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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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Chapter 16:  cattleman and mesquite
Green Valley, Arizona

He is a strong square man bristling with wariness. He is so wary that his face hardly moves at first and he doesn't meet my eyes.

William A. (Bill) McGibbon is the president of Santa Rita Ranch, Inc., a business not inherited but grown by him from grassroots. It's a family-run outfit that employs and feeds five families. He hires the odd cowboy or two or three at roundup time, though the roundup hands no longer sneak up the mountain ranges from Mexico, as they did in the old days, appearing ragged but ready at the door, superb horsemen with a cattle sense that no Anglo seems to have.

Bill is also the president of the Arizona Cattle Growers' Association, so he's spokesman for an industry and for a relationship -- cattle to man to arid ground -- that goes back to the neolithic revolution in general and to the seventeenth century in Arizona, in particular.

These are some of the points he makes within the first five minutes:

Ninety percent of the people in Arizona now live in the Tucson and Phoenix metropolitan areas.

(Note: other desert states -- Nevada, Utah, Texas, New Mexico -- are also top-heavy in outsider/metropolitan folk. These desert states all have nearly 90 percent of their population in urban centers, more than twice the percentage that other states have, and there's a good reason for this: desert cities are oases. They are not the desert.)

Four-fifths of the people who live in Arizona are "from away" and have no experience or knowledge of ranching. Ranching (as Bill makes clear) is this: food and fiber production in the southwestern desert environment. Most people's view of cowboy life is unadulterated Hollywood: anachronistic, in other words. Unimportant in the here and now.

Ranchers are on their own. There are no government subsidies for the beef cattle industry, no support prices set, no artificial market manipulators.

The rural economy is fragile. A drought, a drop in livestock prices, the closure of a local timber industry, can dry it up for good.

The rural part of the state is being raped for the benefit of urbanites.

Water supplies once used for cattle, sheep, orchards, groves, fields, are now funneled to recreation areas and high-priority urban demands.

There's plenty of evidence of these demographics around, Bill makes clear, though he's still hardly moved; and I realize he's less wary of me than he is in earnest, slapping facts down like cards on a table. These are the facts. After holiday weekends, trash is scattered on the range, fences have been cut to let in off-road vehicles, people have gone swimming in waterholes and have left the water running in water tanks, materials left out to build things (timber, wire, cement) have been stolen, mesquite corrals have been taken apart and trucked off for firewood or charcoal.

Then there's sabotage.

Windmills have their bolts loosened just enough so that when the wind blows they'll self-destruct. Cattle guards are pried out of their foundations. Cement is poured down wells to give the pump a fatal case of congestive heart failure. Fences are systematically wrecked, the wires cut between every other post for miles.

There is a small, vociferous group of people who want cattle off all public land.

There are vast quantities of people who don't care.

He stops. Pauses. He's finished his litany -- the list of angry truths delivered in a soft voice -- and he looks me square in the face.

I've heard the like of this before. It reminds me of something else. It's a status report of sorts, and it reminds me -- the fragility of a system, the thoughtlessness and ignorance of the urban majority -- cattle ranching in Arizona reminds me of an endangered species.

***

Bill McGibbon raises Hereford and Barzona cattle and ranch horses on one hundred sections of desert grassland in the Santa Rita foothills. In a normal year there may be eight to nine hundred mother cows, in drought years less; in some dry years they've run as low as six hundred head. The bulls go out from March 1 to October 1; 75 to 80 percent of the calves are on the ground by the end of February and are weaned by October, coming off the range weighing four hundred and fifty to six hundred pounds apiece. With the demand for leaner beef the steers and low-end heifers go into feedlots better grown than they once did, with more time spent on the range before they do go, and then they have more bone and size on them than was usual only a decade ago; they stay in the feedlot only long enough for a grain diet to give the meat good "finish."

This range alone produces enough cattle per year to fill the needs of five to six thousand people. As Bill points out, an increasing number of these are foreign; in other words, abroad. Agricultural exports do a great deal to combat the imbalance of trade, and this is an item often forgotten in arguments about the pros and cons of cattle. It is not an argument that Bill forgets. All in all, more than four and a half million people are fed by Arizona beef. Pound for pound, most of this comes from range. From desert.

The first cattle came to the foothills of the Santa Ritas with a Father Kino entourage, sometime in the latter half of the 1600s. Looking around even now from Kino's mission of San Xavier del Bac, his "white dove of the desert" below Green Valley and just south of Tucson, you can see the wave of grasslands rising to the east. Desert grasslands are what you find when you climb above the scrub and gravel of the valley floor; they come between scrub below and forest above, in moisture and altitude. If I'd had charge of herds back then, the Santa Rita foothills are where I'd have put them.

