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Collection Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945 to 1982

The Sagebrush Rebellion, 1960-1982

During the 1960s and 1970s, the impact of the environmental movement was felt in the West, particularly in areas with extensive public lands. In Nevada, nearly 90 percent of the state's land is overseen by a variety of federal agencies, including the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the U.S. Forest Service. Most Nevada ranchers lease public grazing lands from the latter two agencies and their land use policies have a profound impact on the livestock industry.

The BLM had reduced the number of animals permitted on the range by a third in the 1950s, even before the environment had become a political watchword, and in the 1960s grazing allotments were fenced for the first time. The 1970s brought the "Sagebrush Rebellion," a period that saw especially tense relations between cattlemen and federal land managers. The tension increased following the 1974 lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council against the secretary of the interior. The council successfully argued in court that public lands were being overgrazed and that the effects of this use must be determined by environmental impact studies.

In the mid-1970s, the Bureau of Land Management measured the carrying capacity of the rangeland, using methods that ranchers found suspect, and called for new reductions in herd size. In response, several organizations that came to the aid of the ranchers, including the University of Nevada's College of Agriculture in Reno. Researchers at the university prepared an excellent, thorough analysis of the economics of cattle ranching in Humboldt County and argued that the reductions would have an severe adverse impact on the business. (Economic Impact of BLM Grazing Allotment Reductions on Humboldt County, Division of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Max C. Fleischmann College of Agriculture, University of Nevada, Reno; Report M.S. 126, February 1980).

The Library of Congress folklife research project from 1978 through 1983 coincided with this period of tension and team members recall that many visits to ranches would begin with complaints about federal government range management policies. No one spoke more forcefully on this topic than Les Stewart. But the Ninety-Six continued to use federal land until Les's announcement that the 1981 fall cattle drive would be the ranch's final roundup from the BLM range. The following year, the Ninety-Six herd was reduced to the few hundred animals that could be maintained on the ranch's privately owned land. The smaller herd needed far less hay--three hundred tons instead of the former three thousand--and Les leased some of his hayfields to neighbors. Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, Les's son, Fred, had completed his equipment repair training and began to work on the ranch full-time. Fred established an automotive and equipment repair business in a new building at the home ranch.

Les Stewart's move to semi-retired status reflected his exasperation with federal land management rules, reinforced by his son's interest in establishing an equipment repair business, and--to a lesser degree--took account of reaching the age of sixty-two. Les's 1982 discussion of the matter may be heard in the audio selection The Ninety-Six, Diversification, and the Future made the same year that he sold his federal grazing allotments. Although prospective buyers Henry and Clay Taylor joined the roundup crew shown in our 1979 footage to look over the grazing land, they decided against buying and the permits were subsequently sold to other ranchers in the valley.

This seeming reduction of the level of activity on the Ninety-Six--echoed to some degree on neighboring ranches--left the departing folklife research team in a melancholy mood. We had grown fond of the Stewarts and their neighbors and hoped that the ranching culture we had documented would thrive. When this online collection was being assembled in 1998--fifteen years after our fieldwork ended--we were glad to hear news that lifted our melancholy. A letter from Marie Stewart reported that a number of Paradise Valley ranches have persisted in the face of a changing marketplace and unpredictable politics, although the Stewarts and other Nevada ranchers still worry about the "anti-livestock" environmental movement. The Ninety-Six continues to run a herd of about 300 head. Fred's investment in new haying equipment permits greater mechanization of winter feeding and the operation is able to succeed on the efforts of the family with a modest amount of help from hired hands and volunteers. Fred, his wife, and their infant daughter occupy a new house erected in the field shown in the movie Ninety-Six Ranch Rodeo and Barbecue. Thus, 100 years after the passing of the ranch's founder, the fourth generation--Bill Stock's great-grandson Fred Stewart--takes an ever-increasing role in the operation and a fifth generation has appeared on the scene.