was smiling tightly. His wranglers elbowed in at the bar. The other men already there wore yoked shirts and boots, and some sported cowboy hats with feathers in the bands and had snuff can imprints in their back pockets. But they were for the most part car and appliance salesmen, and they seemed profoundly uneasy in the presence of these hard little cowboys and their loud talk.
Dave had enough of Whiskey River after two songs, and so it was back to the Red Rose. Now most of the available women were gone, and the band was squeezing out fiddle music too fast to dance to, trying to end the night with a decent frenzy. A blonde in tight jeans approached our table, wearing Greg's cowboy hat; she had met him in the parking lot, and he had gone off with her girlfriend after asking the blonde to hold his hat. She danced with all of us, including Jim, who said he did not dance, pressing herself confidently against men who had not seen much of women in the last few months.
Her friend showed up with Greg, and the girls escaped giggling through the emergency exit. "She gave me her phone number," Greg said, but he had forgotten it. "I've got to start packing a pencil."
It was late. No one had a girl to take back to one of those double beds, but no one seemed to care much. Mike was sleeping in one of the locked pickups. Tomorrow it was back to Lovelock and from there to the wild horse pens, to provide more water and alfalfa. Nowadays most wrangling involves mechanized chores on marginal or tax-deductible ranches, without much excitement. But these men bore some resemblance to the cowboys who had pushed herds north from Texas across the land that belonged to no one, just for the hell of it.
The work was still dangerous at times, difficult and unconventional, and they thrived on it; yet the institution of mustang management — the money spent, and the protection of wild horses — dismayed and disgusted them. The irony was that mustangs and cowboys were both remnants of an age perceived as glorious and reflected in the odd longings of people gathered in smoky dance halls, in the shadow of dry mountains.                                                    

Monday, May 5, 2014

Lighting out for the Territories, 6: Wranglers and other anomalies of "The Forest"

The continued stand-off between the Interior Department and range moochers ignorant of history reminds me of how cows are prodded on the slopes of New Mexico and other intermountain states.                                                                     
 I got interested in the West while working for the Washington Post, years ago. I wanted to write about the vast public lands, what I saw as a "kingdom in the country," and since the editor didn't know what they were, I took off in a van on my own. Below, part of  one chapter from the book that was later published by Houghton Mifflin and has just been rewritten and reissued in paperback:        


I headed north, toward Santa Fe. I had seen rangeland as it is popularly envisioned, too dry and difficult for anything but livestock, and often too dry for that. There are 300 million acres of public range in the West. Slightly more than half of that domain is administered by the BLM and supports 4 million head of livestock. In fiscal 1985 the BLM took in about $15 million in grazing fees. That is a fraction of what the land would generate if competitive rates were charged, but the range has other functions, some of them subtle. Much of America's breeding stock is not confined to feedlots but roams the range instead; and there are people who depend upon the vastness of the range to support ways of life that would otherwise evaporate — some of them distinctly odd by urban standards.
The Forest Service is also in the range business. Some people in the West think the heifer is a more fitting symbol of the FS than the black bear. Bud Eppers had shown me BLM range, and now I wanted to see some belonging to its sister agency.
The land rose gently, the emerging mesas promising bigger things to come. Outside Vaughn ("Home of the Mattaburger") I passed a boy wobbling along on a ten-speed beside the highway, reminding me of home. Sundays in strange places inspire a peculiar sort of loneliness. I stopped at an isolated gas station where a woman sold Coors to men in pickups, on their way to somewhere else. I wanted a beer, but she couldn't change my hundred-dollar bill — Washington money. In the van I had nothing stronger than chicory coffee and some garlic hanging in a mesh bag from the roof, so I had to settle for water from my tin Sierra cup.
To the north I could make out the tail end of the high Rockies, what early explorers had called the Shining Mountains, snow-drenched and too distant to be real. Blue sky lay flat against the western horizon. Islands of juniper and piƱon pine stretched beneath flat-bottomed cumulus kiting at the end of high-tension wires, in a clarity that destroyed all depth perception. This part of New Mexico had linked the plains and the mountain West since prehistory. Cibola, the mythical cities of gold, had brought the conquest through. "Romantic, histrionic, cruel, and trance-bound," Bernard De Voto wrote of the Spanish in The Course of Empire, "they marched in rusty medieval armor toward the nonexistent." This portion of New Mexico had been a trading route for Indians, home to Spanish settlers, and later became part of the Santa Fe Trail.
