The rise of the New West
Maria's Bookshop hosts 'Revolution on the Range'


Revolution on the Range: The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West by Courtney White. Island Press 2008 221 pages

In addition to being an author, Courtney White is the co-founder of the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit agency that concentrates on “building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others,” a noble, and presumably difficult task. His new book, Revolution on the Range: The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West, is mostly an explanation of how a bunch of rancher/warrior/poets taught him that building such bridges was even possible. Within its pages, this book demonstrates over and over that the old school John Wayne-esque method of ranching (hammering your way through the forests and leaving a trail of desert and bloodied environmentalists in your wake) is a pretty dead-end way to do business. It harms the land, it harms the cattle, it harms the hippies, and it’s completely unsustainable. The inevitable overgrazing that this method fosters has forever changed much of the Western landscape.

But there are the aforementioned rancher/warrior/poets that are doing things differently, sustainably, carefully, intelligently, and dare I say… beautifully. Just take a drive north of town to James Ranch and you will see what I mean. You’ve seen it before, and you’ve possibly even thought, like I do, that it looks like an idealized cross between Shangri-La and Elysium. James Ranch is the first ranch discussed in White’s study of the rise of the “New Ranch,” and his description of what they do will ratchet up your respect for this already much ballyhooed Durango institution. White describes how David and Kay James got into the business, their tremulous beginning, the heartbreaking sale of a portion of their land that became The Ranch subdivision, and their eventual embracing of a revolutionary way of grazing that helped create the James Ranch we all know and respect. White includes a “vision of the land and community” that the James family came up with that made me extremely proud to live in a community in which such a business can flourish. I’m not gonna tell you what it is. You’ll have to read the book.

The revolutionary grazing idea is really an acknowledgement of the land’s needs. Using the idea of natural herd migrations, the herd is moved from one pasture to the next, using very short intervals, so that the grass is not overgrazed, and is allowed to recover. Think of a herd of buffalo grazing across a prairie. It’s not low impact, by any means, but grass is resilient. Given time it will recover and be even healthier from the disturbance. The buffalo would not return to a grazing area until a year later, when the grass would again be strong and healthy. Moving the herd around in tighter intervals, in a controlled pattern ensures a healthy and oft-disturbed land. Living in fire-country, we know that land needs to be disturbed sometimes to remain healthy. Land not allowed to burn, or land that is never disturbed, is as unnatural as land that gets worked over too much. It’s more complicated than this, but the book explains it well.

The rancher/warrior/poet . . . White described the Carrizo Valley Ranch in New Mexico as a work of art. While gazing at the land around him, and knowing the colossal amount of work involved in making it so healthy and vibrant, he thought, “It had all the hallmarks of a great piece of sculpture: beauty, proportion, vitality, skill, design and effect. That the chosen medium was land, not marble, made no difference, the result was the same: awe and inspiration.” The rancher has always been seen as a kind of warrior, wrestling a living from the land, taming beast and brush and forcing the land to fit their vision. If you combine this drive and energy, though, with that of a poet’s, you get a rancher that can adapt their vision to the land and coax a more vibrant and beautiful liveliness from it. One hallmark of all of these New Ranches is the staggering amount of life brought about by informed stewardship. A healthier land means a healthier water table, which means more healthy plants, which means more wildlife, and more wildlife means even more wildlife.

The book really does cover a ton of information, arguments and demonstrations of the positive effects of “working wilderness.” Revolution on the Range describes a viable and possible solution to the environmental clashes that have framed so much of the western experience. As one chapter alludes, if we were to have Ed Abbey and (damn, I can’t think of a famous rancher) a famous rancher sit down with each other and describe their ideal landscape, we might find more similarities than expected. Wide open spaces without fences or condos, along with a landscape bustling with life and vitality is pretty appealing to everyone. Well written and well thought, this book was an eye-opener. •



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