A horseback rider in front of the Wind River Range. (Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Forest fires and smoke are hot topics right now. I couldn’t resist the pun, but it’s no joke, watching these fire-driven tragedies. Sadly, we’re hearing some “I-told-you-so” logic, and I confess, I’m part of that.

Recently, I found an old photograph that showed three people in cowboy gear — I’m the one pouring coffee from a thermos into beat-up cups. We’d all just gotten down from our horses, and the guys lean on a pickup truck marked United States Forest Service. Here’s the surprise: We’re all laughing.

I’m a Wyoming rancher, and the picture was taken the day I accompanied two USFS range technicians while they conducted annual monitoring work on our cattle-grazing permit in the Bighorn Mountains. Usually, that’s about as much fun as going to the dentist. 

I dread the ordeal because it often includes a scolding from the federal grass cops about “Things Gone Wrong,” (subtitle “Cows Eat Grass”). In recent years, the government’s answer to problems has been “fewer cattle, fewer ranchers on public lands.” 

Now, in 2020, some scientists suggest that more grazing, more livestock in these ready-to-burn landscapes, could help reduce fire danger by reducing fuel. Hence, “I told you so.”

The range conservationists and I weren’t discussing fire danger that day. As the photo shows, it was sunny and warm, I had a good horse to ride in beautiful country and the men were pleasant company. 

I hadn’t met them before, but we visited easily as we stepped through the hoops of walking, counting, recording. After all, it’s not rocket science, measuring blades of grass. We’d been short of rain, and it was a relief to agree that cattle had not harmed any of the resources that ranchers rent from the United States Forest Service. 

Usually, the day carries tension and finger-pointing, but to my surprise, these guys were more interested in the country around us and its history, asking questions about the original boundaries and previous permittees, landmarks and trails. They wondered if I knew the origin of obscure names such as Brindle Creek, Aagard Springs and Divorce Ridge. They asked about gone-away sheep permits on the Bighorns, and disappeared ranches and their owners. They tried to identify early-day trails and roundup customs. We laughed as I retold funny stories from my years of ranching here. My husband, I said, could tell them more, since he was born here and his father and grandfather used this range before there was a Bighorn National Forest.

We talked about the future, too, and I tried to be optimistic about what would become of local ranches amid trends for housing developments, second homes and resorts close to these public lands, accompanied by recreational use. (Side-by-side vehicles and ATVs had not even been invented yet!) 

The ride was finished before we finished the conversation, and I remember that I broke out the coffee and some fairly clean cups from under my truck seat. When the fellows left, I said I hoped to see them again, and I meant it. It felt like an unusual day. They’d given me a lot to think about.

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Like some other ranchers in the West, our family has been in the same place for a hundred years or so. Local folks like ourselves are the “stickers,” as Wallace Stegner wrote, since we’re among those who stuck it out, sustaining our community and keeping its history alive in our memories. How refreshing it was — the sincerity and respect these young Forest Service employees displayed for local knowledge. Our conversation that day reinforced my view that grazing permits and multiple use of public lands is a concept worth preserving: Logging and grazing are positive uses which affect fuel for runaway fires. 

I hoped that the two young range men I met that day would show up again in a picture somewhere, at the top of the personnel heap in the Forest Service, but both left the USFS. Logging is nearly nonexistent on the Bighorns. Our ranch no longer uses that Granite Creek Allotment, by our own choice, and livestock numbers on USFS have declined.

I’ll keep the picture.

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  1. I heard rumour of Flintner Ranch and some hostile takeover by city folk i sure hope not to be true??GOD BLESS YOU ALL STAY WESTERN MY FRIENDS TILL THE END

  2. Mary, such a good story about 3 individuals accomplishing a task with what turned out to be mutual respect. Ranchers are some of the best conservationist because they have to keep their land in the best shape to provide for their families. Long term experience is invaluable to knowing what and where to put the cattle or sheep. Keep up your ideals and standards for others to emulate.

  3. So…with this logic Wild Horses are NOT damaging to range land! Put them BACK! You removed them so your greedy cattlemen and FRACKERS can get richer! PUT THEM BACK!

  4. thank you, mary. what a wonderful story and opportunity to celebrate a unique time.
    our public/private land partnerships are critical to the future of the west. i hope there will be more folks (men and women) who will share some coffee with you and your neighbors.

  5. Those Forest Service people were most likely from Wyoming-probably went to UW, and were not nameless “feds”. Government workers have had the difficult job of balancing multiple interests and regulations with the best interests of the public good. Mary Budd Flitner, you were open to a dialogue around competing values and it resulted in a positive and civil experience. However, we lose many of our best and brightest public lands staff due to public attacks and threats. You seem open to developing solutions on multiple use of public land for wildlife habitat, hunters, ranchers and recreationists rather than the open invitation to corporations that have no interest in the conservation of Wyoming land for future generations.

  6. Reading this makes me so nostalgic of similar encounters with various agencies through the years. Love of the land, the history and culture of the west is held by many, not just ranchers. The line-‘they left the USFS’ says a lot. The bureaucratic structure of most our agencies is stifling to many employees who have good intentions and high hopes about what they might actually accomplish in their work.

  7. Having lived most of my life in Laramie, and having worked a 40 year career with the Farm Bureau (including 20 years in Wyoming under Presidents Herbert D. Livingston and David A. Flitner), I have developed some thoughts about natural resource management (or the lack thereof): reduced livestock grazing, reduced logging (including clear cutting), reduced forest thinning, reduced controlled burning, reduced road building, establishment of wilderness areas which prohibit mechanized transportation, endangered species emphasis (i.e., Spotted Owl), all play a part of increasing the threat of wildfires like the current Mullen Fire in the Medicine Bow National Forest near my former home, as well as out-of-control fires in other western states…while on the American Farm Bureau Federation staff, I worked with some true U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management professionals at the national level…but I still remember complaints from ranchers who had to argue grazing leases with young, inexperienced agency personnel who had obtained degrees in Outdoor Recreation or Rural Sociology from Eastern colleges.

  8. Mary,
    Beautifully written memory of a simple, wonderful time. I would like to see the pic too.
    Charlie Thomson, Jackson. Call me if u ever come this way. I know Matt.

  9. Thanks for the lucid comment Mary. Why would this not make sense to anybody? These forests and grasslands evolved with herbivory as an integral part of the dynamics of the ecosystem. Once, it was bison. Now it’s an different herbivore. The animal is different, but the function is the same.

    1. Except its not as the Bison Herbivory evolved with Fire which the government and ranchers stopped, while we put up structures, fences and roads into areas that we should not of as the fuel loads increased. We are going to pay for this mistake in spades because we refuse to retract and manage the land for free range bison with fire management as our specialty.