The Santa Fe National Forest is the source not only of recreation but also of forage, firewood, and old blood claims. I could see that much of this national "forest" was in fact high, open range. It surrounded whole towns, among them Pecos, which was older than nearby Santa Fe and had been bypassed by the picture framers and blue corn tortilla entrepreneurs who had turned Santa Fe into another tourist stop.
Pecos lay a few miles off the Interstate. I passed through after everyone had gone to sleep and drove on up the canyon. The Pecos River rose in the wilderness not far away, fat with snow melt, roaring in the darkness. I spent the night in a Forest Service picnic area and the next day returned to town. Pecos's little rancheros were planted with overturned jalopies preserved in the clear mountain air. The eaves of the houses were hung with strings of chiles. Two girls in tight jeans waved at backfiring low-riders passing on the main street. There were a post office, a dry goods store, two bars, including one with a sign, "No knives allowed on premises."
"Pecos had more than its share of dark legends," Willa Cather wrote in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Coronado came through in the sixteenth century. At the Pecos pueblo he picked up the Turk, an artful Indian liar later garroted in what is now Kansas for failing to produce cities of gold. Before the Plains Indians had horses, they came to Pecos on foot to trade with the Indians of the desert West and with Spanish settlers out of Mexico. They had alternately violent and affectionate relationships, the latter apparent in most of the faces on Pecos's main drag.
The Pecos pueblo had moved en masse to Jemez, about fifty miles west, in 1837, leaving the land to the Spanish settlers. The Indians had also left an old masterpiece given to them by the viceroy; it still hangs in the church, La Iglesia de San Antonio de los Pecos. Supposedly it's a Caravaggio.
I walked past the open windows of the parochial school, where a confirmation class was in progress. Young voices sang hallelujah while birds piped in the fallow field opposite. Catkins had appeared on the willows. Inside the church, the lacquered white altar seemed to glow. Elaborate carved santos offered an abbreviated religious and secular history: Christ with a crown of thorns, an hidalgo, and what I presumed was a Franciscan friar. High above the altar, suspended by chains, hung an oil painting of Christ with angels at his feet, and a firmament of gold and gorgeous blues.
I found the young priest in a room with whitewashed walls, his black beard neatly trimmed, on his way to visit shut-ins. "I don't know if it's a Caravaggio," he said. The painting, he noted, represented one of the few material possessions the descendants of the original settlers had managed to keep. "After the Mexican-American war, New Mexico became independent. The treaty said the property of settlers would remain theirs. Much of it was communal and that's anathema in the United States."
The government said they had to fence the land. Most refused. Many people moved into town to live, still considering the outlying land theirs. But it was later confiscated by the U.S. government and put into the national forest
The priest said, "These people have been living off what they consider theirs ever since.

The headquarters for the Pecos District of the Santa Fe National Forest was an amalgam of concrete and glass recently sunk in the red earth and ringed by green pickups. There I met a large and friendly range conservation officer —"range con" — named Pete. He explained that the Pecos District consisted of 350,000 acres out of 1.5 million acres in the Santa Fe National Forest and included the Pecos Wilderness and the snowy peak of Pecos Baldy, visible from the main street.
Two thousand souls lived in Pecos, according to Pete, most of them dependent in some way on La Foresta, as the Forest Service was known in those parts, and occasionally at war with it. The forest was used for grazing only from spring through early autumn; permittees were at that moment preparing to drive their herds onto public pasture. Two thousand cattle ran on the Pecos District, owned by fifty-six permittees, most of them of Spanish descent, some owning only a few animals. "There are lots of petty rivalries," he said. "They're always trying to get permission to run more cows on the forest. They've got problems, mind you. There's no protection on government land. People will kill one of their cows, throw it into a pickup, and butcher it at home. Somebody just stole a permittee's new corral. The whole damn thing!"
