Sunday, April 02, 2017
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
Somebody somewhere must remind Senator John Cornyn, (R-Texas) we are deadly serious out here about spending cuts.
“I doubt there’d be a lot of appetite for dramatic (budget) cuts this year,” the senator told a news agency. “I just look at it as a conversation. They’ve got their views, we’ve got our views, and we need to sit down and work that out.”
He’s got to be kidding doesn’t he? Isn’t he part of the “they”? Did he not live through the 2016 election cycle? Does he not know what the national debt is? Moreover, does he not really understand the mood of the folks?
I’ll repeat. Somebody somewhere remind Senator John Cornyn, (R-Texas) that we are deadly serious out here about spending cuts, and … if that doesn’t happen, there will be as much money spent next cycle to replace “Republicans in Name Only” as there is spent on the unending search for good (congressional) management.
Last Friday evening, we took delivery of a group of red Angus bulls from the Flint Hills of Kansas. Joe and Connie Mushrush brought the bulls to New Mexico with a first stop at San Jon before dropping south into a howling headwind and heading our way.
I met them just at sunset at the local TA and they made room for me in their rig for the drive to the ranch. We talked about issues that mattered to us starting with the deadly fires that had ravaged the four southern high plains states. They told about one of their customers who had lost several hundred head of cattle and the absolutely terrifying aftermath of dealing with that. With no fences or remaining infrastructure, those folks were day herding their remaining cattle. Heavy bred cows were calving and many were leaving their babies as a result of the catastrophic experience they had endured. The family was bucket feeding 18 head of dogied calves and that was just the start.
They related how one rancher had started rebuilding fences the day before a government disaster program kicked in with financing help. The rancher will not be compensated for his purchases because he had bought his supplies 24 hours before the official start. Then, there were the expanding individual disasters such as the one where kids were heard crying in the houses as gunshots rang across the charred prairie country as their parents, grandparents, and relatives had to make life and death decisions on what animals they could save or not save.
By then, Connie was seeing what she thought were wild flowers across our Coldiron pasture after we exited the freeway. “You have wildflowers,” was her comment.
“Our winter rains have saved us,” was my answer.
“Don’t you people fire your pastures after you vacate them?” she asked.
“No, we don’t,” was the beginning of the answer. “To get that done would be like getting an act of Congress,” was the unspoken ending thought.
“You’ve got to remember we are federal lands ranchers and we don’t have the authority to make those kinds of decisions,” was the actual answer.
That perplexed her, and it prompted an extended discussion of what authorities we actually have. To every single question she asked the answer was “no”.
No, we can’t build a fence across any lands including our private lands if any government funding is involved. The land agency has dominion of decision making and arts clearances are part of the process.
“What are arts clearances?” was the response to that, “and, can’t you do what you want on your private lands?”
“No, we can’t do what we want on our own lands.”
By that time, we arrived at the headquarters and the Kane family had the gates opened with hay in the water lot to receive the bulls. We all gathered around the trailer to get a glimpse of young sires for future calf crops. Joe entered the trailer talking to the living, breathing genetic masterpieces of his life’s work. “You boys ready to get out of here?” he asked them in a soft tone that every one of them knew so well.
As they walked off the trailer, we stood close by and tried to see each one in succession in the now near darkness. As a group, they walked to the big bail in the middle of the pen and started eating.
By any measurement of consideration, they weren’t in Kansas any more. What they represented was a continuing attempt to save this ranch and others like it from extinction. The reason is simplistic. As federal lands ranchers, we are disappearing at the steady clip of 1% per year.
These bulls now live in the land that a “no” answer from our landlord is not just an expected response, but limited only by our imagination of what questions to ask.
By our government’s own assessment, good management is a combination of information and insight. Information is a continuum of current conditions and insight is the culmination of experience and instinct. The secret to creating good management lies in the combination of getting the two correct.
These ranches are not operated on the basis of a snapshot in time. They are models of long term commitment, and, from that, knowledge, experience, and good judgment evolve. You simply cannot assess something about which you know nothing about, but that is the dilemma too many of these operations face when dealing with the rotating array of bureaucrats in positions of last and final authority.
Enter into this discussion the role and importance of key judgments. Borrowing from the government’s world of intelligence, key judgments are not confined to the world of undercover agents. Key judgments are manifest in the world of farming and ranching beyond all other factors. They are vital to the wellbeing and the ability of any agricultural operation to survive. The problem on federal land ranches in the West, though, is that key judgments are relegated to submissive rolls in the hierarchy of landlord to lessee.
Key judgments come from being on these lands everyday, having a vested interest in the outcome of decisions, and living with the results. They don’t come from committee actions, but that is exactly where all federal lands capital projects are authorized and overseen. Those committees are focused on structure rather than the people who have huge investments at risk. Structure is important, but so are the ranchers with their insight and their collective key judgments.
Our numbers have diminished 65% since 1949, but that isn’t the only loss. Customs and culture have been devastated while federal agencies have increasingly relied upon career bureaucrats and administrators with no actual prior experience who have managed agendas rather than embracing collective, key judgments.
Federal lands ranches of the West are desperately seeking a change, and that can only take place at the top.
Whoever is appointed to run these agencies needs to be a top administrator who has faced the reality of the front line. He or she must not simply oversee a staff of a bloated and failed bureaucracy, but become the agent of change. New demands must be altered from a tedious “no” to a probing “why not?” Resource management plans must be changed from level or decreasing productivity to actual intentions to seek and create improvements across the landscape. They must reveal the real world successes of private lands ranches that exist in juxtaposition to the failures of federal land counterparts.
If we, federal lands ranchers, aren’t entitled to the constitutional promise of “Article IV, Section 2. The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States”, then this government must, in all good conscience, create ground rules that mimic that once unique promise.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Secretary Zinke, you need to find time and ride with us for a couple of days. I’ll bet one of us has a horse that hasn’t pitched in a week.”