Forest fires and smoke are hot topics right now. I couldn’t resist the pun, but it’s no joke, watching these fire-driven tragedies. Sadly, we’re hearing some “I-told-you-so” logic, and I confess, I’m part of that.
Recently, I found an old photograph that showed three people in cowboy gear — I’m the one pouring coffee from a thermos into beat-up cups. We’d all just gotten down from our horses, and the guys lean on a pickup truck marked United States Forest Service. Here’s the surprise: We’re all laughing.
I’m a Wyoming rancher, and the picture was taken the day I accompanied two USFS range technicians while they conducted annual monitoring work on our cattle-grazing permit in the Bighorn Mountains. Usually, that’s about as much fun as going to the dentist.
I dread the ordeal because it often includes a scolding from the federal grass cops about “Things Gone Wrong,” (subtitle “Cows Eat Grass”). In recent years, the government’s answer to problems has been “fewer cattle, fewer ranchers on public lands.”
Now, in 2020, some scientists suggest that more grazing, more livestock in these ready-to-burn landscapes, could help reduce fire danger by reducing fuel. Hence, “I told you so.”
The range conservationists and I weren’t discussing fire danger that day. As the photo shows, it was sunny and warm, I had a good horse to ride in beautiful country and the men were pleasant company.
I hadn’t met them before, but we visited easily as we stepped through the hoops of walking, counting, recording. After all, it’s not rocket science, measuring blades of grass. We’d been short of rain, and it was a relief to agree that cattle had not harmed any of the resources that ranchers rent from the United States Forest Service.
Usually, the day carries tension and finger-pointing, but to my surprise, these guys were more interested in the country around us and its history, asking questions about the original boundaries and previous permittees, landmarks and trails. They wondered if I knew the origin of obscure names such as Brindle Creek, Aagard Springs and Divorce Ridge. They asked about gone-away sheep permits on the Bighorns, and disappeared ranches and their owners. They tried to identify early-day trails and roundup customs. We laughed as I retold funny stories from my years of ranching here. My husband, I said, could tell them more, since he was born here and his father and grandfather used this range before there was a Bighorn National Forest.
We talked about the future, too, and I tried to be optimistic about what would become of local ranches amid trends for housing developments, second homes and resorts close to these public lands, accompanied by recreational use. (Side-by-side vehicles and ATVs had not even been invented yet!)
The ride was finished before we finished the conversation, and I remember that I broke out the coffee and some fairly clean cups from under my truck seat. When the fellows left, I said I hoped to see them again, and I meant it. It felt like an unusual day. They’d given me a lot to think about.
Like some other ranchers in the West, our family has been in the same place for a hundred years or so. Local folks like ourselves are the “stickers,” as Wallace Stegner wrote, since we’re among those who stuck it out, sustaining our community and keeping its history alive in our memories. How refreshing it was — the sincerity and respect these young Forest Service employees displayed for local knowledge. Our conversation that day reinforced my view that grazing permits and multiple use of public lands is a concept worth preserving: Logging and grazing are positive uses which affect fuel for runaway fires.
I hoped that the two young range men I met that day would show up again in a picture somewhere, at the top of the personnel heap in the Forest Service, but both left the USFS. Logging is nearly nonexistent on the Bighorns. Our ranch no longer uses that Granite Creek Allotment, by our own choice, and livestock numbers on USFS have declined.
I’ll keep the picture.