Community April 30, 2009
Reinventing Ranching
How today's farmers are adapting to environmental demands

At 91, Bud Purdy relies on his pickup truck or his single-engine airplane to survey his ranch in Picabo. Until recently, he used his horse to keep track of things. Then, last year, he was bucked off his horse, got run over by a cow, and broke some bones. Still, he expects he’ll be riding again by spring.

Every day at about noon, he heads across Highway 20 to the lunch counter, convenience and sporting goods store his family owns, and grabs a bite. When he wants a change of conversation, he’ll fly his Piper Cherokee on down to Fairfield or Sulphur Creek.

Bud Purdy is archetypical of the central Idaho range where his family has chiseled its family crest for six generations. His ancestors are the Kilpatricks, who homesteaded here in the 1800s and later developed the railroad from Shoshone to Ketchum. Bud counted Ernest Hemingway and his son Jack, both fanatical outdoorsmen, as close friends and hunting companions.

Today, Bud and his son Nick own and operate one of the largest ranches in the Silver Creek area. They farm hay and barley, raise cattle and sheep and run a fishing concession.

There is no debating the Purdy legacy here. But perhaps Bud Purdy’s most remarkable contribution is the role he and his neighboring ranchers have played in securing ranching’s future. Ten years ago, he donated a 3,400-acre conservation easement on his ranch and became party to a watershed event in ranching history.

Just over 30 years ago, The Nature Conservancy purchased the Silver Creek Preserve, then known as the Sun Valley Ranch, from the Sun Valley Company. The Preserve is a 479-acre parcel of land 33 miles south of Ketchum, accessed through Hailey and Bellevue by State Highway 75, and a few miles east on Highway 20. The Conservancy then sought the cooperation of neighboring ranchers, who were encouraged to donate conservation easements near the Preserve, forever protecting an additional 10,000-acre swath of the Silver Creek landscape.

Purdy’s easement donation was not the first, but it is the largest. As he says, “I figured that if my neighbor John Stevenson thought it was a good idea, I should look into it, too. I didn’t want my land to be broken up into pieces down the road.”

The collective effort in Silver Creek signaled a turning point in conservation.

Old-line ranchers, investors, local government and environmentalists cooperated, cautiously at first, and then more openly. These constituencies had long been at odds. It was wholly novel for them to partner. By sharing knowledge and resources, they managed to save vast acreage, rehabilitate the land and the creek, and enhance the agricultural, scenic, and recreational value of the area. The collaboration proved that environmentalists and ranchers could work together to preserve a large and well-loved landscape.

Working ranches face a new age

The working ranch is emblematic of the American West. It is where the amber waves of grain meet the purple mountain majesties. It is where the cowboy spirit reigns as an expression of our national ego. In the recent past, it has become an endangered species. Over the past decade, the Western United States has been growing at twice the rate of the rest of the country. Since the late ’90s, Idaho’s population increased 41 percent. Growth and subdivisions have been devouring wide-open ranges that once defined the foothills and the plains. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, urban sprawl has been consuming land at triple the rate of population growth.

Developers seek the lands that are near water, recreation and scenic beauty and, as a consequence, compete for the same lands as the ranchers. Soaring property values, taxes and lures of economic options have encouraged or forced many ranchers to let go of their ranch homesteads. To date, low-density development has placed more than five million acres of the state’s best ranchlands in peril. Statistics gathered by the American Farmland Trust show these ranchlands represent natural resources that could completely disappear by 2020, greatly impacting the ecological, economic and cultural fabric of local communities.

Increasingly, ranchers are engaging in responsible land and water management practices. Silver Creek, seen above, became an important model for community based conservation efforts in Idaho and throughout the West. Photograph: David R. Stoecklein In Blaine County, the percentage of agricultural land slated for development is a continual ascending curve. “If this exponential development of our agricultural lands continues, our community will be faced very shortly with some tough decisions [about our desire for preserving open space and agricultural traditions],” says Jeff Adams with Blaine County Planning and Zoning.

