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February 2014 Heroes of the Month: North American Ranching Families and Cowboys

I was privileged to recently attend the 30th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko Nevada with my cousins Bill and Dick Brockett.

Founded in 1985 by two of America’s greatest cowboy poets, Waddie Mitchell and Randy Rieman, the Festival’s mission statement is to preserve the cultural heritage of the American West and ranching cultures globally. This year I saw buckaroos and buckarettes from all of the Western states, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Canada and Hawaii reading their poetry and singing their unique cowboy songs.

My interest in this event in no small measure derives from my dad, Earl Roberts, who was an expert horseman and owner of cattle ranches in Ramona and Descanso. I spent my early years on a 1000 acre cattle ranch in East San Diego County where my dad ran a herd of Herefords. He had an abiding love of the West and I experienced first hand real life cowboys and the cowboy way of life. I am old enough to remember with pleasure the large cattle ranches of San Diego County in the 1950s and rounding up our cattle and delivering them to the Cudahy meat packing plant, in the days when San Diego County was a major cattle raising locale, before subdivisions replaced the ranches. Even then, we all had to help each other round up cattle for the market because there were never enough qualified people to run the ranches, we often had to bring calves into the house during the snow and put them around the fireplace to prevent them from freezing, buying truck loads of alfalfa hay because there was never enough grazing grass in the summer time in the semi-arid mountains we lived in and the constant threat of large wildfires. For all of the effort and risk of cattle ranching there were never really more than a few years when market prices rewarded and justified the sacrifice.

Some people suggest that the cowboy way of life is slowly dying in favor of large commercial cow-calf operations and feedlots. Matt Rimel, the owner of several award winning seafood restaurants in San Diego (Rimel’sRotissere/Zenbu) epitomizes the 21st Century buckaroo who is swimming against the tide. In his “spare time” Matt is one of a small group of cattlemen who still operate successful cattle ranches here. Matt sells all of his range fed hormone free beef to Whole Foods stores throughout Southern California and has a growing and profitable ranching business.

One thing is for certain: those who continue to operate their family ranches treasure their way of life and have no intention of riding off into the sunset. But it is often a life of solitude and hardship and these cowboy-ranchers deserve our respect and admiration. Their affinity for the land and preservation of the majestic open space of the West is unquestioned. Our family’s respect for this tradition was an overriding consideration in selling the Lazy R Ranch in Descanso to the US Government in 1993 to preserve my father’s beloved ranch as permanent open space for generations to come.

The experience at Elko was profound and very emotional for me. I have admired Don Edwards for over 20 years: he is for me the consummate cowboy singer and his performance at the Autry Center on the occasion of Gene Autry’s 90th birthday in 1997 is still the gold standard in cowboy music events. To finally meet and spend time with Don and then have a front row seat for his concert in the Three G Bar was very special. Don has done as much as anyone to preserve the beautiful songs of the Old West for new generations.

The next day was even more emotional watching a concert by Brenn Hill and then meeting Brenn backstage. Brenn is a remarkable cowboy singer from Hooper Utah and he has a special connection with our family. Our son Todd is married to Shannon Bakker who grew up on a ranch near Billings, Montana. Shannon’s dad Vern Bakker was a lifelong cowboy who died unexpectedly a few years ago while out on the ranch looking after his cattle. Shannon and her sister Jody spent hours trying to pick out suitable music for Vern’s celebration of life and decided on one of Brenn’s songs. Jody emailed Brenn through his website to thank him for the song and tell him how they intended to use it to honor their father. Shortly thereafter, they received a reply from Brenn stating that he wanted to come to the services and sing the song for Vern. Brenn then drove over 5 hours each way, spent the night and performed at the gathering and refused to take anything in return. He never met Vern or the family before and he was already challenged at home, juggling his career and dealing with his young son Brigg’s battle with brain and spinal cancer. After 32 days in the pediatric ICU, five rounds of chemo, a stem cell transplant, and the grace of God, little Briggs is doing well. Brenn epitomizes the kindness and humanity of the rancher cowboy.

