Cowboys Saving Space
Monday, October 10th, 2011
As you drive south out of Jackson, Wyoming, civilization stops, if only briefly. To the east, nearly eighty miles of mountain wilderness meet the edge of the highway. Looking out the car window to the west, a patchwork of lush green pasture stretches to distant cottonwoods, over which aspen groves and pine covered hills roll toward high ridges of the Snake River Range. These few miles of ranch land resemble some sort of wide open western Shire.
This open space has been ranched for 130 years. Last spring, the Lockhart brothers, Cody, 28, and Chase, 25, asked me to photograph their revived family business, the Lockhart Cattle Company that owns and operates the open space, to help them sell local grass fed beef to the community. It was an interesting subject that turned a modern environmental stereotype of ranching on its head. Here was a small family business conserving open space and wildlife habitat by producing local food on some of the most valuable rural real estate on earth–a unique piece of Jackson history evolving from its roots with two fifth-generation ranching brothers– legitimate, local cowboys.
Ten years ago, I had worked a summer for the Bridger Teton National Forest, performing stream surveys and documenting erosion damage due to irresponsible grazing practices. What we found was land stripped of vegetation, mountain streams eroded into giant ditches of polluted water, and widespread noxious weeds . . . not very Shire like.
I agreed to shoot the project as a journalist with the pretense that the Lockharts could use whatever I came up with for their marketing, but there would be no commercial direction. It seemed to me, part of what would appeal to people who are going to buy premium local beef is a real face, an authentic portrait of the ranch. What I discovered was a balance–one the most impressive examples of land stewardship that I had ever witnessed. The Lockhart Cattle Company have the very unique situation of owning enough nutritious grassland in South Park and the Buffalo Valley to feed a small herd of truly local, grass fed cows.
According to Cody, many of the ranching operations could not survive in the harsh Wyoming climate without grazing their cattle on public land, while they grow grass for winter feed. In many cases, due to poor stewardship and political pressure, allotment permits have been revoked and the result is that a rancher is forced to sell to development, eliminating open space and wildlife habitat. This is the unsavory reality of saving one piece of land while sacrificing another. The meat-eating residents of Jackson now have an opportunity to support a local business that keeps the valley open with sustainable agriculture.
This is the time of the year. You can buy 1/2 or whole cows here: