A Storied Past, A Changing Future by Shaun McKinnon
New realities spur ranching innovation in Arizona’s southeast
The Arizona Republic 11 Sep 2016 Shaun McKinnon
DOUGLAS — You can feel the history down here along the Arizona-Mexico border, hear it, taste it. You don’t need the daily re-enactments back in Tombstone because you can see the shadows of the real thing.
You’re driving on a dirt road called the Geronimo Trail, named because the old Apache chief lived out here, holed up in the canyons, hid behind the ridges. Somewhere along here, a kid from town named Stan Jones watched a storm roll in with a cowboy who told him to watch for the red eyes of the devil’s herd, images that would inspire Jones to write “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
You pass a turnoff for the Slaughter Ranch, named for “Texas John” Slaughter, a former sheriff of Cochise County who knew the Clantons and the Earps personally, who used to tell outlaws to “hit the trail,” and then they did.
“Texas John Slaughter made ‘em do what they oughta, and if they didn’t, they died,” went the lyrics to the late-1950s Disney TV series based on his life.
Farther down the trail, a rutted, gravel road not fit for low-slung city cars, you start to climb into the Peloncillo Mountains, off toward the Sycamore Ranch, homesteaded almost while the dust still hung in the air from Geronimo’s surrender.
But the destination today, a brisk day early in November, is another ranch in the flat range of the San Bernardino Valley, where fourth-generation cowboy Warner Glenn and his daughter and granddaughter run cattle and hunt mountain lions and try to steer clear of illegal border crossers.
To get here, down in the farthest corner of southeast Arizona, you head south from Tucson, down past the daily shootouts in Tombstone, to Douglas, where you find 15th Street.
Out at the edge of town, 15th Street becomes the Geronimo Trail. A paved road gives way to gravel a few miles in and the trappings of town fade into a scruffy landscape where all that grows is the hardiest of grass and brush.
A Border Patrol truck might rumble past, or a scuffed pickup headed into Douglas for supplies, but otherwise it’s quiet. About 16 miles in, there’s a turnoff for the ranch. A gate marks the private drive. A battered mailbox perches atop a post on the left.
This is an intersection of desert roads and of history, of the wild, sometimes dangerous West and a brand of 21st-century land stewardship so innovative one of its creators won a MacArthur genius grant. It took shape 20 years ago in a house up a narrow road behind the gate on a ranch they call the badlands, the Malpai.
Shaped by the land
Warner Glenn stood on the ranch-house porch and pointed down the hill toward a wooden pen and shelter. He keeps his hunting hounds there, 21 of them, fine-looking dogs, fearless, the ruin of many a mountain lion in Cochise County.
“I ride every morning,” Glenn said, his voice almost as gravelly as the road to the pen. “If I’m not working cattle, I take them out — ” he pointed toward the dogs again. “Gotta keep them in shape.”
Glenn rides to look for breaks in his fences or the water pipes. He rides to check the cattle. He rides to make sure someone hasn’t left a gate open. He’s wary when he rides, as wary as ranchers always were.
“With all the illegal traffic, someone’s always leaving a gate open,” he said. Open gates are a scourge down here because it often means retrieving cattle from another rancher’s pasture. Open gates can also mean the drug runners passed through. Bad business, the drug runners. Glenn does his best to avoid them.
The Malpai Ranch hugs the border, out in the grasslands of the San Bernardino Valley. Glenn grew up on his dad’s ranch, the J-Bar-A, on the south end of the Chiricahua Mountains, north of the Malpai. He still runs the J-Bar-A and it’s a different kind of ranch.
“In mountain ranches, you don’t have as many pipes to maintain for water,” he said. “We have some shallow wells and two or three natural springs.”
In the mountains, moving cattle from one grazing pasture to the next takes longer.
“You have to ride right in to get them out and it’s harder to keep your eye on them,” Glenn said. “Sometimes it takes a full day and then you go back the next day to get the ones you missed, get them out of the side canyons.”
Glenn’s granddad homesteaded the J-Bar-A in 1894. It’s where Glenn learned to ride, to brand cattle, where he learned to hunt mountain lions and deer, where he learned how to work the land and make it work for him.
When Glenn set out on his own, he bought part of the old Slaughter Ranch farther south in the valley. “Texas John” Slaughter ran the ranch in 1884 and worked it after he retired as Cochise County sheriff. He built a pond using nearby natural springs, a splash of green amid the badlands. Malpai Ranch.
In 1968, Warner and his wife, Wendy, moved onto what is now the Malpai Ranch. There were a few corrals and a good spring. They built a house and added on to it over the years. A big living room. Bunks for hunting parties. A museum for Wendy’s collectibles.