On the last day I celebrated my time in Elko by spending a delightful hour with Nathaniel Funmaker, a Winnebago Indian who lives in Mancos Colorado and makes beautiful cowboy hats the old fashioned way, one at a time by hand. Thanks to Nathaniel I now have a new whiskey colored “Alpine” hat and will think of my dad whenever I wear it because he loved his hats. My dad has always been my role model and I will be forever beholden to him for encouraging my interest in cowboys, the Old West and cowboy music.

Postscript:  The challenges facing ranching families has recently been brought home by the enormous LodgePole Complex fire in Montana that destroyed over 400 square miles of grazing land and put multi-generational ranches on the edge of extinction. These are ranches that in many cases have put beef and lamb on our dinner tables for close to 100 years. Thanks to Tim Craig of the Washington Post for telling their story in the article below. And thank you to the Interior Department for granting these ranchers temporary grazing rights in the Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuge during this desperate time. — Jim

Massive Wildfires Turned Prairies to Ash,
Leading Montana’s Cowboys to Weigh Federal Help

By TIM CRAIG, Washington Post National Correspondent
on the American Desk.
Joel Achenbach in Washington contributed to this report.

Tim Weyer tours his ranch, which was consumed by late-July wildfires, in Sand Springs, Mont. Photo by Rion Sanders/Associated Press, from the August 13, 2017 online edition of the THE WASHINGTON POST.

SAND SPRINGS, Mont. — In this part of Montana’s rugged eastern prairie, Erwin Weder and the other ranchers and cowboys are not used to feeling kicked around. But as Weder drives his pickup truck onto a bluff to gaze out over “Big Sky Country,” he feels a bit defeated.

Hundreds of miles of meadows and scrub grass that feed tens of thousands of beef cattle are gone, replaced by the charred soil and smoldering prairie dog burrows that the state’s largest wildfire in nearly three decades has left behind. But after the massive multimillion-dollar firefight, another battle has emerged in the wide open spaces where there is often distrust of the government: What should the federal role be in helping Montana’s livestock industry respond to, and recover from, the blaze.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) originally rejected Montana’s request for assistance, a process that ranchers say left them feeling forgotten and misunderstood by Washington. Now, many in this deeply conservative region are weighing their wariness about bureaucrats against their need for help.

“We lost 70 percent of our grass, which means 70 percent of our revenue,” said Weder, 41, who is trying to locate hundreds of cattle that scattered as the flames tore across his 65,000-acre ranch. “I don’t think people truly understand what an acre of grass is worth to us . . .and the millions of dollars that will be lost over the next few years.”

Local officials across the United States worry that it is becoming more difficult to secure help from FEMA for all sorts of natural disasters. Since January, members of Congress and state officials have protested initial FEMA denials following a tornado outbreak in Louisiana, flooding in North Carolina, and snowstorms in Pennsylvania and Oregon.

Montana is seeing its worst fire season in years with four massive wildfires scorching the landscape. Photo captured from video by by Taylor Turner/The Washington Post, from the August 13, 2017 online edition of the THE WASHINGTON POST.

The Trump administration has been hinting that it might limit federal spending on disaster relief and preparation, and FEMA is considering whether to draft regulations to shift more responsibility for rebuilding to the states. The creation of “disaster deductibles” — which states would have to exhaust before FEMA offers federal assistance — was first proposed under the Obama administration.

The new administration says it is following established criteria for responding to disasters, and it has not indicated clear standards for when it plans to step in with disaster assistance, especially in cases that affect relatively localized areas. President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget includes more money for disaster assistance but reduces preparedness grants by $667 million, something that has sparked dismay among state officials. In March, Trump also proposed an 11 percent cut to FEMA’s 2017 budget to help fund construction of his proposed border wall. But after denying a wave of disaster assistance requests earlier this year, FEMA has recently begun reversing some of those initial findings, including a recent announcement that it would send aid to Oregon to help it recover from a series of snowstorms.

Trump recently went to FEMA headquarters and vowed that the agency would “quickly” and “effectively” respond if a hurricane strikes the United States this year, but states remain unclear what help they’ll get and when they’ll get it.

