For half a century it's been said that the icon of Arizona's heritage, the cowboy, is a dying breed.
But for 82-year-old Edward Charles "E.C." Conway -- a sixth-generation cowboy and cowman whose family has ranched the publicly-owned lands of Greenback Valley near Tonto Basin for 128 years -- both the breed and the heritage is looking deader than the deadest gunslinger on Boot Hill.
One Thursday last month, Conway and his son, Bill, endured the latest bout in their 40-year battle with the U.S. Forest Service and state environmentalists. The subject was the Conways' grazing permit, which currently allows them 285 head of cattle.
The Forest Service has threatened to reduce that number, in one fell swoop, to zero.
Part of the reason for this possible action, Forest Service officials say, is that a biologist's report on Conway's grazing land has deemed it a "potential habitat" for the Southwestern willow flycatcher.
The flycatcher, as every rancher in Tonto Basin knows too well, is a small, wren-like bird that one day decided to emigrate from Mexico to the high deserts near and around Roosevelt Lake -- where its government-protected existence is playing a sizeable role in cattle head reductions all over the Basin.
But this term "potential habitat" has cowmen all over Tonto Basin scratching their heads.
"What does it mean?" wonders E.C.'s son and ranching partner, Bill Conway. "If no flycatchers move in after two years, or 10 years, of 50, will it still be a potential habitat? I don't know where 'potential' begins or ends."
Neither does the Forest Service.
According to Debbie Lutch, wildlife biologist for the Tonto focus team, a time frame isn't identified for potential habitats in the Guidance Criteria for Determining the Effects of Issuing Grazing Permits, the Forest Service's official handbook on the grazing permit issues.
"We've all struggled with that and have talked with Fish and Wildlife Service about it. Can you identify something that's 'potential' if you don't think you can meet suitable characteristics within (a certain time period)?"
Apparently so, based on what E.C. and Bill Conway have been told by the Forest Service.
But that's not the last of Bill Conway's questions on this subject.
"How can that potential habitat report reflect 100 percent of my allotment when only 20 percent or less of it is accessible for survey?" he asked.
"That's like if there's 10 students in a classroom, and two flunk a test, the teacher doesn't even have to look at the rest of the tests. She just flunks everybody.
Dave Tubb, of the Forest Service's range staff at Payson and Pleasant Valley, said Conway's estimate is probably correct.
But Gary Holder of range substaff said "We have access to all that (land). I personally have been on it myself, on horseback. I don't know how many of our people have been out there on horseback, but our soil scientist has, some of our hydrologists, our riparian specialists have been out there whether on horses or on foot."
"But we don't have the manpower to go out on the allotments like we used to do," Tubb said.
"Basically 50 percent of the range personnel is no longer here. We were cut in half about 10 years ago. So we can't cover as much of the country as we used to."
Ranch remains in limbo
As it turns out, last month's meeting between the Conways and the Forest Service came to loggerheads, with the decision regarding Conway's grazing permit put off until sometime before its official March 1 expiration date.
Until then, Conway said, "We're in limbo. We don't know what's going to happen."
Forest officials told Conway they could reduce the family's allottment to zero, or they could reduce it to 100 and decrease it 20 percent every year after that.
"I said, does that mean, whether the land is managed or not, you'll decrease my cattle until there's nothing? They said, 'Yes.'"
Tina Terrell, district ranger for the Tonto Basin Forest Service, said either scenario is possible.
"Right now we're going through an environmental process to analyze a grazing strategy to be implemented on Greenback," Terrell said. "And although nothing has been decided yet, we're looking at both of those alternatives to basically manage the land for future generations, as well as future management."
Tangled in red tape
"That's the key word: management," Bill Conway said. "We have not been able to manage our cattle because we have not been allowed to build fences or improve certain water areas because they never got around to us to create a management plan. Now they're saying, 'We can't do any of this because your land's in bad shape, it hasn't been managed. How can you manage it if they won't let you?"
"(Bill Conway) has come in and requested to have a management plan," Terrell said, "and we had to put it on the schedule, whether it was right or wrong, under other priority areas. Greenback we did not look at, not because it wasn't a priority, but because the issues that were facing other allotments were not faced on Greenback," including threats to endangered species and the raising of Roosevelt Dam.
The result, Terrell said, is that "We weren't able to get to Greenback until about two and a half years ago," after most other allotments in the area had been assigned management plans.
'Ousting the cows'
The idea behind those plans is to prevent cattle grazing from further harming the natural state of the environment and its natural wildlife inhabitants. It is believed by most environmentalists that, since cattle are a non-native species to American rangelands and have not evolved within them, they do not co-exist with those ecosystems well.
The management plans that ranchers need to renew their grazing permits are invariably geared to prevent cattle from defecating in trout streams, trampling stream banks, denuding the ground of forage and protective cover needed by wildlife, or otherwise wreaking havoc on fragile ecosystems.
The improvements ranchers must make to the land in order to accommodate such plans can include everything from building fences, which promptly become government property, to "ousting the cows."
Approaching the end of an era
E.C. and Bill Conway aren't the only cattlemen in the Tonto Basin area who feel they're being forced to gallop toward the end of their era. There are others who say they're on the verge of going under due to what they consider their inability to satisfy the Forest Service and environmentalist groups such as the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
Dale Cline, whose family has kept cattle on the same expanse of land since 1886, said that only a miracle will save his business.
"I'd like to hand all this down to (my three grown children), but I don't think there's gonna be anything to hand to them. It makes me feel bad, because we can't carry on this tradition. And it's not just me; it's all the ranchers in this area."
Cline's neighbor and cousin, George Ewing, whose family has ranched the same land since before his grandfather was born on the spread in 1896, said, "If I can find someone to buy this place, I'm getting out. Between the draught and this (Center for Biological Diversity) suing the Forest Service, and the Forest Service on me because of the willow flycatcher ... I'm pretty near fed up."
Over in Rye, five generations of ex-rancher Fred Chilson's family still lives on the land his father and grandfather bought in 1917 the H-Bar Ranch in Rye. He ranched the same stretch of land until 1985, when Chilsun sold his grazing rights.
He says it's no coincidence that he got out of cattle ranching at about the same time the Forest Service and environmentalists started coming down hard on cowmen.
"They came in and started telling people what they could do or couldn't do, and had no idea of ever seeing a cow or being able to saddle a horse," Chilson said. "Everything came out of a book, and there was nothing knowledgeable about their thoughts."
'One bite at a time'
"The best thing the Forest Service could do for these ranchers would be to say, 'That's it. It's over. Shut down and move on,'" says 30-year Tonto Basin realtor John Dryer, a long-time supporter and friend of local cattle ranchers. "But instead, the Forest Service is eating them alive, one small bite at a time."
Working within the law
Dave Tubb says that's the last thing the Forest Service or the ranchers would want.
"Our goal is not to put anybody out of business," Tubb said. "Our goal is to graze the cattle out their properly within these environmental laws, and get proper use of the vegetation and land.
We're mandated to follow the law. Some of the recent lawsuits (filed by environmentalists) have shown that we were weak in meeting some of those laws, and we're trying to come into compliance with them."
"If we're sued and go to court because we don't come into compliance," range substaffer Gary Holder added, "we can be under an injunction to just remove all cattle from these allotments until the ranchers get into compliance. That would be even more dramatic than what's happening now."
"We're working very hard to make sure that doesn't happen," Tubb said. "That wouldn't help the ranchers at all. It would be devastating. It would break them. It would hurt a lot of people."
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on the state of ranching in the Rim country. Look for the second installment, "Heritage lost," in the Feb. 4 issue of the Roundup.