In the years that followed, Glenn developed the ranch, the small plot of private land and the much larger grazing allotments on Forest Service land. He tapped wells, laid pipes, set up watering tanks. He built fences.
It’s not a big ranch, by any standards, but few of them out here are. These are family operations, run by ranchers who have inhabited the borderlands for five or six generations. But in the late 1980s, early 1990s, land speculators started nosing around, buying up plots when young people fled for a steadier living.
Environmentalists showed up too, snapping pictures of land they said the ranchers’ livestock had stripped bare. “Cattle-free by ’93” was the rallying cry for a while. Glenn and the others figured they had to step up if they wanted to keep doing what they loved.
“I’m not saying I’m the best at it, but it’s all I want to do,” he said. “I just love this way of life. I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.”
Preserving a way of life
Bill McDonald scooped a couple of potatoes from the pot on the stove, letting them roll onto the plate next to the slices of beef. He poured dressing on a salad and settled into a chair at the big kitchen table in the Malpai Ranch house.
The house is like another home for McDonald, his guest status long converted to an offhand “You know where things are” when lunch is ready. McDonald runs the Sycamore ranch up in the Peloncillos, a ranch his great-grandfather homesteaded after venturing west from Texas, in the early 1900s.
As they ate, McDonald and Glenn talked about how many times they’d gathered in the house with the other ranchers from the valley and the mountains, how many times they wrangled through the night over how to preserve ranching in this corner of Arizona, until they came up with something they called the Malpai Borderlands Group.
Kelly Glenn-Kimbro, Warner’s daughter, slid a pie onto the counter.
“I’d be in here cooking while they talked,” she said. “Half of ’em were starting to lose their hearing, so they were all yelling at each other. I heard every word clear as day, better than most of them did.”
They had reason to yell, to tap into their passion. They were worried their ranches and their way of life were in danger, a danger less tangible than drought or summer storms or smugglers. What can a living room full of cowboys do about the fire-suppression policies that had ruined grasslands, the environmental groups out to evict the cattle, the developers peddling 40-acre ranchettes to buyers who wouldn’t know a heifer from a javelina?
They had to start with the past, with the history, with the land.
This is dry country, sitting atop a rocky volcanic crust. You don’t grow hay here. Desert grasses grow. Brush and shrubs grow. As long as the vegetation is healthy, the cattle can eat.
When the first homesteaders sent their cattle out onto the range, they didn’t know much about managing such a fragile landscape. The cattle overgrazed and the land showed it. Then the government came in and imposed rules about wildfire, decreeing that all fires should be fought and extinguished. That turned out to be no better for the range than the unmanaged cattle.
One day in the early 1990s, a fire broke out on the Malpai, but Glenn and his neighbor decided to let it burn. Fires used to sweep through, not enough to char the land black, but enough to clear the dead brush and overgrown grasses, to keep the mesquite in check, enough to keep the range healthy.
But the Forest Service disagreed and put the fire out. That was enough to bring the ranchers together, at least to talk fire suppression. They agreed that if a wildfire started, they wanted it to burn. They worked on a map. They started talking about other issues. One meeting led to another. They met one evening at a ranch over in New Mexico.
“It was supposed to be a two-hour meeting,” McDonald said. “We ended up sleeping on the floor. The next day, we signed our first agreement, a non-binding agreement, but an agreement about wildfire.”
What took shape was the Malpai Borderlands Group, a coming-together of 40 or so ranch owners from Arizona and New Mexico. They knew they needed to cooperate. They needed to try new things. They needed to make new friends.
About the same time the Malpai Borderlands Group was coming into existence, another group had arrived in the valley: the Nature Conservancy, a national environmental organization that sometimes buys plots of land to maintain natural resources.
In 1990, the Nature Conservancy purchased the Gray Ranch, one of the largest single ranching operations in the borderlands. The ranch’s previous owners wanted out and were talking with developers. The conservancy wanted to protect the ecological value, the diversity of habitat, birds and other wildlife. A lot of folks figured the ranch would become a nature preserve.
Instead, the conservancy sold the ranch to a non-profit foundation run by a rancher. The sale came with a conservation easement that prohibited commercial development but allowed cattle ranching. And the rancher at the head of the foundation helped build the Malpai group and expand its mission.
Among the projects that evolved was a “grass bank” that let ranchers move cattle onto grazing pastures on the Gray Ranch if their own land wasn’t producing because of drought or other natural forces. In return, the rancher would cede some of his land to the Malpai group with a conservation easement barring future development.
