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Nature Conservancy Magazine: Winter 2010

Cowgirl Conservation

Cowgirl Conservation

What’s it like to run cattle on the Dugout Ranch? Saddle up with longtime rancher Heidi Redd to find out.


Story Highlights
  • Heidi Redd has been running cattle on the Dugout Ranch for nearly 45 years.
  • In 1997, the Conservancy purchased the Dugout's lands in a deal that kept Heidi running the ranch.
  • Today, Heidi is again partnering with the Conservancy to launch the Canyonlands Research Center.
"I’m really hopeful, and have in my heart that we can carry on in this tradition of ranching. It may have a different face, it may have a different way, but I’m hoping that it won’t all disappear, that we won’t be just part of the old history."

— Heidi Redd, rancher and Conservancy partner


By Curtis Runyan

Situated beneath soaring walls of sandstone, rolling hills of grass and sage, and an endless blue sky, the Dugout Ranch not only looks straight out of the Old West, it plays the part as well.

The Dugout is one of the few cattle ranches in the country that has not changed its operations much in the past century, says Heidi Redd proudly, as she watches a cow burst out of a rusting steel chute and trot into a neighboring corral. “Basically, it’s a horseback outfit,” she says, “just like it was in the 1800s.”

Redd has been running cattle at the Dugout, in the heart of Utah’s red rock badlands, for nearly 45 years. Much of that time she has bucked tradition in rural San Juan County, managing things on her own as a solo woman rancher, and leaving be the cougars and coyotes that occasionally take down one of her calves.

While Redd is a slight woman, her work-worn hands and steel-blue eyes reveal a lifetime of rugged independence and hard-won successes. “She may be a bit shorter than us,” says her son Adam, “but she rides the tallest horse.”

In a part of the country known for clashes — not cooperation — between environmentalists and ranchers, Redd’s latest act of rebellion has been to partner with The Nature Conservancy. To protect the ranch, she sold the Conservancy her land and grazing permits, but she retains a lifetime lease on her ranch house and the surrounding 25 acres and has agreed to continue running the cattle operations.

“The Dugout encompasses, I would guess, around 500 square miles,” Redd says. “So it’s a lot of cowboy work, because you are moving cattle a long way.” While the ranch is one of the biggest in San Juan County, Redd runs it with a small crew — just her two sons and two hired hands. In the spring they trail the cattle on horseback up onto the cool mountain meadows
to wait out the summer heat. After a fall roundup, they drive the cows into protected canyons to forage during winter.

This past winter was a particularly hard one. A blizzard scattered the cattle and buried much of the forage needed to sustain the herds. In the spring, Redd and her crew logged a hundred miles on horseback tracking down the survivors. The result was a bad case of pneumonia for Redd — and fewer cattle for the ranch.

It used to be that a bad winter like this one was among the biggest concerns at the Dugout. In fact, the first year the Redd family bought the ranch, in the early 1960s, it lost 200 to 300 head of cattle to severe snowstorms.

But in recent years, a series of even more worrisome threats has surfaced. The ranch’s cool-season grasses that proliferate in early spring and late fall — such as needle-and-thread grass and Indian rice grass — began to decline in the face of rising temperatures and drought.

“In Beef Basin, where I usually winter about 180 to 200 head, the cool-season grasses just weren’t there [this year],” says Redd. “And it isn’t just pressures from grazing, because [Canyonlands] National Park, who is our neighbor, has the same grass loss.”

Conservancy climate scientist Barry Baker says this warm spell is no anomaly. In fact, 50-year climate projections for the ranch and the surrounding Colorado Plateau show more warming and a shift from grasses to shrubs. This is bad news for Redd and thousands of other ranchers in the region. “The whole existence of this cattle ranch depends on grass,” she says. “And if I lose these grasses, I am no longer in business.”

But Redd’s unusual partnership with the Conservancy has given her access to resources that few other ranchers can claim. Baker and other scientists are setting up the Canyonlands Research Center at the ranch to develop sustainable ways to manage grasslands in the face of climate change. The plan is to combine cutting-edge science with Redd’s half century of hard-earned knowledge about the land.

“Up till now, when Heidi ran these cattle, she’s had to make many decisions based on her pocketbook,” says Baker. “The Conservancy’s plan is to make decisions based on science and doing the right thing for the land.”

With the future of the Dugout Ranch at stake, Redd may be positioned once again to blaze a new trail, working hand in hand with climate scientists to develop a more sustainable kind of ranching. “I have to feed these cows, and I have to protect the landscape,” says Redd. “If the grasses change, I want to know, how will we have to change our operations?”

Christie Brinkley’s Ranch?

The Dugout Ranch — named after the earthen shelters constructed by early settlers in the mid-1800s — is steeped in Utah’s rich history of homesteaders, Mormon pioneers, prospectors, ranchers and even cattle rustlers. Outlaw Butch Cassidy’s former hideout, the Robbers Roost, lies 50 miles due west of the Dugout in a rugged den of canyons.

Cowboys driving their cattle to market along the Old Spanish Trail sought out forage in the canyonlands along the Colorado and Green rivers. The traveling herds were huge, and the grazing on the arid grasslands was pretty much a free-for-all. “I mean, they didn’t run 1,000 head; they ran 10,000 head,” says Redd. “And there was no incentive to leave anything … if you didn’t eat it all, then the guy behind you would come and eat it all.”

In the early 1900s, an enterprising Utah cattleman named Al Scorup pulled together a large number of ranches south of Moab, creating the giant Scorup-Sommerville Cattle Company. The company’s 35,000 acres of private land contained rights to most of the area’s springs, creeks and watering holes, effectively cutting off access to a million acres of surrounding public lands. Scorup set up the company’s headquarters at the Dugout Ranch.

In 1934, passage of the Taylor Grazing Act halted the grazing free-for-all on federal lands, forcing more sustainable practices. Now, ranchers had to pay for exclusive grazing permits, which limited the number of livestock depending on the health of the grasses.

After Scorup died in 1959, the Redd family, which had its own ranch in the area around Moab, purchased the company’s land holdings for about $1 million. The Redd family’s plan for the Scorup properties was to keep some rangeland up near its ranch in the La Sal Mountains, and recoup costs by selling off most of the ranches individually, including the T.Y., the Spring Creek, the Paradox and the Dugout.

Newly married, Heidi and Robert Redd traveled to the Dugout together and were smitten with the place. “I remember that first time seeing the red rocks,” says Heidi.

“I remember the crackling blue sky, the cottonwoods, the creek, and just being absolutely, well, falling in love is the closest thing I can think.” The young couple negotiated with the other family members to buy out and take over the Dugout, which included 5,200 acres of private land and permits to graze more than 300,000 acres of public land.

For more than 20 years Heidi and Robert worked the ranch together, running cattle and raising two sons. Then things changed dramatically.

Heidi and her husband divorced, and after a few years the family’s financial needs shifted. The future of the ranch became an issue. While the Redds had purchased the Dugout for around $350,000, a recreation boom in nearby Moab had driven up the region’s property values. “This place suddenly became a goldmine,” says Redd. “People wanted to buy lots down here, and developers started seeing golf courses here.”

With the ranch appraised at well over $6 million, it had become impossible to equitably divide the family’s assets without breaking up the ranch. With thinning profit margins, the only option seemed to be cashing out and walking away.

But the Redds did not want to see their home of so many years subdivided into condos. So at some point during endless negotiations about the Dugout’s future, Heidi got the idea to approach the Conservancy’s Utah conservation director, Chris Montague, to see if a partnership was possible.

“I turned to Chris and told him of the jeopardy that I felt the place was in, and asked him, ‘Was the Conservancy at all interested in purchasing?’” says Redd. Montague was initially skeptical: Negotiating with the splintered family would be difficult, and the Conservancy would not be able to afford to pay anywhere near the price that developers could. “Rumor had it that even Christie Brinkley’s realtor was looking into making an offer,” says Montague.

