Forest Magazine Article: A Rancher's Decision
John Whitney IV knew early on that there wasnt a future for him at his familys ranch.
He liked the ranching way of life: the independence, the hard work and the respect for the land it gave him. His familys history runs deep in Arizona desert country, and hes proud of that. But he watched his father work fourteen- and sixteen-hour days, repairing fences and dug-up corralsdamage done by all-terrain vehiclesand struggling with a poor market for cattle, with a severe drought and, finally, with a drought closure. The cattle are gone now. His father hasnt made any money from the ranch for years and has to work off the ranch to earn a living.
Whitneys great-great-grandfather John T. Hughes founded the Circle Bar Ranch in 1904. Today, it is one of the biggest public land grazing permit holders in the state. Of 156,000 acres, 100 acres belong to John Whitney III and the rest belong to the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The Whitneys used to run 1,250 head of cattle on 254 square-miles before the drought.
John Whitney IV, 24, has biology and political science degrees from Arizona State University. He works as a rural and metro firefighter out of Scottsdale, and he volunteers at his fathers ranch when he can. He is also a de facto spokesman for the Arizona Grazing Permit Buyout Campaign, which calls for federal legislation to allow taxpayers to buy out the 870 federal grazing permittees in Arizona at a rate of $175 per animal for each of the months its permitted to graze. A permittee with 100 head of cattle yearlong would receive $210,000 ($175 multiplied by 100 head multiplied by twelve months). The buyout would be one-time, permanent and voluntary.
When Whitney first heard about the buyout about a year ago, he was skeptical, as were other ranchers he knows. He thought much of the information he received about the buyout was anti-ranching, environmentalist propaganda. It was hard to get interested, he said. Ranchers are not going to admit that cattle are bad for their land. You dont want to admit that youre a failure or that your industry is invalid.
Whitney changed his mind about the buyout after he attended a meeting led by Martin Taylor, a biologist who coordinates the Center for Biological Diversitys grazing reform project. Whitney was impressed with Taylors ability to bring a roomful of ranchers and the environmentalists together over the idea of a buyout. The mood wasnt anti-ranching. The talk was about what would be best for the land and the ranchers. If youd have asked me two years ago if I was going to have the Center for Biological Diversity on my speed dial, Whitney says, Id have told you you were crazy.
Whitney doesnt believe that cattle, when managed properly, are bad for land. That isnt why hes for a buyout.
But, he says, ranchers have run out of options. With the drought in the Southwest, they cant have cattle on their land, and with no cattle, theres been no income for two years. A lot of people say this buyout will ruin small ranching communities, but theyre already at their worst right now, Whitney says.
Some say that a buyout could lead to ranchers subdividing and selling their land, turning the Wests rural landscapes into the sprawling suburbs common to the rest of the United States. But Whitney says that without the buyout, some ranchers only chance of not going under would be to subdivide their land.
He ticks off the myths about ranchers. That most are millionaires and hobby cowboys. That they dont care about the land. That theyre uneducated and unintelligent. The ranchers he knows are none of these.
The millionaire and hobby rancher ideas, he says, are perpetuated by the fact the small family ranchers stay out of the limelight and dont want to draw attention to themselves. Its not like Dallas, he says. You go to these meetings and you see these people cutting and saving just to keep alive. The majority of them are plain and simple people trying to make a living.
He resents the idea that ranchers are anti-environment and dont mind destroying their land. He says that anyone who has had to eke out a living through ranching knows better than to overgraze. The problem is the people who dont have to make a living in ranchingthe hobby ranchersare some of the worst ones.
Whitneys father talks about his land as an ecologist would. He talks about rain and fire and cattle and how they can work together, or how they can work against each other, the younger Whitney says. Its incredible what these guys know, Whitney says. Nobody knows that land better than the rancher does.
Whitney says its been interesting to see ranchers and environmentalists chitchatting at the buyout campaign meetings. Ranchers and environmentalists arent that different, he says. They both have a deep care for the land.
The buyout campaign group is finalizing their proposed legislation, which they will take to Congress. Whitney says that between 70 and 80 percent of the ranchers hes been in touch with are for the buyout. He hopes Arizonas buyout will act as a pilot program and will lead the way for the rest of the country. Its going to answer a lot of questions, he says. There are incredible research opportunities on our 254 sections.
As for the Circle Bar Ranch, he says his father might pay off the debts, leave Arizona and buy another ranch if the grazing buyout is successful. Or he might stay where he is and make a go of his ranch on his private land.
The younger Whitney is grateful to have grown up around ranching. He wants to retire on a ranch someday.
And if his own children wanted to ranch? If they wanted to, that would be greatif they could not have to deal with some of the things my dad has dealt with. Id hate to see my kids go through what my dad goes through. FM