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Home on the Range

When I started researching The Spine of the Continent, there were a couple of topics I REALLY didn’t want to have to get into — one was cattle-grazing in the West. In short surmise, the federal government leases public lands to “permittees” who graze on it for a nominal fee. The trouble is, much of this grazing is an environmental nightmare.

Ranchers let their cows denude the soil til there ain’t no more, which causes the kind of erosion that brought us the Dust Bowl. It makes the landscape cave quickly in flood or fire. Scores of plants and animals on the Endangered Species list are there because bad cattle grazing has destroyed their habitat. Invasive species take over the neighborhood. AND with the exception of some large corporate entities, most of these ranchers don’t make any money. But try to reform this and you run into what Anna Quinlan calls a “clash of absolutes.” The pro-cattle forces stonewall all opposition. Thus there is a history of back and forth of litigation and acrimony that frankly exhausts me just to think about.

So one day an old family friend called and said, “Mary Ellen, since you are writing about the West you need to come to this conference.” The friend was Rich Morris, whose son, Joe Morris, runs Morris Grassfed in Hollister. I joined Rich, his wife Ann, and Joe at the 2010 Quivera Coalition conference. Quivera is dedicated to bringing environmentalists and ranchers together. There were a lot of cowboy hats at that conference, the subject of which was “carbon ranching,” or grazing cattle in such a way that not only keeps the landscape healthy but also bolsters carbon sequestration. That’s right — it gets the stuff we want out of the atmosphere back where it belongs — in the ground. I was so happy at this conference — I learned a great way to cover cattle-grazing in the West from a positive perspective, and I wrote about in the book.

Joe Morris, who yes, does look like this, and yes, does wear a rumpled white shirt pretty much every single day of his life, recently won Quivera’s award for “outstanding land management steward.” Check it out! AND, if you are a carnivore, his beef his really great: Morris Grassfed.

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