But after a visit to the Dugout, the potential for an incredible conservation partnership became apparent. “We found plenty of compelling biological reasons to preserve the ranch and surrounding area,” says Montague. “There were a number of relatively untouched relict areas, 42 miles of perennial streams, and many rare plants and animals, including Mexican spotted owls.” And while the family members had their differences, all agreed that they wanted to keep the ranch from being split up and sold.

It took a few years, but in 1997 the Conservancy negotiated a deal and raised enough money to purchase the ranch for $4.6 million. Heidi negotiated a lifetime lease on the ranch house and 25 acres, as well as a 10-year lease to continue running the ranch.

The deal hinged on the Conservancy’s commitment to partner with Heidi to continue the historical use of the cattle ranch. “We pretty much made a promise to Heidi and to this community that the Dugout Ranch will always be a cattle ranch,” says Sue Bellagamba, the Conservancy’s Canyonlands program director. Besides, if the Conservancy did not run cattle on the 300,000 acres of public land allotted to the ranch, the leases would revert back to federal agencies and could be taken up by another rancher — probably someone less concerned about sustainable use of the land.

“We did a tremendous thing by saving the ranch,” says Bellagamba. “But we have always seen that as just the first step.” With the ranch now secure from development, both Redd and the Conservancy have turned their attention to what may be a greater threat to the ranch than condos and golf courses: climate change.

Cowboys and Scientists

A few dozen miles down the road from the Dugout — in the heart of Canyonlands National Park — biologist Jayne Belnap makes her way through a sparse field by hopping from grass clump to grass clump. Even with a GPS system in hand, she is having trouble tracking down one of her research plots.

Despite a forecast for snow later in the day, Belnap is wearing sandals. Her research assistant, biologist Judd Hill, jokes that he’s never seen her feet covered — whether in town or in the most rugged part of the desert.

“Don’t smash the crusties!” she calls out, pointing to the black patina of cryptogamic soils — a nutrient-rich recipe of bacteria, mosses and lichens — that hold in place the sandy earth in this region and elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau. Having spent years studying these fragile crusts, she can’t help but exclaim: “Oh, look at that one! Nice.”

After a few more minutes of strategically hopping through the field, Belnap stumbles across the missing research plot. Faded plastic pipes demarcate the 5-foot-square area of grass and bare soil. She leans down and starts to count the different species of grasses.

Belnap, the daughter of a prospector from Salt Lake City, is an arid grasslands expert who works for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). She has been leading a long-term study in Canyonlands to track how plant communities around the park change over time given different temperatures, rainfall patterns and uses of the land. In 1987 she set up 40 plots, and has monitored them every year for the past 22 years.

“We are seeing really amazing changes take place over this time period,” says Belnap. Her crew has documented the effects of rising average temperatures here, including drier soils, fewer grasses, an increase in shrubs and more bare earth.

“Basically what we are seeing is a dropping out of the grasses during hot and dry years,” she says. “And where … we lose that plant cover, we expose those soils to erosion — and in these kinds of landscapes, soils take, oh, 1,000 years to form a centimeter or so.”

The impacts of soil loss are not just local. Spring dust storms blow loose soil from Utah and Arizona east into the mountains of Colorado. The red dust absorbs energy from the sun, causing snowpack to melt weeks earlier than normal, according to satellite analyses by University of Utah scientist Thomas Painter. And earlier runoff often translates to less water available in streams during the late summer.

In addition to monitoring changes, Belnap’s USGS team has also set up plots where researchers are simulating anticipated climate shifts. In one area, they have fired up huge heat lamps above the grasses to produce average temperature increases of a few degrees. At another site, a system of plastic sheeting helps channel rainfall away from the plot, simulating severe drought.

Many of Belnap’s scientific findings and Redd’s observations from the saddle sound strikingly similar. Both obsess over the future of “their” grasses, and both women fret about the implications of climate change on the land where they have spent most of their lives. It’s a natural partnership.