More than the land, it is a way of life that is under pressure. As Trent Jones, a Wood River Land Trust board member and a real estate broker specializing in ranch properties, emphasizes, “It is not just the ranchlands that we are losing, it is the old-line working ranch family.”

In his lifetime, Bud Purdy has watched the fallout of working family ranches. Although the ranchlands themselves may remain intact as recreational ranches or hobby farms, multigenerational ranching families face tremendous economic pressures in maintaining their family businesses and lifestyle. Rising land costs, taxes, and equipment costs make it extremely difficult to carve a living out of a ranch. “Most of the original families in Silver Creek are gone,” observes Purdy, “and with that you let go of certain traditions.”

Historically, ranchers and environmentalists have been at loggerheads, mostly related to public land use. For decades, ranchers had controlled public lands and operated with little supervision. The access to public land for grazing is essential to many ranchers; it provides them with a year-round forage base essential to their operations. In the mid-1900s, environmentalists grew concerned and vocal about grazing practices. Environmentalists faulted ranchers for overgrazing and degrading the integrity of the ecosystem. The contention escalated into broad-based animosity and distrust. Meanwhile, both ranchers and environmentalists were losing treasured private ranchlands to growth.

Bud Purdy has played a lead role in preserving the spectacular and beloved Silver Creek Landscape. At 91 he still actively manages his ranch. Find him on his horse, motoring around in his pickup truck or cherokee plane, or lunching at the Picabo store.  Photographs David R. Stoecklein

Wallace Stegner, the “dean of Western writers,” once called the West “the geography of hope.” Despite challenges, a sea of change in attitudes and practices has been emerging throughout the West. Environmentalists, ranchers and policymakers have begun collaborating more frequently and extensively. Both sides share a reverence for the land. Environmentalists are recognizing that by weakening ranchers, they abet fragmentation of the lands they are trying to save.

Increasingly, environmental groups make efforts to support ranchers. Local heroes like Guy Bonnivier, Silver Creek Preserve’s first manager, have helped many ranchers adopt better land and water use practices. Communities have supported novel legislation, such as Transferable Development Rights (TDRs) and Open Space levies, to help both the working rancher and the ranch investor preserve land and family legacy.

Today’s Ranching Visionaries:
The Beans & The Peaveys

The values and vision that inspired the Silver Creek ranchers thrive today in the rangeland east of Carey. Two ranching families, with remarkably different profiles, are reinvigorating the ranch business and cooperating to preserve an ambitiously large swath of private and public land. Their vision encompasses millions of acres—from the highest summits of the Pioneer Mountains to the Snake River Plain. If they achieve their vision, their impact will be historic beyond the scale of Silver Creek.

Brian and Kathleen Bean purchased 7,500 acres of Bud Purdy’s ranch on the edge of the Craters of the Moon National Monument in 1999. Lava Lake Ranch is situated on Goodale’s Cutoff of the Oregon Trail 15 miles east of Carey and Silver Creek.  The Beans are not a multigenerational ranching family; Brian is a successful banker from California, Kathleen had been on staff at The Nature Conservancy for seven years. They share a passion and reverence for the natural world and the wide-open West. They committed that they would find and steward a homestead in the West.

Young rancher Phoebe Bean, her family, and their neighbors John and Diane Peavey share a vision: to protect three million acres of world-class landscape that stretches well beyond the bounds of their respective ranches. photograph: Nancy FareseInitially, Brian and Kathleen scouted for ranch property in Wyoming. They wanted a ranch that had some “action and ecological interest,” not just a remote and scenic place for idle time. Ultimately, they found it here in Idaho.

At the outset, the Beans sought a passive ranch investment. Their intent was to purchase acreage and put an easement on most of it. They had no plans to actively raise cattle or sheep. They then recognized that if they did not continue to graze these adjacent public lands, they would surrender the ability to control how those lands would be used. This could undermine the quality of their streams, their water rights and the ecological health of their ranch and the adjacent public land.

