Vanishing Legacy Of The Cowboy

Part II in a two-part series on ranching in the Rim country.


After a century of being immortalized in books, movies and television shows, America's first pop-culture hero -- the cowboy -- is up against a more formidable foe than any he's faced on the page or screen: the federal Endangered Species Act.

As grassroots environmental groups use ESA laws and persistent litigation to end cattle grazing on public lands, many fifth- and sixth-generation ranchers in the Rim country are feeling as though they're on the losing side of a war.

And one trip to Tonto Basin is enough to see why. There, ranchers are breaking their backs to eke out their livings, constantly adjusting to up-and-down cattle prices and reeling from the latest few years of drought.

During a good year, ranchers might see a 2-percent return on their operations. This has not been a good year.

Even before the current eco-wars, family ranching was vanishing from the western landscape bankruptcy by bankruptcy. But now, things are worse. And the irony, Tonto Basin ranchers say, is they share the environmentalists' objectives: clean water, flourishing wildlife, and healthy ecosystems.

They have to, they say. The land is their livelihood.

For all the good intentions and good work of the forces now working against ranchers, there is a real human tragedy unfolding here.

But the total loss is shared by all of Arizona.

This Western state, immortalized in print by the likes of Zane Grey and in Hollywood movies by the likes of director John Ford, has, for a full century, been the trusted keeper of the cowboy's heritage.

Now, one family at a time, that heritage is slipping away.

For the moment, however, there are still cowboys working the Arizona range with histories to share and stories to tell.

George Ewing

It seems a true sign of the times that George Ewing's cattle ranch, once named the Cross 7, is now called the George T. Cline Equity Trust.

No self-respecting cowpoke would saddle his spread with a decidedly New West handle like that unless he was spending more time with lawyers and government employees than his Herefords.

And there you have the crux of Ewing's woes.

"All the old-timers had to do was worry about their cows and their fence," he said. "Nowadays, half of our time we're doing some legal maneuver or going to meetings and just trying to stay afloat."

Born in Texas, Ewing, 53, is a third-generation Tonto Basin cattle rancher. "My grandpa was born right here on this ranch in 1896," he said. "My Mom grew up here, too, and so did I, starting when I was about 14."

During the Arizona cattleman's heyday in the 1930s, Ewing's grandfather -- George T. Cline, the ranch's namesake -- had a permit for 1,800 head. Today, 533 head of cattle are allowed to graze the same land.

Cline moved his herds in "old-fashioned" cattle drives to Globe, Phoenix and "right down Main Street in Mesa," Ewing said. "They used to need quite a few more cowboys back then because they rode from home base every day. Later on, they went to hauling with cattle trucks to make the trips shorter, and now we haul in trailers to make the trips shorter still."

By 1975, when Ewing turned the ranch over to the trust, he had earned the distinction of being the longest, continuous single grazing-permit holder in the United States.

"But times have changed," he said. "I'll tell you one thing. My Grandpa never would have put up with this nonsense."

Today, environmental regulations and the manner in which they are enforced are slowly squeezing some ranchers out of business.

"I'm one of 'em," Ewing said. "Right now all we're doing is making a living, and it ain't even a good living."

For the moment, however, he's still struggling to keep his family's chapter of Arizona history alive as a working cowboy.

Correction: cowman/cowboy.

"I'm a cowman first," Ewing said. "A cowboy doesn't know much about the business end, or even the cows themselves. A good cowman, on the other hand, knows the whole operation. He can recognize 60 percent of his herd, no matter how far off they've wandered. He has to. If he can't do that, he wouldn't be in business very long.

"Well, nowadays, I guess it wouldn't make much difference either way."

Dale Cline

"We've been here a long time," said Dale Cline, whose family has owned and operated the O-C Ranch in Tonto Basin since his great-great grandfather Christian Cline bought the place in 1886. "But it doesn't look like we'll be here much longer."

Cline's ranch, including its patented and publicly-owned grazing land, rambles across more than 70,000 acres of Tonto Basin.

"This is what they once called a community ranch," he said. "There were four of us kept our cattle here ... But about 15 years ago, I went out on my own and fenced my (allotted land) off. It involves about 16 sections; my cousins have the rest of it now."

Once, Cline ran about 1,500 head of cattle on his sections; now he has about 200.

"I can't go much lower and still make a living off of it" he said. "They get you down so far you gotta do something. But I don't know what I'm gonna do."

Cline was born in Payson 66 years ago.

"When my mother got out of the hospital, she brought me straight down here. I've been on this ranch ever since.

"But things didn't get bad until the last 10 or 12 years, when the environmentalists got involved. Now the willow flycatcher and some fish and frogs are more important than we are."