Most were poor, but not all. "I've got a rich one who lives in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue and comes out for a month every summer. He's not a rancher — it's a tax deduction. He wants Uncle Sugar to take a little less of his daddy's money. When he's out here he buys up every cow in sight and then lets somebody else take care of them. He wears a safari jacket and little khaki shorts, but he's good people."
The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management share a common mandate and common problems, although the Forest Service's 130 million acres of graze are comparatively well watered, and their use is more restricted. Both agencies grew out of the old General Land Office set up in 1812 to deal with federal lands. Settlers and others got their land free — or almost free — but the most valuable parcels often went to those with the best political connections. By the turn of the century fraud was so pervasive in the GLO that Gifford Pinchot, founder of the modern Forest Service, convinced his friend Theodore Roosevelt, who was then the U.S. president, to move the forest reserves out of the GLO and into the Department of Agriculture. That is where they have remained.
For almost thirty years after the breakup, the GLO functioned defensively, a paradigm of inefficient bureaucracy. The Taylor Grazing Act, written under the guidance of Secretary of the Interior Ickes, put an end to what was known as the "public domain" by assigning exclusive rights and creating grazing districts administered by the Grazing Service — and later the BLM — which issued permits to users of record. The act favored ranchers who owned some land and already had the habit of using public land. It eliminated itinerant sheepherders and limited the entry of new ranchers in an attempt to correct overgrazing, which has not abated in more than a century.
The Forest Service, insulated and politically nurtured in Agriculture, became a more professional agency, complete with uniforms and rule books. FS grazing allotments aren't interspersed with private or state land, as BLM parcels are, so FS lands can be more effectively supervised. FS grazing regulations are stricter than those on BLM land, and the FS doesn't have to face grazing advisory boards made up of local ranchers.
Pete the range con said, "Recreationists are just like cows. They shit where they sleep."
The previous year, fifteen thousand cords of firewood had been cut on the Pecos District, including two thousand cords of green pinon posts. But most of it was "dead and down," meaning expendable. Cutters came from as far away as Albuquerque, annoying the Pecosans. "They tend to think of it as theirs," said the ranger.
In Santa Fe two dozen range cons and the range technicians had gathered in a modern office building beside the highway, most of them with the telltale disk of Skoal or Copenhagen in their hip pockets. They discussed a controversial new grazing procedure known as the Savory method, after a Rhodesian expatriate whose holistic approach to resource management had swept through the ranching establishment.
The Savory method contradicted exponents of the old rotation system upon which many a federal program and reputation had been built. The rotation system, which called for short periods of disuse so the range could recuperate, though never fully, was to the West what the V-eight once was to Detroit. It had been used for so long that no one wanted to change it.
Savory advocated "time-control" grazing instead. Simply put, that meant moving cows regularly, rather than allowing them to stand and eat most of the ground cover at any given place. Savory's controversial wagon-wheel fencing allowed cows to gradually circle a water source like the hands of a clock, macerating the soil with their hooves and increasing seed germination, and then moving on.
It was difficult to see how the Savory method or the rotation system related to the small ranches near the rugged Pecos District. There wasn't enough grass, period, to justify the academics or the cows. I wondered how a rancher with a handful of cows and no trust fund could make it, when big operations were going bust.
Driving back to Pecos, the irrepressible Pete said, "We're supporting a huge infrastructure by spending taxpayers' money on 'management.' Range management has turned into producing grass for livestock. That's ass-backwards. We should be using livestock as a tool to create the landscape we want."
I told Pete I was looking for a small ranch, to check out the economics of the small-scale operation firsthand. He knew of what was surely one of the smallest in the West; it belonged to an old Spanish rancher named Juan, who owned nineteen cows. He was nicknamed Sapanda — a Spanish word meaning a car with a broken spring — because he had injured a leg in a riding accident and walked with a limp.
Juan's cows used the grazing allotment known as the San Luis-El Barro, forty thousand acres of steep P-J country with a rough dirt road crawling the ridges. The San Luis-El Barro supports the grand total of eighty-three cows. They feed in tiny, well-watered valleys that in April collect the sun like quicksilver and only then are lush with Kentucky bluegrass, redtop, grama, and crested wheat grass.
