Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Anasazi Strip - Chapter 3 - Part 1


The green Forest Service truck bounced and rattled its way down the washboard road, a funnel of brown dust mushrooming from the back. At the wheel was a cowboy. Dwayne (pronounced De-wayne) Johnson was in his early thirties with sandy-colored hair, like the rest of his Mormon brethren. He was tall and lanky and a dirty beige cowboy hat that had seen better days sat atop his head.  His blue eyes took in all the sun-bleached world around him as he drove along.

The fall had been a very dry one and the high desert was a baked plain of wildfire fuel. One careless match, and a million acres of winter forage would be lost. Cattle, deer, and antelope depended on the blue grama and galleta grasses for food during the heavy snow storms of winter. The Forest Service posted large fire prevention signs along the main roads, but one careless smoker was all it took to undo the delicate environmental balance of the Kaibab Plateau.

Dwayne down-shifted the pickup as the bumpy road steepened. A few minutes later he turned onto Jumpup Point Road, and the quality of the road immediately improved. The tan limestone road was used heavily by Billy Mangum, a local rancher who grazed five hundred head of cattle on a government allotment of ten thousand acres of public land. The Forest Service maintained the road with a grader twice a year, to provide easier access for the local cattleman. In return, Billy paid the government $1.97 for every cow and calf he grazed during each month.

A big part of Dwayne’s job with the Forest Service was overseeing the Kaibab’s grazing program. Foremost, he studied the different range allotments, determining how much grazing the land could stand. This was not an exact science by any means. The ranchers Dwayne dealt with were his neighbors and friends; he had grown up with the cattle bosses and sympathized with their predicament. The land that now comprised the Kaibab had been over-grazed in the late 1800s. The knee-high grasslands which were marveled at by the region’s first military surveyors had been beaten into a rocky, cactus-covered shell. Non-native species of plants, like Russian Thistle and buffalo grass, had invaded the hard pack, choking out the nutritious grasses that had once flourished. Today’s cattlemen paid for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers.

But it was in Dwayne's other capacity as a police officer that he was meeting with Billy Mangum today. Law enforcement didn't get a high priority with the Forest Service. There just wasn't a lot of crime to speak of, certainly not enough to keep Dwayne busy. The serious police work was handled by the Grand Canyon County Sheriff's Office. Dwayne wore the same weathered cowboy hat for both jobs, but his heart was with the cows. So his upcoming meeting with Billy had him troubled.

Anti-ranching sentiments were heating up and Dwayne found himself caught in the middle. Just the previous week, he had attended a rancorous meeting at the District Office where the public had been invited to comment on the Forest Service’s latest range management plan for the Kaibab. There had been harsh words leveled against the local ranchers by outsiders – mostly young folks from around Flagstaff – who came to the Grand Canyon area for the countless recreational opportunities and didn't like the over-grazing they saw. These backpackers and hikers saw no reason for the American taxpayers to subsidize the destruction of federal lands and they were pressuring the government to drastically reduce grazing on the Kaibab. The phrase "welfare ranchers" had popped up several times at the meeting, bringing the local cattlemen out of their seats and making Dwayne feel like the referee at a fight. "Get the ranchers off the Kaibab" was the battle cry of these angry visitors who called themselves environmentalists. But some of them were also terrorists. They cut range fences, they poisoned wells, and they destroyed cattle guards, waging war against the local ranchers, with the hope of driving them out of business.

The Kaibab ranchers were ready to start stringing up some hikers. “It’s just a matter of time before somebody gets killed,” said Billy Mangum when he called Dwayne that following Tuesday morning to tell him that his range fences along the Snake Gulch Wilderness Area had been cut. This was the fifth time since May that Billy's cattle had gotten loose. He had sworn this it would be the last. He warned Dwayne that he had a God-given right to defend his cattle and the land he leased from the Forest Service. “If the government can’t protect my interests, I sure as hell can.” Billy said he was camping out with his cattle, and he was prepared to shoot any stranger who came near the herd, “just like I'd blast a goddamn coyote.”

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