FEMA Administrator William B. “Brock” Long said in a recent interview that agency grant funding for disaster preparedness has been trending down since 2010, reflecting a philosophical question: Should the federal government fully sustain programs at the state level or should the federal funding “serve as a catalyst”?

Long said he believes that preparedness, response and recovery are a shared responsibility and that states should have “rainy day funds to support their localities when the federal government support’s not coming to town.”

“We can’t afford to completely sustain or supplement programs through federal grants alone,” Long said. “This is a partnership. We have to have an honest conversation with states, with state and local governments, as to what is the right balance for sustaining programs in responding and recovery.”

In Sand Springs, where ranchers sometimes must drive an hour to reach their neighbors, FEMA faces new conflict over the value of the grass that nurtures the nation’s food supply.

The value of a disaster can’t be summed up in property damage here, a highway outpost that consists of a post office, church, general store and a one-room school with three students. The real cost of the fire is measured in the loss of meadow and wheat grasses that sustain an estimated 50,000 cows.

A wildfire burns near Sand Springs, Mont., on July 23. Massive wildfires across Montana destroyed at least a dozen homes and led ranchers to cut escape routes in fences for cattle. Photo by Rebecca Noble/Associated Press, from the August 13, 2017 online edition of the THE WASHINGTON POST.

The Lodgepole Complex fire scorched 425 square miles, about twice the size of Chicago. It ranks as the third-largest fire in the settled history of the northern Rocky Mountain region, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

After a lightning storm sparked the blaze July 19, FEMA’s initial denial of the state’s general request for disaster assistance while the fire was raging angered local officials, who viewed it as another disconnect between Washington and the heartland. They argue that too much federal money goes to populated areas even though Montanans pay their taxes, too.

“The federal government needs to understand, not everything comes from the city,” said Teddy Robertson, a commissioner in Garfield County, which includes Sand Springs and has the third-lowest population density of any county in the continental United States. “To have FEMA turn us down, it was like a slap in the face that we don’t matter.”

Montana’s congressional delegation pressured FEMA to reverse its decision, and the agency says it agreed to compensate the state through its Fire Management Assistance Program four days later. The federal agency said in a statement that “there have not been changes to FEMA policy in regards to federal assistance or reimbursement for disaster related expenses.”

FEMA’s fire assistance program reimburses states for 75 percent of the costs associated with battling wildfires. State and county officials estimate they’ve spent about $9 million extinguishing the Lodgepole blaze, which was brought under control July 29.

Wildland firefighters battle a large wildfire north of Mosby, Mont., on July 212. Photo by Bureau of Land Management/Reuters, from the August 13, 2017 online edition of the THE WASHINGTON POST.

“It would certainly be beneficial to us all if we had more specific criteria that we knew we had to meet, so we don’t waste each other’s time,” he said.

Bruce Suenram, Montana’s deputy fire and aviation chief since 2009, said this is the first time he can recall that Montana had to aggressively push for FEMA firefighting assistance.

W. Craig Fugate, who served as FEMA administrator during President Barack Obama’s second term, said he suspects Montana struggled to get its request approved because the fire “didn’t threaten enough homes.” He added that ranchers and farmers are considered businesses and typically are not eligible for FEMA assistance.

“I was always amazed by how many people decide, as a business, that I have this loss and that I want someone else to pay for it — and from this part of the world, that doesn’t like red tape and doesn’t like a lot of things until they need something,” said Fugate, who added that states would do more to mitigate risk if they had to shoulder a greater share of disaster recovery costs.

Now that the firefighting funding has been sorted out, it is unclear what the federal government will do in terms of helping to restore the grasslands and assisting the businesses and people that rely on them. Local ranchers here say they could face an especially dire situation if the drought persists into next year because the scorched prairie can only rejuvenate if it gets much-needed rain.

Before declaring a fire emergency, FEMA evaluates threats to property and “critical infrastructure,” availability of resources and potential for “major economic impact.”