I rode out the next morning in the FS pickup with a range technician named Gonzalo, and Juan, a taciturn old man with a long, mournful face who was working temporarily for the FS. His gray hair was mashed flat by a straw cowboy hat, and his Levi's were worn almost to transparency. The faded denim jacket was buttoned to the neck. He carried a black lunch bucket, and when he spoke it was with a slight stutter.
"There's no future in cows," Juan said, soon after we had set out. "The government controls our land."
Gonzalo, the agent of that government, drove with great intimacy, massaging the steering wheel, fondling the gearshift lever, raising and lowering the window in an ever-changing accommodation of dust and fresh air. He was a GS 9, a low-ranking civil servant. The silver conchos on his hatband had been made by a lady friend, he said. Another lady friend had made the silver watchband. Gonzalo had the reputation as Pecos's local stud. He pastured two Arabians and an appaloosa higher up and used them occasionally to chase other men's cattle trespassing on La Foresta.
Gonzalo ran the show, but Juan and ranchers like him were the reason jobs such as range technician existed. Together the two men — rancher and regulator — were after a bull that had wandered onto Forest Service land before grazing season officially began. We passed the tiny hamlet of Colonias, where Juan lived — all dust and rock and three-legged dogs. He paid the U.S. government $1.35 per month for each of his nineteen cows grazing on public land. That amounted to a total of $149.34 for the approximately six months a year that the range was open to grazing.
I asked if he made money on cattle. Juan said, "I hope to break even."
The total of eighty-three cattle on the San Luis-El Barro had brought the Forest Service the grand sum of $650 in grazing fees the year before. Ten percent of that went to the county. When all administrative costs were tallied, the federal government estimated that it lost an average of $2.29 a month for every cow on public land. Grazing fees were too low, but raising them would cause a war, according to Juan.
Ten years before, he had served as a lieutenant for a radical Chicano named Tijerina, who had tried to claim large chunks of New Mexico for the descendants of Indians and Spanish settlers. Juan had taken part in the occupation of Echo Amphitheater campground and had traveled with a contingent of protesters to Mexico City, to plead with the Mexican president for support of claims based on old Spanish grants. Juan seemed an unlikely revolutionary, working part-time as he did in the Forest Service's Older Americans Program, cleaning up campsites and doing odd chores with Gonzalo.
Our road climbed into ponderosa pine, crossing and recrossing a broad avenue left by fire. The country greened up with aspen, the leaves quaking in the breeze — good cover for elk and deer. Grass clung to the exposed slopes, where the cows had to work to get it. A red-tailed hawk broke from a snag above the road, and wild turkeys scratched on the far hillside, moving warily up among the trees. An old ranch house sat abandoned. Gonzalo looked after the place and brought his sons up weekends to work on the fences. They regularly ran off motorcyclists from Santa Fe, who had torched one of the outbuildings and performed wheelies all over the lot.
Gonzalo honked his horn; the horses came running. We could see the bull standing unpleasantly among the willows, up to its knees in water. It had been captured twice and twice escaped.
Gonzalo saddled the appaloosa, tossed a braided lariat over the horn, and strapped on silver spurs. "I'm going to drive him through the gate," he said, "and into the paddock by the barn."
"I doubt it seriously," said Juan.
After Gonzalo had cantered off, Juan added, "I knew that bull's daddy. He was one mean son of a bitch."
The bull was a black Angus, hornless but large. Gonzalo approached it from behind, whistling and beating the lariat against the saddle. The bull turned on horse and rider, then changed its mind and lumbered across the meadow and into the trees. The sound of breaking timber suggested a marauding tank. The bull re-emerged, trailing a foot of slobber, and was skillfully driven into the paddock by Gonzalo.
"These young bulls won't stay with the cows," he said. "They wander. No sabe."
We sat down next to the house, in the sun. Juan opened his black box and ceremoniously removed a bologna sandwich; Gonzalo contented himself with a cigarette. He didn't use chewing tobacco, he said, because the ladies didn't like the taste.