If I had cattle in Arizona now, that's where I'd like them to be. In winter, with the mesquites no more than a leafless haze, the grass shows through thick as a golden pelt. With summer rains it all goes green. In Kino's day, native bunch grasses ran here like a clean sea: rothrock and side oats and subtropic gramas, three-awns, tanglehead grass and windmill grasses. In the arroyos there were oaks, for shade.

Nowadays the native bunch grasses have been replaced on the lower slopes by Lehmann love grass, a rugged import from southern Africa. Neatly spaced mesquite trees cover the ground almost entirely, as if this were an orchard. The oak groves are there in the uplands but most of the oaks lower down were cut and used by pioneers for building materials, and have been replaced -- since Kino's day, even since the late 1800s -- by mesquite.

Desert grasslands all across the Southwest have been invaded by mesquite. No one knows exactly why. Some folks accuse cattle of having changed this world for the worse. The bottom line is: if you love cattle, you don't think so.

***

Father Eusebio Francisco Kino came to San Xavier del Bac in 1692, seventy-two years after the Pilgrims stepped out of the Mayflower onto Plymouth Rock. He arrived as a missionary in Mexico City in 1681, every inch an educated European and a man of the Spanish God, and ten years later he set off on the first of forty expeditions into the desert hinterlands of Pimeria Alta -- now northern Mexico and Arizona. This Spanish outback was the home of desert tribes known generally as the Pima, though the local group here was later called the Papago; Spanish and Anglo nomenclature of Indian tribes is a tangled skein. In any case, the native people here are now known by their ancestral name for themselves: Tohono O'odham.

In Kino's day the Tohono O'odham lived in camps along the few perennial watercourses, they farmed some and hunted and gathered some and pursued a life of unremitting generosity with one another. They traveled light, the more they gave the more they got, stinginess being the sure way to starvation; in any case they knew the value of giving all unnecessary things away. This is a desert understanding. They also knew the value of clean and plentiful water. Because of this, they did not think too much of cattle.

A hundred and fifty years after Kino's bandwagon of provisioners brought cattle in to the Santa Ritas, the Tohono O'odham were still trying to run the cattle (and the cattlemen) out of there.

Nowadays the Tohono O'odham are cattlemen themselves.

They run their cattle in the old system of open range. There are no fences; the cattle are let loose on reservation land to graze until they're rounded up. This was the system used all across the public lands of the Southwest, fifty and more years ago. It led to severe overgrazing, extreme abuse of landscape. The Taylor Grazing Act took care of that; ranchers nowadays have specific -- fenced -- leases on public land. It isn't in their interest to damage their rangeland resource. They have to stay and make a living here. It's no surprise to anyone that the rangelands of the Tohono O'odham are in rougher condition than anyone else's around.

***

Bill McGibbon's pickup bangs over the rutted ranch roads through the yellow grass; the desert basin lies pale below and the Santa Rita range -- Mounts Hopkins and Wrightson -- rise forested above. Bill drives with his shades on and his cowboy-style rancher's hat on, too. In the back of the truck are dogs: a black Lab named Thor and a young enthusiastic Australian shepherd named Bucky. Between the bumps and clattering, Bill McGibbon talks:

"Cattle are a useful management tool that can be used to improve the condition and biodiversity of the range. What we use on this rangeland now is a technique developed by the Holistic Resource Management Foundation. It was developed by Alan Savory, a Zimbabwean wildlife biologist who grew up in the South African rangelands. He transplanted the idea of native migrations -- the migrating herds of elephants and wildebeest and so on -- here to our rangelands. Here we are."

The pickup stops at last in a cloud of dust by a new metal corral. Bucky jumps out. Bill finds a stick and starts to draw in the dust. What he draws is a wheel. The center, the hub (this is where we are, here, now), is a corral with water supply, weighing scale, sorting alley, squeeze chute, loading chute. Around this hub are a series of eight to sixteen paddocks, each one between six hundred and a thousand acres in size. The whole "cell" worth of cattle grazes one paddock at a time; about every three days they're moved (through the hub) into the next paddock, mimicking as they go the wildebeest (or buffalo, for that matter) impact: a short period of heavy grazing and trampling hooves followed by a time of long untouched regrowth. The herd has passed by. So.

The system is expensive to set up, but once it is in place the land is more productive, the cattle healthier and easier to manage -- they're handled more often and so become less skittish -- and Bill finds he can get along now with one less employee. The Holistic Resource Management concept is still in the experimental stage, it hasn't caught on widely yet, because it's new and because of its expense, but here it is: arid lands ecology, applied. Bill has two cells working now, and three on the drawing board.

He is a pragmatic man, he's no idealist, and it's clear right away that he loves what he does; that he does it with imagination, commitment, care. Cattle to man to desert is a relationship he's in, it's where he wants to be, it's as gritty as a marriage; a relationship to be lived in and worked out, a way of living to be defended against those others who, for whatever reasons, wish to take it apart.