Cline has three grown children, two boys and a girl.

"I'd like to hand all this down to them, but I don't think there's gonna be anything to hand down," he said.

"It makes me feel bad, because we can't carry on the tradition. And it's not just me; it's all the ranchers in this area.

"Someday down the line, they're gonna need the cattle we raise. But the cattle won't be here."

After 20 years of decline, the demand for beef rose 3.5 percent in 1999, reported the National Cattlemen's Beef Association last month.

Fred Chilson

Fred Chilson's father and grandfather bought the H-Bar Ranch in Rye in 1917.

Back then, it was nearly 45,000 acres, and in its best year, was home on the range to 1,200 to 1,500 cattle.

"They ranged from Payson to Tonto Basin," Chilson said. "Back then, everybody's cattle ran together. That changed in the early '30s, when these places were all fenced."

Chilson grew up on the ranch, and although he and his son John sold their grazing rights in 1985, he still lives on it with five generations of his family.

His fondest memories are of the five-day, old-fashioned cattle drives to Hay Lake in northern Arizona.

"It was great," he said. "You'd go five or 10 miles, whatever your cattle could take, then you camped out or night-herded. Wouldn't trade those experiences for anything."

The pleasant memories didn't begin to fade until the 1950s, Chilson said, when the Forest Service and the environmentalists first "came in and started telling people what they could do or couldn't do.

"This is what's destroyed the cowman," he said. "They're putting the cattlemen out of business so people can walk the trails without stickin' their feet into ...

"Well, my wife just said 'cow manure,' but I wasn't gonna say that. I was gonna say something else."

E.C. and Bill Conway

E.C. Conway's family has owned the Greenback Valley Ranch in the mountains above Tonto Basin since 1872. His father was born there in 1888.

E.C., though, was born in a shiny new hospital in Globe on Nov. 1, 1917. But since there were still no roads into his family's 20,000-acre spread, his mother took him home on horseback when he was 10 days old.

"I was born one day, and 10 days later I was a rancher," he likes to say.

E.C. worked the ranch through childhood and in 1939, he married Frances Brewton, with whom he had four children. He took over much of the ranch during World War II, when his brother Clarence was in the Army and his father, Ed, had to cut down on the heavier work.

He's been in this business long enough to have led horseback cattle drives to Globe and Phoenix, the latter of which took 10 to 12 days.

"Sometimes you had to stand guard over the cattle at night, so you might have to go a few days without sleep," E.C. remembered. "But it wasn't a bad life."

He's been trying to accommodate the U.S. Forest Service ever since the 1930s. But now he's tired of talking about it, and doesn't want to cause trouble. All he says is, "When the Forest Service first started, they just had one forest ranger and one secretary. Now they have a staff you wouldn't believe."

Now he's facing the prospect of not having a ranch to hand down to his children -- as his ranch has been handed down for 128 years.

"It won't be that long before that happens ... It doesn't make any sense to me, but we're gonna have to all get out of the business. Nobody around here is making it (in ranching)."

In E.C.'s prime ranching days, he was grazing 600 cattle, E.C.'s son, Bill Conway said.

Nowadays, even though they have a grazing permit for 285, the number is usually closer to 150.

But right now it's zero, due to the Conways' agreement with the Government Drought Relief Program -- which, to prevent compounding the current drought's damage to the area, is paying them to keep the forest cattle-free from Nov. 1 of last year until April 30.

"It's a typical government program," said the younger Conway. "They're doing it in the wrong six months."

The easiest way to calculate his ranch's best and worst years, he said, is by its fluctuating head count.

"A yearling animal is worth around $400. Break that down into what you could sell if you had a 285-head permit ($114,000) or a 100-head permit ($40,000). Every time you cut one head, you basically lose around $400."

Since the Forest Service has said it may soon reduce his permit to zero, Conway won't require a calculator to see what his profit will be.

But grazing permits and all their attendant number-slashings and legal actions are not all that have hurt his family's business, Conway said.

"My grandfather made a good living off this range. My dad did, too, until the last 20 years, which steadily declined because of the high inflation of (operating costs) and the prices of cattle. In 1978, we were getting almost $1 a pound, then five years later it was around 60 cents. It went back up to $1, but the last two or three years we've been lucky to get 60 cents for our yearlings."

Still, it's the Forest Service and the environmentalists, he said, who are hammering the final nails into his family-heritage coffin.

"They're telling me to appeal, they're telling me to sue if I don't like it. That's my money they're defending themselves with," Bill Conway said.

"Somewhere along the line, the American people are going to have to say, 'We are sick and tired of being pushed around, of big government telling us what to do.'"

Commenting has been disabled for this item.