In fact, last year the Conservancy started work to create the Canyonlands Research Center at the Dugout that will merge Belnap’s hard-won research with Redd’s knowledge formed by a lifetime of on-the-ground ranching.

“We’re going to see how Heidi makes her decisions, and test that against the science,” says Baker. “We’re going to let both these approaches complement each other and come up with some solutions, and that’s how we can really win here.”

The Conservancy’s new research center is a collaborative effort involving not only Redd and Belnap and Baker but also researchers from a number of agencies and organizations, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Park Service and Utah State University. The National Science Foundation plans to install a high-tech tower to measure carbon levels. The outcome of this collaborative research effort could help the partners better manage hundreds of millions of acres in response to climate change.

Redd welcomes the metamorphosis from head of her working ranch to partner in a full-time ranching experiment. “We know the temperature is going to rise,” she says. “So if there is anything that I think will enable us to continue ranching, it’s joining forces with the scientists to answer a lot of these questions.”

One of the most important synergies between the Conservancy’s work at the Dugout and Belnap’s field plots around the park is the study in contrasts. While ranchers have run cattle on the Dugout for more than a century, most of Canyonlands hasn’t seen cattle since the 1970s. And one remote area, which is entirely surrounded by rock walls, has never seen livestock grazing at all.

“This is extremely unique,” says Belnap. “There are very few places in the western U.S. — especially a grassland — that have never experienced sheep or cattle grazing.” Her team has been keeping especially close tabs on this isolated grassland. “This gives us an incredible opportunity to go in there and examine what a native grassland should look like without previous impacts.”

While this ungrazed grassland gives scientists a benchmark to aim for when restoring degraded landscapes, the area’s greatest value may be in functioning as what Belnap calls a control. That means the Dugout — and other areas throughout the Colorado Plateau — have a barometer against which to gauge ecological health — at least when adjusted for different soil types and levels of precipitation.

“We are going to graze the West, so how are we going to do it, and where’s that line of sustainability?” asks Belnap. “I think the glory of this opportunity here is finding that boundary, then extrapolating it to other ranches.”

Rough Ride Ahead

For Heidi Redd, sustainability isn’t just good for the environment, it’s a crucial business strategy. “You cannot have ranching without conservation,” she says. “How can you possibly manage grasses if you aren’t a conservationist and you aren’t concerned about the state of your grass?”

There is no doubt that she considers the well-being of her land and her animals to be part of the Dugout’s bottom line. Since she began ranching in the 1960s, Redd has reduced the number of cattle she runs by almost two-thirds. “Now, with the changing climate, we are running far, far fewer,” she says. But fewer cattle doesn’t mean less work when you’ve got 500 square miles of range. “To make that work economically is the hard part,” says Redd. “Because it takes the same amount of work to run a few hundred as it does a few thousand.”

But Redd’s commitment to sustaining the land has meant that partnering with the Conservancy has not been much of a departure for either party. While conservation is on Redd’s agenda, the Conservancy’s work at the Dugout is geared toward helping ranchers adapt to a changing climate.

The 15,000 ranches running cattle on the Colorado Plateau generated more than $4.3 billion in income from selling cattle for beef in 2007. “Around here ranching is the livelihood for a lot of people, and we need to figure out how they are going to be able to sustain their income,” says Baker. “And not just here, but we need to address these questions for subsistence farmers in Tibet or Mongolia or other places.”

Redd, Baker and Belnap have come up with a number of ideas about how ranching might change in these parts: further reducing herd numbers; switching to different breeds of cattle; planting drought-adapted grasses; grazing on fragile lands only in the winter, when the soil is frozen and less vulnerable. Everything is on the table.

Things will look different, says Baker, but the point is that there are solutions — there are ways to adapt. Redd nods in agreement. “I’m really hopeful, and have in my heart that we can carry on in this tradition of ranching,” she says. “It may have a different face, it may have a different way, but I’m hoping that it won’t all disappear, that we won’t be just part of the old history.”

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