Lesson learned, it's time to go. "Back in the truck, Bucky! Bucky! Buck!" he says, and seconds later the hub of the wheel, the Zimbabwean waterhole transposed, disappears in the dust.

A half-mile away we come on a pair of mother cows, each trailing a calf. The cows are brown and white, glossy, solid, with the bug-eyed wet-nosed bumptious look of healthy animal. The spunky calves have legs as thick as girders. We watch them and they watch us until the mother cows, with a feral maternal lowering of necks, lead them off into the mesquite.

"The mesquite? There are a number of hypotheses. No one seems to have the final answer on that one," Bill says. And this is true. No one does. The widespread mesquite invasion of desert grassland is a controversial biological mystery.

One theory holds that the first mesquites were imported up into desert prairies as a source of firewood. The trees grow fast and their hard wood burns long and bright, so this isn't unlikely, but doesn't explain the trees' lightning-fast spread through the grass. Mesquite beans are eaten by livestock and wildlife and survive, somehow, even through the macerations and fermentations of a cow's gut -- coyotes eat them, spreading seed up the washes they patrol -- but the beans do also sprout from cow dung, giving credence to the "cow-flap hypothesis." Old photos do show groves springing up around corrals and along the routes of cattle drives. The old grazing system, whether of open range or of fenced pastures in continual use, tended to weaken the native grass; grazed and grazed continually, like a savings account drawn upon above its interest and never refilled, the perennial grasses had no time to reinvest in rootstocks or set seed. Weakened or dying, they left ground open for invasion, and mesquite invaded, and there we are.

Then there's the theory of fire. Ecologically, these grasslands are what is known as a fire subclimax. This means that desert grasses grow where shrubs or even trees would grow if they were not destroyed by periodic bouts of fire. Once started by lightning, wildfire will sweep unchecked through the thick tinder of dead grass, through the mattresslike leaves and stems that lie, in this dry climate, unrotted for years. Fire will kill seedling trees -- it kills young mesquites -- but will not kill grass.

Pioneers and cattlemen and land management agencies put out fires. And cattle, if they are grazing more heavily and regularly than wild game, will reduce grass tinder to a frail fabric. So however they did come, the mesquites came, and stayed, and grew, and -- once grown large -- they could not be killed by fire anymore.

The largest theory of them all, the one that hangs over all these others like a sky, is that these deserts are still inexorably, visibly since the end of the last century, drying out. Part of this is due to climate, part of this is due to increasing demands of people; all through the Southwest, water tables are dropping like stones. And mesquite can withstand deeper drought than grass.
 

Experiments indicate that a higher carbon dioxide concentration favors weeds and invasive plants over native species because invasives have traits (such as rapid growth rate and prolific seed production) that allow a larger growth response to carbon dioxide. In addition, the effect of a higher carbon dioxide concentration on plant species composition appears to be greatest where the land has been disturbed (such as by fire or grazing).

Desertification of Arid Grassland near Tucson, Arizona, 1902 to 2003
The photo series shows the progression from arid grassland to desert (desertification) over a 100-year period. The change is the result of grazing management and reduced rainfall in the Southwest.

-- Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States -- A State of Knowledge Report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program

Nearly everywhere, even on land never grazed, desert scrub is expanding at the expense of grass. This is a universal phenomenon in American deserts. How much of this has had to do with cattle? With other human impacts? With natural succession? No one knows.

The truth is that none of these theories can be dissected from the others. Whether change has been brought by culture or by the global shifts of jet streams, the mesquites are here and Bill McGibbon is here and the calves are here, too, proof that the relationship does work, for them.

As a cattleman, Bill McGibbon is part of a shrinking minority. The hard-worked pickup, the obedient happy dogs, the wool felt hat, the risk-taking management styles, the sound relationships with banks, the long roundup days in the saddle -- these are slim defense against the tide of popular myth and population growth. Nowadays, the cattle-raising industry is under fire, and no amount of cowboy romance -- or reality -- can change that.

"Most of these ranchers, especially the old-timers, just want to go back to their ranches and raise their cattle like they've always done. And leave the world alone," he says, tipping his hat back with his fist, "but the world won't leave them alone."

Antelope Jackrabbit and Mesquite:  You could write a whole book about mesquite. It has a thousand uses and its beanlike fruits are eaten by almost everything, even people, and they're sweet and nutty and nutritious. The trees themselves are used as shelter by another thousand things, including antelope jackrabbits snoozing through the hot daylight hours in their shade. The thing to notice about the antelope jack is his ears: they are so enormous that he has to fold each one in half and then stack them on top of each other when he goes to sleep. At dusk he unfolds himself and goes foraging. If he catches wind of a predator he will take off at high speed in dizzying zigs and zags and then his big ears serve as radiators to get rid of the heat he generates in his stupendous run. Most hot-blooded animals cannot sweat as we do to get rid of excess body heat, so big "radiator" ears are a common desert adaptation.

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