A handful of FS men stood outside the Pecos headquarters when we returned. Juan got out of the truck and asked the Anglo range con for a chew of tobacco. "You been pulling afterbirth with that old hand?" the range con asked, but gave him the packet anyway. Juan stuffed a bird's nest of tobacco into his mouth, and carried his lunch bucket off toward the post office, on his way home. He could have gotten out of Gonzalo's truck when we passed through Colonias, but he would have lost two extra dollars in pay and an opportunity to visit in town. He didn't say goodbye.
We had covered one hundred miles of dirt road to put a bull in a paddock so a distant permittee could come and claim it. The cost for the day's work would include Gonzalo's salary and Juan's minimum wage; also gasoline, and vehicular wear and tear. The government would lose more than $2.29 on that little bull.
I joined Gonzalo at his favorite saloon, appropriately named the Casanova. It had high ceilings, dark beams called vigas, rough-hewn tables, and a phalanx of Boone's Farm Wild Mountain Wine bottles behind the long wooden bar. Gonzalo stood at one end of the bar, facing the door, pouring beer into his leather-girded bulk with a facility I couldn't match. He and the big Anglo range con were a team, he said, but they never drank together. "He's a good man. He's respected around here because he stays. He can communicate," he added, "but he can't negotiate."
The phone on the wall rang. "No aqui," Gonzalo said, without looking at it.
The bartender answered and, sure enough, it was a woman calling for Gonzalo.
"No aqui, " said the bartender.
I said I couldn't understand how Juan made a living, with his tiny bit of land and a few cows; Gonzalo said he knew ranchers in worse shape. "I know one whose wife died in childbirth. He's trying to raise seven kids. Some of them are illiterate. The father's had a couple of strokes, and an operation. There's a big lump on his neck. He's trying to hold things together, to cook and get these kids thirty-five miles to school every day. When his ten-year renewal came up I went to see him, and I could see the fear on his face. I explained that I had to see his ownership papers. He went up in the attic and brought down a box full of deeds, some of them in Spanish. He said, 'Here, take what you need.' I could have taken his land and nobody would have known the difference. It's a big responsibility.''
The phone rang. This female caller had seen Gonzalo's pickup out front.
"No aqui!"
"The ladies," Gonzalo said wearily.
"You always hurt the one you love," said the bartender, and a dozen men nodded assent without taking their eyes from the rerun of the 1973 Ali-Norton fight.
I was introduced to a bearded young Easterner, the only other Anglo in the Casanova. His hands were black from loading pinon. He had dropped out of school in New Jersey and was a self-confessed raquitaria la Foresta — a wood poacher.
"Everybody does it," he said, of poaching. "You get a permit to cut a cord, and you cut six cords. You're not going to get checked. Everybody knows there's not a Forest Service employee up on that mesa between four-thirty in the afternoon and eight in the morning."
Gonzalo looked uncomfortable. "We're putting sensors up there," he said. "Infrared, and magnetic. From now on we'll know who's trespassing where."
"But who's going to catch them? You don't have the manpower." The raquitaria turned to me. "You notice that the Forest Service never uses the word 'steal'? It's 'trespass' or 'violation,' but not stealing. At night, there's everything from firewood to cedar posts coming off the mesa."
"I could go up and bust somebody right now," Gonzalo said, "if that was part of my job. But I have to live here, too."
When the woodcutter had left, Gonzalo said, "I know that boy's mother real well."
The telephone was ringing.
The way to Colonias angled steeply up from the San Luis-El Barro road. I drove it the next day, to see Juan's ranch. I had no way of calling him since there were no telephones in Colonias. Half a dozen log and adobe structures stood out starkly against the wasted hillside. Ancient deadwood corrals leaned in various directions, empty, surrounded by the most spectacularly wrecked cars I had ever seen. More wrecks than dogs, although several of the latter came to look me over. A spotted dingo, accustomed to trouble, jumped when I slammed the van door.
I had no idea which house was Juan's. Nothing human moved on Colonias's littered plain; the entrance to the tin-roofed church had been nailed shut. A dust-shrouded compact with an open hatch stood outside a tiny house. Goats escorted me to the gate; inside, the packed dirt looked hard as brick. Deep shadow lay beneath the porch eaves, half the posts rotten and dangling in the wind. I called out and a woman answered. She stepped out into the sunlight, tall and dingy blond, wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt that displayed a surprising amount of Anglo amplitude.
"Who are you?" she asked.
