Are the Big Bend Ranch Longhorns part of our ranching heritage or a scourge?
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 A Cattle Company when the property was a working ranch and stayed on as superintendent after the state acquired the land, learned the cattle on Big Bend Ranch were slated for sale. He was outraged. “When they bought the ranch,” says Guldemann, “Parks and Wildlife said they wanted to keep it a working ranch.” He proceeded to alert the Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Registry, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the Texas Wildlife Association, and several other organizations, all of whom deluged the Parks and Wildlife Department with complaints.
Parks officials quickly reversed themselves, pledging that the cattle would remain indefinitely, unless public comment determined that they should go. “There was a faction within Parks and Wildlife that wanted to get rid of the cattle,” explains Jim Carrico, the regional representative and project manager in charge of planning for the ranch. “John L. felt like he was the Lone Ranger.”
Given the rocky terrain of Big Bend, the scarcity of water, and the tendency of most cattle breeds to overgraze an area and eat range grasses to the nub, the “no cattle” contingent has a compelling argument. But the bovines on Big Bend Ranch are Texas Longhorns, a breed long adapted to survival in the wild. And the bloodlines of the herd are impeccable, a point that the cattlemen feel is significant.
“We tested eighty head and never before has a herd shown to be as pure, other than the one on the Wichita Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma,” says David Karger, the vice president of the Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Registry. “There’s cattle with long horns and there’s Texas Longhorns, and there’s a big difference. Texas Longhorns, unlike English breeds, will take off, browse a little here and there, then move on. They’re going to help that country. They don’t require any supplemental feeding, except for a little salt. They will make money for that ranch. They belong there. It’s their home.”
Not surprisingly, John L. Guldemann agrees. After all, he resigned in order to raise cattle on private land in Presidio and Loving counties. “You remove everyone that works there now and leave the cattle, and in ten years,” says Guldemann, “I guarantee you, they’ll still be there.”
Planning on public access and development of the ranch began in earnest about a year ago. In mid-February, Parks and Wildlife solicited comments and received 371 responses from concerned individuals and organizations. “The majority want us to leave Big Bend Ranch as is,” Carrico says. “They don’t want us to get carried away with building new roads. They want development to be kept to a minimum, the sentiment being we don’t need another Big Bend National Park. But there is concern that we get it open to let the public on the the place instead of keeping it locked up for ten or fifteen years.”
According to Carrico, the two hottest topics are cattle and whether or not hunting should be allowed on the land. “I’ve got no fast feelings one way or another,” says Carrico, who came to the state parks system after running Big Bend National Park next door. “I’d say the small demonstration herd that’s running out there now is not going to have a lasting or devastating effect on the area, with some proper pasture management.” Still, one particular response stuck with Carrico: “It said that it was crazy to drive through fifteen thousand miles of cattle country just to see a demonstration herd.”
Seven other state parks currently run demonstration herds on their land, and there’s no question that overgrazing can have a severe impact. During the forties, shortly before Big Bend National Park was created, that land was intensively grazed by thousands of head of cattle to raise beef for the war effort. “They hammered the place,” Carrico says. “Parts of the park have been altered, and they’re not going to come back. The Big Bend Ranch got hammered also.”
“We are not opposed to cattle, period,” insists Scott Royder, the state conservation director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We do have some concerns about subsidizing cattle on public lands. Lots of ranchers in West Texas have done an excellent job preserving natural resources. If Parks and Wildlife wants to set up a demonstration herd, they should. But that doesn’t explain the principle of what a natural area is supposed to be. Our membership is interested in low-impact natural areas. Cattle grazing and recreational hunting are not compatible with that. There are very few examples of a natural area where there is really a quiet most people have never heard.”
The Lone Star Sierra Club published an analysis of the cost of operating the natural area during 1989 and 1990 that showed 40 percent of the total budget was devoted to running the cattle operation. “Spending a lot of money for cattle as opposed to natural resources and protecting archaeological sites is wasteful,” Royder contends. Guldemann takes exception to the Sierra Club’s analysis of expenses. “The water distribution center isn’t just for cattle; it’s for wildlife and hikers. The horse expense is justified because we do a lot of patrol on horseback. They had the idea that all we did was ride horses, chew tobacco, and chase cows. Who kept the road up so they could get out there? They twisted the facts. I grossed almost $60,000 with the cattle,” Guldemann says, citing a $25,000 payment for their use in a Marlboro commercial shown overseas and the proceeds from two cattle sales. “That sale can get nothing but bigger and bigger.”
His displeasure with the Sierra Club and Royder in particular culminated with a heated exchange of letters on the editorial page of the Big Bend Sentinel. “I think I called him a liar,” Guldemann says. “He talked to me at length. He said, ‘We don’t consider the cattle a problem. We consider the problem to be that you’re understaffed.’ Then a friend of mine heard him speak at a Sierra Club meeting and say that cattle were a problem; they were tearing up the resources. He had no proof that the herd was tearing up any resource on the ranch. There was no abuse going on.”
So how would John L. like to see it?
“That place is big enough for everyone to have something they can enjoy. There’s no reason you can’t have a closed natural area, a representation of a cattle ranch, and a wildlife management area. It shouldn’t all be put under a state natural area, because it’s so big and varied. A lot of people aren’t going to want to hike with a backpack. They may just want to drive through.” Moreover, he believes there’s a story that needs to be told. “I had a man who has worked there fifty years. He represents the whole modern history of the ranch. He knows it intimately—all the trails, all the canyons. I’d hate to see us lose that.
“Values are changing,” he acknowledges. “That’s one of the reasons why it was a good move for Parks and Wildlife to acquire that land. Mr. Anderson [Diamond A Cattle Company owner Robert Anderson] took care of that ranch, but with his heirs, it would have been subdivided. All the big ranches are getting sold or cut up. Pretty soon, we’re not going to have any representation of our ranching heritage before barbed wire, which is the one thing that has had a degrading effect on rangeland.”
Well, then, just what constitutes a natural area in the state of Texas? “It’s a principle,” explains Jim Carrico. “I personally think that the most important thing we can do out there is to provide an alternative for those who live where it’s too damn hectic. People need a place where they can test themselves.”
The questions linger. How natural is natural? Are cattle part of that definition? A policy defining such questions is expected this fall. In the meantime, the Longhorns are roaming the range, while people are waiting at the ranch gates, clamoring to get in.