A Mountain Meadow
Cowboys ride herd on the western landscape.
BY MARY O’BRIEN
At first glance, Scad Valley looks idyllic. A high mountain meadow of lush green, autumn-yellowing grasses nestled at the base of rough, dry slopes. A narrow, glinting creek snaking through it. But I was pretty sure of what I would find as I looked closer. After all, it’s a national forest valley in which a rancher is asking to convert his sheep operation to sheep and cattle. His sheep have been grazing the slopes for decades; his valley bottom-loving cattle only the past four years, on a trial basis.
Last year I had briefly stopped further upstream in this valley, and had taken a few photographs of the impending breakdown of this meadow system if the request to convert to cows is granted. I had found the soil between the meadow grasses bare, pounded and lumpy. The stream banks raw and broken by cow hooves. New channels being cut by cows into the meadow, draining it of its sponge-like dampness.
But this time, a mile further down in the center of the valley, I was amazed. The creek banks were intact, with grasses overhanging the narrow channel. No cow dung. No bare areas. A small, rare cutthroat trout zipping through the creek. I couldn’t figure it out.
As I walked back to the road, a Forest Service enforcement officer stopped his ATV, curious as to what I was doing with my camera and clipboard. I told him I was looking at the condition of the meadow. “Oh, that’s the Mont Lewis Research Natural Area,” he said, pointing out its boundary. That explained it. It’s one of the very few, tiny spots designated off-limits to livestock on the forest.
This was turning out to be quite the day. Earlier, just up the road, I had parked near the cow-and-sheep camp to examine aspen. Nineteen-year-old Jess, the cowboy son of the man wanting to get the cow permit, had ridden up on his horse. He was also curious as to what I was doing. We had ended up talking most of an hour. Among Jess’ comforting perspectives are that cows don’t eat aspen (they do; and aspen, like cutthroat trout, are disappearing from our West); that he’s taking care of the land (his cows are destroying one of the last intact streams in the watershed); that humans aren’t animals because we are made in the image of God (which makes empathy for cutthroat trout less bothersome); and anyway, our 6,000-year-old Earth may suddenly be destroyed, with Christians lifted up elsewhere.
But Jess didn’t just talk. He asked questions, because, as he nervously put it, he had never “talked to an environmentalist” before. He wanted to know if my job is to harass livestock ranchers. Am I a Christian? Do I believe in evolution? Would I shoot a bear if it was about to kill me? Do I think people shouldn’t have babies? It was a quiet, calm conversation, and when I left, we shook hands.
The next day I was back, taking measurements of the creek inside the Research Natural Area, and above, where the cows run. Jess rode up on his horse, with his four sheep dogs, wanting to talk some more.
“Do you think the creek looks pretty good?” he asked. I showed him an example of how his cows are breaking down the stream banks. He told me how he manages to keep track of 140 cows and 630 sheep. I explained why I think grazing, like mining, shouldn’t happen in all potential places. He told me of his family’s difficulties finding winter range for their sheep and summer range for their cows.
He asked if I have power to prevent the addition of cattle to his family’s permit. I said that as part of the livestock industry, he has a lot more power with the Forest Service than a person like me. He asked how legal appeals work, what I would do if he did get the cattle permit. We talked about his dogs, his plans that night to see his brother, home from two years at a Christian camp back East.
“It makes me sad that I might not get to make my living here,” he said as I packed up my gear.
“Well, Jess,” I responded, “I’ve been looking at habitat for sage grouse most of this summer, and sometimes before going to sleep I cried, realizing how our cattle and mining are making it so hard for the sage grouse to still live at all. So I guess we both have sadness, yes?”
Jess allowed that we do, and we parted gently for the second time. As I left the valley, I looked back. It looked idyllic, as landscapes often do.
Mary O’Brien is the Utah Forests Project Manager for the Grand Canyon Trust. A public interest scientist since 1981, Mary coordinates the Three Forests Coalition’s efforts to obtain greater care for native wildlife, vegetation, and ecosystems on southern Utah’s Dixie, Fishlake, and Manti–La Sal National Forests. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, and Castle Valley, Utah. This article was first published in the Eugene Weekly.