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Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy

Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy

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by Joe Nick Patoski, David K Langford (Contribution by)

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To keep the land in the family . . . To operate the land profitably . . . To leave the land better than they found it . . .
Each year, Sand County Foundation's prestigious Leopold Conservation Award recognizes families for leadership in voluntary conservation and ethical land management. In Generations on the Land: A


To keep the land in the family . . . To operate the land profitably . . . To leave the land better than they found it . . .
Each year, Sand County Foundation's prestigious Leopold Conservation Award recognizes families for leadership in voluntary conservation and ethical land management. In Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy, veteran author and journalist Joe Nick Patoski visits eight of the award-winning families, presenting warm, heartfelt conversations about the families, their beloved land, and a vision for a healthier world.
Generations on the Land celebrates these families’ roles as conservation leaders for the nation—far beyond the agricultural communities where they live—and reinforces the value of trans-generational family commitment to good land stewardship. The eight landowners profiled by Patoski include six ranchers, a forester, and a vintner. They reside across the country: in California, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Their conservation accomplishments range from providing a habitat corridor for pronghorn antelope to hammering out an endangered species “safe harbor” agreement for grape growers.

A short introduction by a fellow conservation or ranching professional precedes each of the personal portraits by Patoski, which are written in an informal, conversational style. Brent Haglund, president of the Sand County Foundation, provides an introduction to the purpose and work of the foundation, and a conclusion summarizes the substantive conservation contributions of the Leopold award winners.
With more and more attention being focused on the tensions between the agricultural and economic potential of land and the preservation of the natural environment, a better understanding of sustainable agriculture is becoming increasingly vital. By showcasing the leadership of these Leopold Conservation Award winners, Generations on the Land will inspire a whole new cadre of landowners to build a lasting heritage of conservation and sustainable land use—benefitting the earth and its inhabitants for decades to come.
Paper used in printing this book was provided by Mixed Sources: materials manufactured under certification by the Forest Stewardship Council.
"In 1939, Aldo Leopold wrote 'When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well for his land, when both end up better by reason of this partnership, we have conservation.'  Generations on the Land demonstrates this simple yet powerful concept through a series of inspirational and instructional essays drawn from hardworking landowners from across the nation. Whether you manage a working landscape yourself, or are one of the urban many seeking insights into how humanity can achieve a sustainable future, you need to study this book."--Richard C. Bartlett, Thinking Like a Mountain Foundation

Editorial Reviews

Cowboys & Indians

Veteran reporter Joe Nick Patoski profiles eight winners of the Leopold Conservation Award, which honors families on the front lines of the Western conservation movement. From ranchers to vintners, from Texas to California, these landowners are working toward a sustainable future.

Richard Bartlett

"In 1939, Aldo Leopold wrote 'When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well for his land, when both end up better by reason of this partnership, we have conservation.' Generations on the Land demonstrates this simple yet powerful concept through a series of inspirational and instructional essays drawn from hardworking landowners from across the nation. Whether you manage a working landscape yourself, or are one of the urban many seeking insights into how humanity can achieve a sustainable future, you need to study this book."--Richard C. Bartlett, Thinking Like a Mountain Foundation

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Texas A&M University Press
Publication date:
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6.30(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.70(d)

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Generations on the Land

A Conservation Legacy

By Joe Nick Patoski

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2010 Sand County Foundation
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-242-8


Harold Selman Ranches

* * *

Every day in rural America, farmers and ranchers get up from their beds and go out to do their work on the land. In twenty-six years working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, I have never met a landowner who got up in the morning and said, "I am headed out to destroy my land." Most landowners manage based on what they know.

In every resource professional's life, a few very bright lights shine. Those bright lights are the handful of ranchers and farmers who exemplify the best of the best in terms of their stewardship commitment. These landowners can't get enough resource knowledge; they think first of conservation because they realize that their stewardship will sustain the operation and its economic viability, not just during their lifetime but for future generations. The Natural Resources Conservation Service is proud to take part in honoring these outstanding landowners through the Leopold Conservation Award in the same way we take pride in a wide array of cost-share programs that assist them in fulfilling their vision for enhancing the natural resources in their care.

I have been blessed to work with many of these amazing people. Two of the most outstanding are Fred and Laura Selman. This couple works tirelessly and with amazing enthusiasm, forging partnerships that bring them the knowledge and assistance they need to ensure the health of their land. I have watched them creatively unite environmental and production interests to protect their land from development. They bring resource professionals with divergent interests together to come up with the best ideas for applied management. Both Fred and Laura give generously of their time to transfer information to other landowners through involvement with the Box Elder County Conservation District. They are both very active with the Utah Wool Growers and Utah Cattlemen's Association education efforts. They are amazing people who add value to the land, their community, and to all who come in contact with them. It has been my privilege to help them in some small way.