To enforce their ecological standards, Brian and Kathleen launched headlong into sheep ranching, but sheep ranching in a way that aligned with their conservation values. They actively studied and adopted lessons from “seasoned ranchers like the Purdys, the Cenarrusas, and the Petersons,” and from the foremen and herders who worked those operations. They melded old traditions with new. Their goal is to engage sustainable grazing practices that are economically viable. Lava Lake Lamb sells branded, all-natural and organic lamb to a market that increasingly seeks out such products. Today, Lava Lake Lamb is sold across the country through the Internet, in restaurants in the Wood River Valley, Boise, and Salt Lake City, and in local farmers’ markets.

John and Diane Peavey’s Flat Top Ranch is next door to Lava Lake Ranch. Flat Top is the largest private ranch in the area. Through the generations, the Peaveys assembled 48,000 acres of deeded and privately leased land. Including federal grazing areas, the Peaveys’ ranch is similar in size and scale to Lava Lake. John is the third generation of his family to work Flat Top. His grandfather established the ranch in the 1920s. John raised his own two sons and daughter in the 120-year-old cabin on the property brought here in the late 1800s from the nearby Muldoon mines. Today, his son Tom runs the family livestock operation.

The Peaveys are rooted in the tradition of working ranches, but they worry about the economic pressures on their operation.  New equipment makes ranching easier, but more expensive. Hay prices have skyrocketed and the access to rotational grazing is more limited. They do not have the capital from other careers to invest in their business. Like other working ranchers, they are less in the position to capitalize on the tax benefits of an easement. Their land, their determination and their inventiveness are their working assets.

Twelve years ago, the local sheep industry was under assault by “recreationalists” who neither understood nor appreciated the value of sheep on the Western landscape. There was growing concern about how hikers and mountain bikers could happily share use of the public lands in the area with the sheep ranchers. The Peaveys started “The Trailing of the Sheep” festival to bring alive the storied past of sheep ranching, and cultivate appreciation for this local ranch tradition. It has grown into a celebrated three-day festival and very much relates to the current local food movement.

In 2001, the U.S. lamb industry was losing its market to New Zealand product. The Peaveys, with other sheep ranchers throughout the West, started a marketing cooperative that virtually saved the American lamb industry. The cooperative made it economically viable to stay in the sheep ranching industry. The Peaveys are inventive in their determination to support their business.

Despite radically different backgrounds, the Peaveys share a fundamental mission with the Beans. Both value working ranchlands, ranch traditions and the broader ecological landscape. Their mission has mushroomed into a large-scale conservation movement well beyond the bounds of their respective ranches. The Craters of the Moon National Monument and a region that constitutes one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48 borders their two properties. The Peaveys and the Beans see an opportunity to leverage their ranches to protect “a world-class landscape that has tremendous diversity of terrain and species, and supports wildlife migrations and large predators,” Stevens says.

“Neighbors Helping Neighbors, That’s the Way It Has to Be…” Stegner once observed, “Myth has taken up the image of the Westerner as a loner, the wandering cowboy or gunman. In actuality, the true tradition of the West is different . . . Neighbors helping neighbors, that’s the way it has to be in country anywhere near as rough and harsh as a lot of the West.”

In the past, pioneers, ranchers, neighbors had to work together to survive natural elements. Today, they conjoin to preserve their lands and legacy. They invent and they innovate. They balance an increasingly complex constituency—their families, their livestock, their neighbors, numerous federal and state agencies, and the increasing demand of recreational users and environmentalists.

This novel cooperation is rooted in a community spirit that is wholly Western. The grassroots efforts of ranchers, environmentalists and public officials require and deserve direction and support from their counties and communities. Thanks to Bud Purdy and his neighbors, the Beans and the Peaveys, working ranchers and those that cherish the “true West” are giving us reason to hope.

They are redefining the very role of the working rancher. Ranchers no longer “work the land,” they work for the land. Ranchers are no longer a band of cowboys; they are becoming true stewards of the West.

Heather King is a part-time Hailey resident, and a Board member of the Wood River Land Trust.

This article appears in the Summer 2009 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.