TO HERD OR NOT TO HERD, that is the question Texas Parks and Wildlife officials ponder as they plan the future of the Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area (see “Wild Forever,” TM, December 1989). The 265,000-acre spread doubled the size of the state park system when the state got the property four years ago. Now, as public input is being considered to determine precisely what a state natural area should be, the volatile issue of keeping 150 head of cattle on what was once a working ranch has emerged as the most controversial aspect of the planning process. At issue is whether cattle are nature-friendly, efficient environmental recyclers, as the National Cattlemen’s Association claims in its advertisements, or a major factor in the degradation of grasslands into dust bowls, as environmental groups maintain.
The Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, and similar organizations have long argued that cattle irreversibly damage natural resources and should not be allowed on public lands, particularly in designated areas where protection of natural resources takes precedence over public recreation. That position has been roundly attacked by various cattlemen’s associations, property-rights advocates, and traditionalists, who charge that removing cattle is a classic example of government meddling, as well as an affront to Texas’ ranching heritage.
The issue was played out last year on the federal level when cattle were removed from Matagorda Island after the area was officially designated a National Wildlife Refuge. Cattle, refuge officials believed, were destroying sand dunes on the barrier island. Rancher Joe Hawes, whose family had worked cattle on the island for 153 years, unsuccessfully fought the evacuation order in court before relocating his 870 head of cattle to Point Comfort, on the mainland.
For state officials, with fewer precedents to guide them, the issues are even thornier. The furor flared one day last spring when John L. Guldemann tendered his resignation as superintendent of the Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area. That same day, Guldemann, who had been the foreman for the Diamond