—Sylvia Gillen Utah State Conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service

You can never know too much. There's always something new to learn. That is the guiding philosophy of Harold Selman Inc., the sheep ranches currently run by Fred Selman (Harold's son) and his family in the Bear River Valley of northern Utah. Straddling Cache and Box Elder counties, this swath of land in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains is the most ag-intensive part of the state or as Laura Selman (Fred's wife) more eloquently put it, "the last of the good, green space in Utah."

Numerous outside pressures have threatened their way of life, including land fragmentation and creeping urbanization, but the Selmans aren't sweating. They've practiced exemplary stewardship of the land they love and over the years have grown to better understand the power of education and engagement and the differences they can make when dealing with outside interests. Even in the rush to prepare for shipping lambs that marked the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, they took time to stop, pause, and listen to what folks had to say. On this particular Saturday, a lady from nearby Logan stopped by the house after she'd been to the Selmans' pick-your-own garden, which was ripe with melons, squash, corn, potatoes, peppers, and pumpkins. She informed the Selmans that the tomatoes she had just picked from their field were "the plumpest, juiciest, most beautiful tomatoes I've seen in years!"—which explains why some of the Selmans' pick-your-own customers drive all the way from Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada.

Fred and Laura's son, Bret Selman, 41, likes to tell the story of a conversation with an environmentalist as an example of how talking and listening made a difference. The two were serving on a national forest planning committee. The fellow had confronted Bret about the Selmans' grazing sheep in a designated wilderness area. "I have a real problem with that," he told Bret. "Why don't you take your sheep and go somewhere else? What do you need to be there for?"

Over the course of an hour's worth of civil conversation, Bret laid out the consequences of the gentleman getting his wish.

Bret explained the whole operation, detailing the annual movement from the desert to lambing grounds to spring range and the summer wilderness range where the sheep got fat on the premium, high-mountain grasses. "You take that away, that takes away our sheep operation," Bret told him. "There's nowhere to go. I'm not going to starve. What would you have me do? Do you want me to sell ranchettes on our private ground, and get rid of the wildlife winter range where the deer and the elk have their young? Do you want me to sell that for houses, put blacktop on it and strip malls?"

By the end of the visit, the man had come around. "I've been fighting against you my entire life," he told Bret, "when I should have been fighting for you."

It goes both ways. Bret related how he used to consider "jack snipes" to be varmints that puddled in the hay the family was trying to get established, until it was pointed out to him by a biologist that the "jack snipe" was a white-faced ibis on the sensitive species list—and that some of the largest numbers of the species found in Utah were on their land.

Similarly, when Bret complained that the windbreak of squaw bush, locust, and evergreens he and his father had planted wasn't attracting pheasant coveys, one of Bret's tree-hugging friends, biologist Eve Davies, asked if there were magpie nests in the windbreaks because the notorious nest predator keeps out other birds, including pheasants.

"It was like somebody shot me with a rifle," Bret exclaimed dramatically with a goofy grin. "How stupid could I be? It was simple as that. I can get in the car with Eve and we're looking at the same scenery. But she's looking for things she's wired for, and I'm looking for things I'm wired for. When those two perspectives intermingle, that's when you learn."

His sons, Cole, 19, and Wyatt, 12, had been doing most of the teaching lately, Bret allowed. "When Cole can't identify a raptor, he'll look it up, and then he'll teach me. I'm the one supposed to be teaching him, but no sir, he's the one teaching me. Different interests bring out different things." Wyatt has a keen interest in noxious weeds, bugs, reptiles, and bio-control. He once spent an afternoon observing a praying mantis devouring a wasp and took photographs to demonstrate how the presence of the former reduces the population of the latter. Now Bret releases praying mantis eggs every spring around gates where wasps tend to congregate.

Bret admitted there are some issues that ranchers and environmentalists won't "ever be on the same page about," citing the practice of shooting coyotes as a means of predator control. "All they have to do is bring up wolves to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up," he said; the Selmans have yet to come around to seeing wolves and coyotes as anything other than threats to their livestock. "We just don't go there." Instead, when in the "mixed company" of ranchers and environmentalists, Bret likes to find common ground on subjects everyone can agree on.