I started to tell her, but she interrupted, "Juan's gone after the cows. Help me bring in these baby chicks."
She brushed past and took a carton of mail-order chicks from the car. She handed it to me and picked up another. I obediently followed her into the house, under low eaves. The kitchen had a dirt floor covered with flagstones. There was no electricity or plumbing, and basic supplies stood in disarray on shelves made of crates. "I ordered araucanas from South America, but they sent me Rhode Island reds, too." She placed a pan of water among the crying chicks. "Araucanas lay green eggs. Aren't they cute? My name's Brigitta."
Her accent belonged in Scandinavia. Before I could ask, she was telling me that she came from a family of distinguished Stockholm architects, that she was an artist, a photographer, a crocheter of avant-garde women's clothes, and a wardrobe person for a crew that filmed television commercials. The rest of the time she milked goats, read Louis L'Amour, and talked to her neighbor Juan.
"What brought you here?" I asked.
"A car wreck." It was a joke. "I lived in Santa Fe for years. It never occurred to me that the city would turn into one big boutique. My rent there went from two hundred and fifty dollars a month to six-fifty. I had to sublet. I advertised it as an adobe with a Swedish maid and got somebody right away, but I still couldn't take living there."
A friend with a contract to cut shingles on the forest had hired her. She drove past Colonias every day with the crew. Then she met Rodolfo, an independent contractor who built houses with materials harvested on the forest. He bought the house and an acre for nine thousand dollars, she said. "He could have gotten it for six. They won't bargain here, it's considered undignified.''
He also owned the peeling yellow Lincoln outside, a yard-full of pullets, and the stove into which Brigitta shoved butt ends of juniper. Rodolfo was presently gathering stone on public lands to build a client's house. Like Juan, he depended upon La Foresta, and so did Brigitta — for inspiration.
We went back outside. "It's beautiful," she said, "but by classical European standards this place is a dump. Chicano wind chimes" — she nodded toward discarded beer cans. "They leave their garbage down below, on the edge of the forest. The public land is the public dump — it's heartbreaking."
Juan appeared, leading a bay mare with a rope bridle. The collar of his Levi's jacket had been turned up, and he wore wrangler's gloves. "Did you see the water running in the arroyo, Juan?" she called. "It's so beautiful to see. I want to build a little dam there, Juan, and plant potatoes."
A grin broke open that long, mournful face. He clicked at the horse like a young vaquero as we walked down to view the prospective potato field. Grass had sprouted among the Chicano wind chimes, and the water ran clear. "If I plant potatoes, Juan, they won't steal them." They were the neighbors, although Brigitta and Juan looked to be the only people in Colonias. "They don't know what potatoes are, Juan. They're ignorant," she told me. "They don't read anything here but license plates, and the obituaries, to see who killed who, and if they're related. They're obsessed with death."
Juan put the horse in his dilapidated corral and secured the gate with a discarded tire. The bleached barn siding looked ancient. He had grown up in the little adobe and was the only family member left. No chiles hung from the eaves, and the crumbling clay horno had roasted no corn in years.
Juan had delivered mail in Colonias on horseback, one of the last mounted postmen in the country, but now there were not enough people to justify it. He invited us into his house. Mexican coronets blared and skittered on the radio, one of his few possessions. A saddle sat on the floor at the foot of his frame bed — sign of a true cowboy. He owned a bit of land south of town where the cows wintered. The year before he had grossed twelve hundred dollars by selling beef to some friends and neighbors, and working in the Older Americans Program.
He had no coffee to offer, so we walked back to Brigitta's, where she stoked up the stove and moved blocks of government surplus cheese from the one chair, so Juan could sit. He watched her, transfixed.
"Now what shall I do?" she asked, hands on hips, taking in her jumbled domain. "Ah, yes, feed the goat."
"Wonderful woman," Juan said.
I thought he had a crush on her, and couldn't blame him. Brigitta liked hearing about his civil disobedience of twenty years before, he told me. The rumor in town had it that she was after his land and grazing permit, and they laughed together about that. I noticed that when Brigitta was present, Juan didn't stutter.
