Cows Keep the Valley Green    

By Ed Berg

Back in 2019 I attended a meet-your-neighbors open house for a new landowner who wanted to set up a tourism business; eco-tourism was to be part of it. He stated that they would not be letting “destructive cattle” graze on the riverside property. He didn’t know that the lady standing next to me was one of the most effective regenerative-practice ranchers in the Valley. And he clearly knew nothing about the most effective element in rangeland restoration: properly grazed cattle.

He was no worse than any of us when we move here. He liked the views of mountains and pastures and had the money to buy a piece for himself. I did the same thing: I assumed that my mental image of the place was the reality. Fifteen years later, having added some information to that image, it’s clear that I am still ignorant of most of the processes, human and natural, that make this place what is. And what it is, is changing rapidly. It is not the snapshot in time that every tourist or home buyer assumes is the way it was and always will be, world without end, amen.

The Upper Arkansas Valley is in a time of rapid change, as is the world. Economies of all scales, from households to empires, are butting into the limits of ten thousand years of extracting energy and wealth from the land and its inhabitants to improve the way we live. This would be a little more admissible if it didn’t include increasing our numbers … on the planet and in the Valley. I moved here to improve my lifestyle and added my bit to the numbers of human critters inhabiting this beautiful, dry, mountain valley. I added a little car exhaust, consumed a little water, and helped increase the cost of land that was already too high for the local economy to support. For a few years it was carefree and recreational, a delight. Then I started learning that situations in the towns and county were changing, and not for the better. I learned about how things were when we Europeans arrived and drove off the Indians, blasted open mines for “strategic” metals, and killed off the large predators to make it safe for our livestock. For those settlers and miners, the wide vistas and abundant water, ores, grassland, and timber must have caused feelings similar to mine, 150 years later. Unlimited possibilities!

Now the Valley floor that was a grassland is split up into green, irrigated hay and alfalfa pastures, large homes scattered around on small plots of brown dirt, and wide-open spaces with little growing except brush and annual weeds … and gullies deepening between.

To an incoming tourist or homebuyer fresh from urban landscapes, this description seems far too negative. After all, it’s a damned sight prettier than downtown Wherever. But ask a rancher who grew up here how the valley compares to what it was like 30 years ago, and you will not get the idea that things are improving. Snowmelt comes sooner, summers are hotter and drier, wells are drying up, the cost of fuel and electricity are ever higher, and beef prices won’t support the family … unless you sell off the land to pay for the kids’ education and to replace worn-out equipment and fall-down fences.

Given that admittedly bleak hindsight, what does the future look like? If we continue under the old paradigm that the Valley offers great opportunities for more rural homesites and larger towns, it will degrade ever more rapidly, with more barren land between fewer green pastures, more wildfires and those gullies working up under sagging roadsides.

It doesn’t have to go that way. Now we know about regenerative grazing practices, about the critical role the riparian zones play in keeping agricultural land productive, and we can now forecast long-term climate changes. We have the knowledge, but do we have the will to use it? Hard to say. We don’t have a sterling record of community wisdom. We have inspired leaders and brilliant scientists and engineers, but we don’t seem able to put it all together in a healthy direction. This last year our political process resulted in chaos and violence. Our farming practices produce a well-fed but poorly nourished population with growing disease rates in spite of having the world’s most costly medical system. If you think we’re better off than the cities, consider that virtually all of our food depends on daily truckloads from Front Range distribution centers, and while our ranchers and farmers struggle to keep their land productive, the local medical racket is growing by leaps and bounds. Most of our restaurants have survived by offering more takeout meals, but not one of them is able to offer food produced here. Local conservationists know that building along the rivers destroys habitat for the birds and insects that pollinate the crops in those green fields, but developers still want to build along stream sides.

We’d all prefer to fix the blame rather than fix the problem. It’s easy to blame ranchers and their cattle for eroding rangeland, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Spanish settlers grazed herds of sheep, goats and cattle here for 200 years without wrecking the grassland. What are we doing wrong? Do we want to fix it and keep the Valley green?

Local beef can’t compete with Great Plains and eastern suppliers. Local workers can’t compete with urban salaries and retirement savings for housing. Local farmers can’t compete with those daily Sysco truckloads of factory produce. If we want this Valley to stay green, we will all need to contribute to the new ecosystem. No, not pooping in the fields. But we all need some fertile thinking in the organizations that support our local producers. We can add some green to their balance sheets at the farmers markets, and above all, we can take part in the organizations and governance that is critical to herding us toward a new, non-extractive, balanced system.

Ed Berg is recovering from his retirement from the oil industry by becoming an agricultural activist. It pays to give back to the Earth.

Life in the Upper Ark is sponsored by Ladd and Nita Stevens.