Bret's granddaddy, Harold Selman, was like that.

Harold, like his father John before him, was a sheep raiser. John Selman left England in the 1860s for Utah where he worked on sheep ranches, trailing sheep across the American West. After marrying, he settled on a farm in Ogden and raised vegetables and fruit. But raising sheep was his true passion. John and son Harold went into the sheep business together about 1918 and moved to the Bear River Valley, settling on an irrigated farm and running sheep. Harold spent most of his time with the sheep, while John stayed on the farm. But the Great Depression hit hard, and they lost their herd. But Harold never gave up hope. Along with his wife, Dorthella, and a nephew, Bill Goring, he confidently turned around and bought another herd of sheep a few years later. Dorthella had saved a little money, and she willingly invested it in purchasing the herd, giving her a vested interest in the family business. In 1944, they purchased the ranch near Tremonton where the Selmans live today.

Harold brought with him a desire to leave the land better than he found it. He understood the cycle of grazing, how the practice could actually improve the land, and how it could harm it irreparably. Harold got a reputation for his ability to get sheep men and cow men to sit down and talk. Even though Harold didn't drink, he sometimes brought along a bottle of whiskey to ease the way between the two historically contentious parties. An abiding conservation ethic led him to voluntarily cut his stock numbers grazing on federal lands in Logan Canyon in the 1960s; he was the first rancher in the county to do so.

Fred recalled that his "dad sat on the [BLM] grazing board ever since I was a little kid.... He had a chance to inject a lot of ideas.... We understood the West was overgrazed.... Those were hard times back in the '20s, '30s and '40s. That's where my dad was vocal: how can we cut our numbers, still stay in existence, and raise better quality?"

For Harold, the light went on when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The act held liable every individual party that held a federal grazing permit. Before the act was signed, stockraisers could graze public lands to the point of destroying grasses—if they could get to a patch of prime pasture before other grazing permit holders did.

Fred's own "Eureka! moment" came in the 1970s when environmental advocates raised red flags about ranchers poisoning coyotes as a means of predator control. "It was a hot issue," he admitted:

I said, "You know, we don't think we're that bad a people. We do a lot of things not only for our private lands, but for permits where we work. We oughta start carrying a camera and take pictures of things we do that [are] environmental friendly." [So] we did that, showing where we planted a windbreak, our pond development on our land and on national forest land, for our livestock and for wildlife. We've got one permit in a non-motorized wilderness area and [it had] a livestock pond that had filled up with mud; it wasn't any good for anything. We wanted to clean it out and Bret took a team of horses and packed in a slip scraper on a packhorse and worked it over and made a nice watering facility. It wasn't long before the Forest Service noticed and said, 'Look what these guys have done.' You get a change of attitude. We've developed watering facilities on our private lands to get livestock out of the riparian area. We've spent a lot of labor and money doing these things.

Fred sat on the Northern Utah Conservation board for twenty-eight years, all the while continuing to look for ways to make the land better. He did this together with the rest of the Harold Selman, Inc. operation: Laura, his wife of fifty years; their son, Bret, and his wife, Michelle (a city girl who's been helpful in teaching the Selmans how to deal with city people), and their children, Cole, Elke, age 15, Wyatt, and Julia, age 7. Fred's brother Dean is also part of the team. He sold his share of the ranch, but continues to advise the family on sheep-raising strategies. Fred and Laura's other children, Jonie and Kristy, live within ten miles of the home ranch in the Bear River Valley; their families enjoy helping out at the ranch whenever needed.

Laura spent twenty-five years working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, and she represented family interests in many local and area organizations. Bret was the first rancher to sit on the board of the Bridgerland Audubon Society. The Selmans' high local profile is enhanced by their reputation for knowing how to put cattle and sheep on the same land and not overgraze. "It's a management science, no question," Fred said.

Theirs is a natural operation. They don't use steroids or stimulants of any kind, although if their sheep or cattle are sick, they know how to doctor them. "People want to know where their meat comes from, how it is raised, how it is fed," Laura said, acknowledging the growing health concerns of folks in the United States. "We want to know what goes through our bodies more than ever before."

By far the biggest learning experience the Selmans have had in recent years was in making the decision to place 6,700 acres of their ranch into a conservation easement to be purchased by The Nature Conservancy.

"I was kind of nervous about The Nature Conservancy," admitted Laura, a petite fireball of a lady. "We heard stories about them from ranchers around Cody, Wyoming, telling us how awful easements were and we shouldn't have anything to do with The Nature Conservancy. So we tried to find something wrong. What's wrong with them?"