She returned and laded our coffee with mocha chocolate; then she led me into the back room. An album lay spread on a card table. In the photographs I saw Brigitta in elaborately crocheted shawls, bonnets, and gowns, leaping through the sunlit streets of Paris and Ibiza. "I used to think that was the normal way to dress. I sold it all with no effort. I came up here to start again, but now there's no reason to do anything."
A wild-eyed man with a bandana tied round his head stared out of a Polaroid. "Rodolfo," she said. "My wild Apache. He calls himself Spanish, but he's got to be a Jicarilla Apache. They all are around here. He and his so-called friends get drunk and he passes out and then they steal from us. When I go to California on a shoot I have to lock up all my stuff. I always come back, though. He'll do anything to keep me here."
Juan stood up when she returned to the kitchen. She folded down the old man's collar and smoothed the faded denim tips — the wardrobe mistress. Then she flipped the collar up again.
"Continuity," she said.

Pickups crowded the lot outside the Pecos high school the next morning, a Saturday. Weatherworn men gathered in the refectory to hear about an FS study to raise grazing fees. There was not a pair of tie shoes among them, and not much spoken English. Gonzalo and his colleagues moved gingerly among the ranchers and officials, "being responsive" — FS argot for politicking.
The range con told the mayor of Pecos, "The forest and the people have to be friends," to which the mayor responded, "They should be family."
The day before, I had asked his opinion of grazing fee increases and enforced quotas on woodcutting, which would mean fewer sales of Skoal, baking powder, and salsa. The mayor had said, "Chinga la Foresta," a less delicate sentiment.
Juan arrived late, wearing his best wrangler's jacket and two-tone boots. He sat at the back of the room, alone, the picture of skepticism. He might own the smallest ranch in the West, and what seemed to be the least profitable one, but his passion for range and his "rights" was as great as that of the patriarchs of the big spreads, and their corporate equivalents. Juan Sapanda's connection to the land was considerably more solid than that of the administrators or, for that matter, most ranchers. It went back to the conquest.
The president of the cattlemen's association, an Anglo, stood up to address the group. His belt buckle was engraved '"73 Tri-State Rodeo Steer Wrestling Champion." He held aloft a copy of the FS grazing study and said in a modest drawl, "This is four million dollars' worth of mush. It looks like Greek. They spent five years to produce a political document. The assumption that you can stand an eight-to-ten-dollar increase is not correct, as we all know. Basically they decided they were going to raise fees and then backed the data out to justify it."
Gonzalo, the district ranger, and the range con sat shoulder to shoulder in silence. The president of the cattlemen's association asked the ranchers to write to their congressmen, then handed out demo response forms. None of them had spoken. I asked the district ranger why the FS didn't respond to the rancher's criticism. "We're not here to defend the study," he said. "Grazing fees are too low. If we advertised tomorrow that we had land available for a dollar thirty-five an AUM, we'd have a line of applicants from here to Albuquerque."
"This is 'informational’ only," said the range con. "When it gets down to choices over exactly how the fees will be raised, then we'll hear from these guys. Well, I guess we'd better socialize."
Juan Sapanda was leaving. "They just held this meeting to be safe," he said of the FS. The president of the cattlemen's organization, Juan added, "should have said, 'Nobody leaves this room without signing a piece of paper and giving his address.' Then they could have shoved it under the noses of Congress, the BLM, and the Foresta."
Even if the ranchers signed such a petition, it would be filtered through the local FS office, the forest supervisor, and eventually the regional office in Albuquerque. In some altered form it might find its way to a management orifice in the Department of Agriculture, and maybe in yet another form to an undersecretary. Legislation might eventually be written that contained some kernel of the ranchers' opinions and might or might not be considered by Congress in a city far away. The chances of the studies, meetings, workshops, reports, and deliberations significantly improving Juan's fortunes were exceedingly thin.
There was something pathetic about the whole business: insufficient grass; insufficient cows to make a decent living; small ranchers at the mercy of the system and their own history. At the same time, they had the use of the land, and a shadow government in the guise of the Forest Service for recourse. Juan was making a living, such as it was. I watched him limp out into the sunlight. He and Brigitta were going for tortillas and green chiles at the bus station, in splendid view of Pecos Baldy. Small mercies, I thought.                       

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