The last cattle ranchers face pressure to leave Mojave National Preserve. The endangered desert tortoise may drive them out.
By Rone Tempest, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
WHISKY BASIN, Calif. -- Howard Blair has outlived two wives, endured years of searing drought and survived sudden freak storms that tossed massive boulders down the Providence Mountains toward his homestead. He lost his favorite horse to a bite from the deadly Mojave green rattlesnake.
Now, he must decide whether to sell the ranch that has been in his family for generations or to stay and run the risk of financial ruin.
At 76, with white hair and a slight hitch in his gait from a hip replacement, Blair is old enough to recall the last gunfight in the Mojave and the days when every little Southern Pacific Railroad town here had a weekly square dance. He watched the two-room Essex Elementary School, 23 miles away, shrink from more than 30 pupils to just four, two of whom are his own grandchildren.
Arriving in the 1880s, the Blairs were among the first ranching families here. Now, they are the last. When the sale of a neighbor's federal grazing rights becomes final later this month, Blair and his son Rob, 45, co-owners of the Blair 7IL Ranch, will be the only working cattlemen in the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve.
Where 20,000 cattle once roamed a range the size of Delaware, there are now only the Blairs' 400 cows, 25 bulls and perhaps 350 calves left in the preserve.
Though the Blairs hang on for now, they are vulnerable to the same pressures that prompted their neighbors to sell out. Like many Western ranchers, the Blairs own grazing rights to the land most of their cattle use. But the land itself belongs to the federal government.
A federal court decision to protect the desert tortoise, an endangered species that lives only in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, threatens the Blairs' future in a way drought or natural calamity never has.
The court ruling, handed down in the summer of 2001, sharply curtailed grazing on federal land just outside the preserve. Now, the environmental groups that filed the first suit have announced their intent to challenge grazing within the preserve. If the groups prevail again, the Blairs could be ordered to remove their cattle.
The family can offer the ranch for sale now to a conservation group that would remove the cows and manage it in the best interests of desert wildlife. Or, they can hope that a judge will rule in their favor.
Amid all the uncertainty, difficult questions loom over the Blair household.
Will the April roundup be the ranch's last? Will this be the last trip for the horses to the sweet grasses in the high pasture? Will there be another family reunion in the shade of Howard Blair's fruit trees?
"We've been praying about it a lot lately," said Kate Blair, Rob's wife and mother of their three children. "Frankly, there's a lot of things that are way beyond our control." Kate, 41, is a UC Santa Barbara graduate with a geology degree who works on a National Park Service maintenance crew, cleaning outhouses and campgrounds, so the family can have health insurance.
"With these people holding the Endangered Species Act over our heads, we know we are going to have to go," Howard Blair said, sitting in the dim light of his living room as a cowboy movie flickered on the TV. "We just don't know when. Whether it is 10 years or next year, we don't know."
On the television screen, actor Tom Selleck, on horseback, looking as though he had just emerged from the tanning salon of a Beverly Hills health club, pronounced defiantly, as if on cue, "As long as there is one cowboy left, it ain't over."
The Blairs are among the last holdouts in a disappearing breed of high-desert cowboys scattered across the American West. Their way of ranching is more difficult than in many other places because there is less rainfall and less grass. In the central Texas hill country, for example, a cow and her calf can survive on two acres of grassland; in the cattle-raising areas of Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, they require only one acre.
In the Mojave, it takes at least 300 acres to support a cow and calf. Where the sparse grass is thinnest, it requires up to 3,000 acres. Riding herd demands long hours, skilled horsemanship and a wealth of natural savvy. "Sometimes we go two to three years without finding some of them," said Howard Blair. All-terrain vehicles, which have replaced horses on many ranches, don't work here -- the land is too rough and uneven, the cattle too skittish.
The complexity of ranching here is evident from the list of ranch assets Rob Blair keeps on a blackboard in his workshop. Spread over the ranch's 210,000 acres are 45 water tanks, 24 corrals, 23 windmills, 37 natural springs, 96 miles of fence and 62 miles of plastic water pipeline. All of them require regular maintenance. If a windmill breaks down or a water line ruptures, a tank that supplies a hundred head of cattle can go dry. Even in his 70s, hobbled by a bum hip, Howard Blair still regularly climbs 20 feet to the top of ranch windmills, dodging spinning blades as he wrestles with bent and broken iron pump rods.
Despite the unceasing work and marginal profits, there is a loyalty to the land that sometimes defies reason. By any sane measure of land use, biologists argue, this should not be cattle country. It's too arid.
Tucked in the horseshoe-shaped Whisky Basin, the Blair 7IL is six miles from the nearest paved road, 62 miles from Needles, the nearest town of any size.
The ranch consists of two modest one-story wood-frame houses where the Blairs live and a collection of solar panels, generators, camper trailers, a maintenance barn, tack shed and a dozen pickup trucks of assorted vintage nestled next to an abandoned silver mill.
In a good year, the ranch might gross $100,000, out of which the Blairs must pay grazing fees, buy new equipment and parts, purchase supplemental feed and veterinary supplies and pay for fuel.
Each of the adult Blairs supplements the ranch income with other work. Howard and Rob operate road graders and backhoes for neighbors. Rob sells handmade saddles.
Until recently, the Blairs had reason to feel secure here.
Nine years ago, when the Mojave National Preserve was created under the Desert Protection Act, the Blairs thought they had won the right to ranch here "in perpetuity" thanks to a special provision in the bill written with them in mind by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
The special Blair-Feinstein connection dates from 1993, when the senator, researching the desert bill, visited the 7IL ranch by helicopter and became instantly, fiercely attached to the Blairs.