Every question the Selmans raised was eventually met with an answer they liked. When there was a roadblock, the discussion backed up and started over. "It took five years to do it the way we wanted to do it," Laura recounted. "Everything we wanted, they were able to come up with a way to do it. Hopefully, they got everything they desired, also. It is probably the most positive thing we've done in our lives. That land we were trying to preserve is preserved forever, and we get to continue our farming and ranching operation without changing a thing. That's what we want for our family and our grandchildren."

Their home ranch of irrigated fields covers 360 acres, and they have access to 25,400 acres of private ground; they also have grazing permits in the national forest and on BLM lands, giving them more than enough land to run their herd of 2,500 Columbia ewes. They also raise 130 head of cattle (a Hereford-Angus-Shorthorn mix for what Fred called "that crossbred vigor").

Sheep outfits have traditionally been gypsy operations, and the Selmans are no different. They run their sheep into the high forest of Logan Canyon every July 5, where their stock can be constantly on the move, browsing the geraniums, columbine, protein-rich legumes, and forbs that burst forth during the short growing season at 9,000 feet. The sheep bed on different ground every night, herded by five hired Peruvian hounds. In early September, the sheep are brought off the Rough Allotment in the National Forest. Toward the middle of September, lamb shipment begins; the ewes move to their fall grazing, and cattle graze the conservation easement lands.

The easement agreement brought in enough cash for the Selmans to purchase another 5,200 acres of high desert west of Tremonton, as well as the farm where Laura Selman was raised. The purchase provided the family with the first lambing grounds for their Columbia ewes that they'd ever owned. A five-mile pipeline and new, strategically placed water tanks will complete the chain. "We've got our summer permits and our winter grounds. Now we've got somewhere to lamb our sheep. Before this, we always had to lease a place."

The Selmans also have an association with the Audubon Society that began in the mid-1990s, when the family leased fall pastureland in the Logan Bottoms. It was then that they met Eve Davies, a biologist for Rocky Mountain Power. "She was kind of a tree-hugger gal," said Bret, cracking a smile as he recalled their first encounter. "She said she couldn't get along with ranchers. I told her she could get along with me. 'Whatever you say, we'll do.'" A friendship formed. When Bret took her out on family land and they observed thirty-five sharp-tailed grouse dancing in the field one morning, the Selmans found an advocate and an entrée into the Audubon Society.

On the last Saturday morning of April every year, the Selmans host more than one hundred birding enthusiasts from as far away as Japan for what the family calls "Birdy Day." In addition to seeing rare birds, the crowd gets to enjoy a breakfast of lamb sausage, potatoes, and eggs prepared by the family. "We love having people on the ranch," Laura said. "We have some beautiful birds here." With the help of birders and biologists, they've identified twelve threatened species on one of their ranches.

Their birding friends became impassioned defenders, speaking on the Selmans' behalf when Cache and Box Elder counties attempted to authorize motorized vehicles to cross the Selmans' property for access to a four-wheeler loop.

"Private property is important to us," Laura said. "We don't have a problem with people seeing it, being on it, but we do not want motorized vehicles destroying it. This land isn't ours. We're just stewards of it. We're not taking it with us, so let's make it better. If we don't take care of this stuff, it's not going to be here.

"But we're still learning," Laura Selman said emphatically, nodding toward her husband. "We don't say we have the answers. We want to see if there's something better than [what] we're doing."

So, few people around Tremonton were surprised when word started floating about that a theory developed by Bret and Fred had drawn academic attention. Mountain mahogany—a critical, nutrient-packed winter food for local mule deer—was failing to regenerate across Utah. But Bret had noticed one place where there were numerous mahogany saplings and seedlings: on the trail up the ridge of Logan Canyon, where every July he pushed 1,000 ewes and their lambs seven miles to dine on Forest Service grasses. "It's the only place I've observed mahogany regenerating," he said. Could hoof action disturbing the seedbed in the sandy soil have had an impact? The Selmans alerted researchers, and at least one graduate student is interested in writing a master's thesis on the topic. As tended to happen when the Selmans were involved, people recognized that there was something new to be learned.


Excerpted from Generations on the Land by Joe Nick Patoski. Copyright © 2010 Sand County Foundation. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

JOE NICK PATOSKI is a former staff writer for Texas Monthly and the author of six books, including biographies of Selena, Willie Nelson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He lives near Wimberley, Texas.

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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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