Some positive news about the environment.
The palette of the High Plains is subtle. From the moment the sun rises in the enormous sky until the moment it sets in the mountains, the land is flooded with sunlight. As the light hits it wrings out the reds and the greens, drains even purples and oranges into submission. There is color here, but no contrast.
The valley known as Iron Creek would be no different were it not for the fence that runs down its center. The pasture on either side is as muted as the rest of Wyoming; if you saw only one of them, it would blend into the hills without remark. But here, side-by-side, the two places are like night and day.
Undeniably better looking is the east side, Jim Gould’s land. It is thick with native grasses, and the field they make is bumpy and golden. They even wave in the breeze as if consciously trying to look idyllic.
The west side is gray. Its surface is dusty dirt checkered with dried manure and big sage, the official plant of parched lands. Jim tells me that in summer the cows there poke through the barbed wire to drink from his side, for the springs on their land have gone dry. “It’s really that bad,” he says.
Jim calls himself an environmentalist. As caretaker of this land, he values the individual plants, the wildlife, and even the predators that most locals loathe. Yet if he had to choose, he’d call himself a rancher first. His family arrived at this spot in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in the 1870s, and they have raised livestock on it every year since. His work is the same as the guy’s on the west side of the fence; what’s different is how he does it.
A new way of understanding rangelands
Jim Gould practices Holistic Resource Management (HRM). (HRM is also known simply as Holistic Management, or HM.) The first word is meant less metaphysically than literally: cattlemen like Jim think of their ranches not as commodity-producing businesses but as entire ecosystems—wholes. With HRM, cows go from being the sole focus, the raison d’etre, to being tools that serve a larger system. The land does the inverse: it goes from being merely a place to grow cattle to an end in itself. HRM practitioners often call themselves grass farmers rather than cattle ranchers, but really what they are growing is nature.
It is a slow process. The changes begin as soon as you take action, but before you can do anything you must understand the concept. This takes more than reading books; it requires learning to see the land differently. All four ranchers I visited in Wyoming this spring told me it was several years between when they began studying HRM and when they actually changed their operations.