A Sympathetic Senator
"I'm basically a city girl," Feinstein said in a recent interview. "Here was this young couple, Rob and Kate, with three young children living in a way that runs contrary to all the television sitcoms that emphasize the goofy side of America. I saw clearly the value and the pride of their way of life. Howard showed me something inside one wall that had been written by his great-grandfather. So when we drafted the bill for the preserve we did it so grazing could continue at the same level it had before."
"Me and her are different in politics," Howard Blair said of Feinstein, "but she's been good to us."
Today, Feinstein vows to protect the Blairs "as long as I am breathing or even after I'm breathing." But her efforts may not be enough to save the Blair ranch if a judge agrees with the same arguments against grazing made by environmentalists in the most recent case involving cattle and endangered species in the Mojave.
That case led to severe restrictions on livestock grazing on most of the eight ranches still operating in the desert surrounding the Mojave preserve.
The ruling followed days of testimony from biologists and desert scholars detailing the devastation wrought on desert tortoise habitat by grazing animals that stomp on tortoises, crush their burrows and destroy brush cover needed to protect their young from swooping ravens.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who brought the first suit in federal court, have filed notice to sue the Mojave National Preserve over the same issues.
Damage to the Mojave can take a long time to heal. Tank tracks from pre-World War II maneuvers conducted by Gen. George S. Patton still scar the desert floor.
Environmentalists say a host of animals has been harmed by grazing, among them the Mojave ground squirrel, spotted bat, yellow-blotched salamander and yellow-eared pocket mouse. Grazing, they argue, also has introduced dozens of nonnative plants and is crowding out 29 native plant species.
The Blairs dispute the evidence, contending, for example, that cattle steer clear of tortoises. "They can't stand the smell," Howard said. "If a cow smells a tortoise, she'll make a big effort to circle around it."
As the environmental pressure mounts, an ambitious program by Mojave preserve Supt. Mary Martin has successfully retired all the working ranches in the preserve, except the 7IL. Martin has found nonprofit groups willing to pay up to $10 million for property near the Blairs and says she knows of buyers interested in their ranch.
Rob Blair, who sits with Martin on the Mojave preserve advisory council, is suspicious of the superintendent's motives. "Mary Martin would like us to leave," he blurted during a drive to the ranch headquarters. "It would be a feather in her cap if she drove every rancher out of the park."
The Blairs own barely 1,000 acres, a fraction of the land their cows use.
For the privilege of running their stock on preserve land, the ranchers pay $1.35 a month for every cow-calf pair. In the Blairs' case that amounts to about $6,000 a year for the grazing rights to 210,000 acres.
Forgotten in that equation, environmentalists contend, is that this is all public land, not the private domain of the ranchers. They say the price paid for grazing is much too little to compensate for the damage done to the desert.
A hundred miles away in her Barstow office, Martin denied putting any pressure on the Blairs to sell. "The decision to sell is theirs," she said. "If they say they want to stay they have the choice."
But Martin said that if she were in the Blairs' place, she would probably sell out and use the money to buy private land somewhere else.
"It's hard not to look around the desert and see what has happened to other folks. On the BLM land where the grazing was stopped," Martin said, "there was no compensation at all."
Even some of the environmentalists who have pushed for an end to livestock grazing across the Mojave have a soft spot for the Blair family.
"These are good people. There may be some middle ground," said Elden Hughes, who chairs the Sierra Club's California/Nevada Desert Committee.
Hughes, who grew up on a ranch near Whittier, still sees a role for the Blair ranch as a kind of living museum, with the Blairs acting as resident "historian interpreters." He believes some of the herd could be kept as a kind of historical display.
As their fellow ranchers sell out, the Blairs have looked on in frustration. "What kind of price are you going to put on this lifestyle?" asked Rob Blair.
Judging by the prices obtained by other ranchers, the family might be able to demand $3 million to $4 million for their holdings. Their fear is that the pending federal lawsuit, if successful, could drop the market value of the ranch to almost nothing.
Over a family dinner one recent evening, Rob Blair summarized their predicament:
"These kids are the fifth generation," he said, pointing to his three freckle-faced offspring. "This is our home and nobody wants to leave. But we all agree that if they are going to run us out, it's better to leave with something than empty-handed."
Clear Skies and Coyotes
With their future in limbo, even the most ordinary tasks take on special meaning.
Rising with the dawn, drinking bitter instant coffee and grilling bacon in his cluttered kitchen, Howard Blair said he never tires of the great symphonic beauty of the desert -- the starry night skies and the cry of the coyotes.
At sunrise, the nearby Providence Mountains turn luminous shades of rose. Airliners streaking toward Ontario, Los Angeles and Las Vegas airports leave cross-hatched pink vapor trails in the high desert sky. Golden dust plumes swirl in the windy territory south of the distant Old Woman Mountains.
"Well, I guess I'll say grace then," Howard said softly over a stack of griddlecakes. "Heavenly Father, thank you for this beautiful day. Thank you for the safe journey home last night. Thank you for watching over us."
Driving home later, after taking some horses to a high pasture, Rob Blair recalled a poem he first heard recited by John Wayne.
"I think it fits our situation," he said.
With that, the rangy 6-foot-3 onetime Needles High School football star broke into verse.
The poem describes a pair of Mexican horsemen coming upon what looks like a deserted ranch. When they near the ranch the riders are surprised to see an old caballero appear in the doorway. Asked why he is still living in the abandoned ranch, the old man replies "mis raices estan aqui." (My roots are here.) The Spanish refrain repeats several times in the poem.
Back at the ranch, Blair produced a book of his own poems he said he had composed while riding. One of them, titled "The Range of Time," reflects the Blairs' current frame of mind.
There's a group of men that are going extinct
We were raised upon the range
When today's society looks back at us
They think we're kind of strange
They tried to put us in a story book
Because they say times have changed
And there's a modern way of doing things and we need your open range.