At Home On The Range But For How Long?

Meg Smith swings off the dirt road at the Smith family's Rocker John spread, driving between barbed-wire fences and sagebrush her sister-in-law Emily says is big enough to hang a swing on. Under a lowering sky that threatens snow, we pass groves of Douglas fir and aspen whose leafless branches are white as old bones.

Cattle grazing on the frozen pasture shuffle away from the fences as we crest the mountain and come to a stop. While I shiver in the cab, Meg steps into a howling Montana wind to pour 50-pound bags of salt into a tub for the cattle of Smith 6 Bar S Livestock, the family concern that owns the Rocker John. Back in the cab, Meg looks across the prairie toward the Bitterroot Range and says: "I have a pretty easy life."

Easy? The Smiths have been up since dawn, working in the raw cold. While I've only watched, I am exhausted as we bump over frozen roads in the soft blue dusk. After eight hours, I'm ready to call it quits. Not Meg. Ranchers don't quit till the day's work is done.

CITY SLICKERS. To Western city folks like me, cattle ranching is a glimpse into our past, a heritage that encompasses both funky cowpuncher decor and a sense of where we came from. For us, the cowboy remains the last independent American, a symbol of grit and self-respect. Modern ranchers feel the same way. They love trailing cattle, calving, and branding. To tell you the truth, I think they love even the stinging blizzards and the dark-to-dark workdays.

Like many of us, they're nostalgic for the times before regulation and red tape threatened their way of life. And these days, the cowboy life is indeed under siege. From 1987 to 1992, the number of beef growers in the U.S. declined 5%, to 612,203, according to the Census Bureau. They compete for acreage with developers, who cut up big ranches into parcels, and celebrity ranchers such as Mel Gibson and Ted Turner, who own local spreads.

But the biggest threat now, say cattlemen here in the Lower Big Hole Valley, comes from city-slicker environmentalists. They're seen as the force behind the Interior Dept.'s range-reform program, which threatens to reduce livestock grazing on federal land, double grazing fees, and give the government title to all future improvements made by ranchers. "Range reform is not needed. The fact of the matter is, rangeland is in the best condition of the last 100 years," says Meg Smith's mother, Holley.

While the Clinton Administration could impel range reform by administrative order, ranchers are hoping the Republican electoral landslide will force the White House either to abandon that goal--or set it aside in hopes of winning rancher votes. But it won't slow environmentalists. A suit filed by the National and Montana Wildlife Federations against the U.S. Forest Service seeks to close nearby Beaverhead National Forest to grazing, pending approval of tough streambed regulations.

"They're out to run us out of business," says Randy, Meg's brother. "We're being pushed off the land so people can sit and look at it." He believes such environmental lawsuits are the first step in eliminating all cattle from federal land. If that happens, the Smiths would have to cut their herd by one-third. And they're among the lucky ones. Many ranchers will go under if Washington reneges on the century-old pact that allows ranchers to graze cattle on public lands. Originally assigned because the average homestead allotment in the West was too small to be profitable, such grazing rights today are so valuable they're subject to inheritance taxes.

A National Cattlemen's Assn. study concludes that without access to federal lands, nearly 10,000 western ranchers would fold. In Montana, the group predicts, 2,514 ranchers--57% of the total--would have to stop operations. Western rural communities would be devastated. For the western states as a whole, a total of $336 million in local spending and tax revenues would dry up faster than a high-desert water hole in a July drought, according to the study. Montana's share would come to $82.2 million.

PAY DIRT. Holley and Maynard Smith started ranching in 1964, when they moved their family from California to Glen, Mont., settling on a ranch started by a prospector who believed there was more pay dirt in feeding miners than finding gold. Over the years, the Smiths have spent $1 million for 20,000 acres in parcels spread over 40 miles. Today, their land is worth some $4 million--"split up," says Maynard. The 6 Bar S runs 1,000 cow-calf units, as cattle industry lingo has it, taking in about $400,000, less this year because cattle prices are off 20%. It's a comfortable living for Maynard and Holley on the home place; Randy, Emily, and their three children two miles away; and Meg, 25 miles up the valley. The entire family, from Maynard to Randy's 4-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, must pitch in. Maynard, now 70, oversees operations; Randy handles farming, haying, and feeding; Meg is the cowpuncher; Holley, with an economics degree from Vassar College, handles bookkeeping, taxes, and other paperwork. Two other Smith children are not involved in ranching.

With me tagging along, Maynard arrives at Randy's after sunrise to move 120 heifers to a new pasture. Critics charge that ranchers overgraze. In fact, they rotate ranges, letting cows graze only one season a year, then letting the land lie fallow. Maynard backs the cattle trailer into Randy's barnyard. In the old days, cattle were trailed to a new pasture, but it's easier to truck this small herd, especially since a neighbor is here with his trailer to lend a hand.

While I watch from beyond the fence, the Smiths, including Elizabeth, work inside the corral, herding the animals into the trailers. There's nothing romantic about this work--wallowing ankle-deep in mud and cow pies, with slobbering cows ready to bolt and break a cowboy's leg or knock out teeth. Not long ago, Maynard was nearly killed by an animal while working inside a cattle chute.

When the cattle are loaded, we make the 15-mile trip over country roads to the new pasture, which the Smiths lease from Jeff Johnson. The Johnson house is surrounded by willows that were cuttings brought from Iowa in a suitcase 100 years ago. The 6 Bar S hands unload the cattle and return for more.

Meanwhile, back at the home place, Holley is ready with tomato soup and hamburgers made from Smith beef. After we wolf down the grub, we head up the valley to Meg's spread. In deference to the weather (and my backside), she trades in her horse for a pickup, and we're off to look for sick calves. We search pastureland and icy creeks, startling some antelope. They have grazed this pasture down to stubble. Ranchers pay to graze their cattle on public lands, but nobody compensates them when wildlife feeds on private land, Meg says.

We end up at Meg's, where she feeds livestock and does chores, then feeds me again with hot tea and homemade pumpkin bread. Relaxing for a minute, she tells of the man who backed his truck into her gate one midnight, then took off. Meg was so mad she grabbed her rifle, jumped into her pickup in her nightgown, and chased him 25 miles to get his license number. Then she discovered she was running on empty. She barely made it home.

Back in the truck, I sneak a look at the gas gauge before we head for the Rocker John spread. Meg catches me and repeats with a laugh: "It's a good life." Not for me, of course: I'm not tough enough. But for people like the Smiths, ranching is indeed a good life. I hope they will be able to hold on in the teeth of future range reform, and not just for their sake: It's my heritage, too.