In Garfield County, where 1,300 residents are scattered across an area nearly twice the size of Delaware, local officials say it isn’t easy to document the full scope of a disaster. When there’s a major fire here, residents respond with their own water and pumper trucks to battle it, making it difficult to track expenses.

Residents say it could take weeks or months to determine how many cattle were killed in a fire so large it took helicopters three hours to fly around its perimeter.

“It’s hard to assess value, with boots on the ground, when you have more cows than homes,” said Anne Miller, a Garfield County official who is helping to coordinate relief efforts. “You are not just pulling home values and land records.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) was initially irate over FEMA’s stance but later credited Long, the FEMA administrator, for realizing “that lots of people’s life support was burning up.” But Tester, a fifth-generation wheat farmer, said broader discussions are needed about how FEMA values disasters that don’t involve loss of life or buildings, especially as it relates to the impact of climate change.

In northeastern Montana, July was among the warmest months on record and the first seven months of the year the driest period in 110 years, according to the National Weather Service.

“I think there needs to be a realization by this president, climate change is real, and our fire season is getting longer and more intense,” Tester said.

That’s trouble for ranchers, who rely on paychecks that come once a year. Cows spend all summer munching on grass while raising calves. After the fall roundup, calves are separated from their mothers and are sold for about $1,000 each. That payday depends largely on whether mother cows can find enough grass or hay to keep nursing.

Relying on the federal government is at odds with the culture here, especially in a county where 91 percent of voters supported Donald Trump at the polls in November. As Weder put it, “Most here would rather starve than be on welfare.”

Travis Brown, 33, of Sand Springs, Mont., stands next to a fence at a cattle corral while waiting for local cowboys to divert some of his cattle into a transport vehicle. Photo by Tim Craig/The Washington Post, from the August 13, 2017 online edition of the THE WASHINGTON POST.

Travis Brown, who owns the L.O. Cattle Co. in Sand Springs, easily recites the family motto about why his great-grandfather moved to the region from Texas around 1918: “To carve out a ranch from the sheer force of work and will.”

Brown, 33, owns about 1,300 cattle on 93 square miles of ranchland that gradually slopes up from creek beds into foothills marked by remnants of original homesteader settlements. With antelope and mule deer leaping through his fields, he and his border collie, Gert, spent much of the week after the fire just trying to find his cows.

Generally, Brown said, it requires about 40 acres of grassland to sustain one cow and calf for a year. When that grass disappears, ranchers must purchase hay, and a lactating cow can eat 20 to 40 pounds of it each day. At $150 per ton of hay, that can work out to more than $2,000 per day in unexpected costs for his herd.

“We are all asking, ‘What are we going to feed these cows?’ ” said Brown, who lives on the ranch with his wife, the area’s only dentist. “And if we mishandle this recovery period, we could do longer-term damage to the land.”

To the unease of some environmentalists, the federal government has offered up one short-term solution: Allowing affected ranchers to move their cattle into the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, one of the nation’s largest, north of here along the Missouri River. Paul Santavy, the refuge’s manager, said the Interior Department approved emergency regulations allowing grazing there — at a monthly fee of $29 per cow-calf pair — until November.

“People said, ‘We are not looking for a handout. We just need help and somewhere to put our cows’ . . . and we have the ability to do that,” Santavy said, adding that biologists expect no environmental disruption to the refuge.

Matthew Bliss is rounding up his cattle to transport them to the refuge, which he says will cost him about $60,000 in grazing fees. Without the service, Bliss said he would have to jam his herd into a feedlot, where they would stand largely stationary or be sold off prematurely.

“We are gracious for the help because, right now, my cows are just not happy,” Bliss said. Asked whether he would also welcome other federal help, Bliss bent his head down toward his dashboard. “Well,” he said, before an extended pause, “we like to do our own thing. . . . We already feel they do enough.”

A house stands amid blackened range where the Lodgepole Complex fire jumped the Montana Highway 200 near Mosby. Photo by Bureau of Land Management/Reuters, from the August 13, 2017 online edition of the THE WASHINGTON POST.

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