Over time, the group has pieced together a long-term plan to manage the borderlands for ranching, to put on paper what the ranchers say was just good business. The group now accounts for about 1 million acres in two states.
The work they do is voluntary. Some of it is what McDonald sees as common sense: rotating grazing pastures so the land has time to recover. Keep cattle off land that is hurting in a drought. Some of it is more science-based: replanting native grasses, gently working land where endangered species live. Over time, the group and many of the ranchers have become working friends with the Nature Conservancy.
In 1998, McDonald was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for his role in the project. He doesn’t bring it up these days, but he is clearly proud of what he and his neighbors have accomplished.
“It’s been a bumpy road at times,” he said. “A lot of people thought cattle and ranching were bad back when we started. And a lot of people on our side thought the Nature Conservancy was bad. The ranchers who stepped forward at the time did so at the risk of taking a lot of heat from their neighbors.”
The bad rap on dry-land ranching was earned in part by the earliest cowboys, McDonald said. Some of them acted out of ignorance, a few out of greed.
“I don’t think we have any excuses for poor stewardship now, but I think we have to have some forgiveness of those who came before,” he said. “It’s not a science. It’s an art.”
Troubles at the border
About a mile before the turnoff to the Malpai Ranch, the Geronimo Trail veers south and skiffs within a few hundred yards of the U.S.-Mexico border. The proximity isn’t important because this is all border country, but it’s a visual reminder of the forces that have reshaped the ranching business in this corner of Arizona.
“When my granddad and dad were here, there wasn’t hardly any illegal traffic,” Warner Glenn said. “In my dad’s lifetime, most of the immigrants were looking for work. A lot of them were good workers. It’s a different story now. Now it’s drugs. It’s pretty brutal here right now.”
In the past week, the end of October, Glenn had counted eight truckloads full of marijuana. All but three got away. Ranchers sometimes find bales that have fallen out of vehicles on the run. Glenn avoids the drug runners and they don’t come after him or even much acknowledge him.
But no one around here can or wants to forget what happened to Robert Krentz.
The 58-year-old rancher was out checking stock ponds and waterlines on the morning of March 27, 2010. He radioed his brother, Phil, about trouble. Call the Border Patrol, he said. That’s the last they heard from him.
About midnight, searchers found his body. He had been shot and left to die.
His death gutted his neighbors. Some of them turned activist overnight. They were angry because one of their own had been murdered, angry because they believed their warnings about the smugglers and the border crossers had been ignored.
“Seal the border,” said Don Kimble, a rancher who joined his neighbors at a gathering in Portal four days after the killing. “Put the military on the border. If we can stop those people on the border, there won’t be somebody coming 15 miles up here and shooting Rob Krentz.”
Kelly Glenn-Kimbro, Warner Glenn’s daughter, who helps him run the Malpai, was at the school in Portal.
“Every border community has begged for help,” she told then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. “Our politicians need to not let Rob’s death be in vain.”
Almost six years later, the smugglers and the border crossers still make it tough to run cattle out here. They break fences, they leave gates open, they leave trash behind.
“They cut plastic waterlines to fill jugs,” Warner Glenn said. “We don’t find it until the tanks go dry, so we might lose 20,000 gallons before we can fix it. All to fill a gallon jug.”
The foot traffic stirs up the cattle, keeps them on the run. The Border Patrol trucks can tear up trails and roads, too.
“If the cattle can’t settle down and eat, it’s bad,” Glenn said. “It just takes up a lot of your time.”
Always the gamble
Warner Glenn was clearing the table, stacking plates, maneuvering his lanky frame around a corner to a counter.
“How’s your help doing?” he asked McDonald. “The one who got into a wreck.”
Out here, a wreck is hardly ever about a motorized vehicle. It’s what happens when someone has trouble on a horse, gets thrown off or stomped on.
“He’s doing better,” the other rancher said. “We had to take him to the emergency room, but when we got to Douglas, we found out there wasn’t one at the hospital anymore. They closed it. So we had to go on to Bisbee.”
Most of the ranchers out here hire help, but it’s usually one or two workers. When the busy seasons come on, branding, moving cattle out for market, they trade work, pitch in at each other’s place.
“There’s so many different things on a ranch,” McDonald said. “Maintenance, animal husbandry, paperwork. So much paperwork. I do need the hired hand. But I’m still out on horseback two or three times a week.”
McDonald grew up on the ranch, but went off to school at Arizona State University. He earned a degree in political science in 1975, then decided to come back and ranch.
“I had some interest in sports, but I wasn’t good enough to do that professionally,” he said. “People would tell me, ‘You don’t want to get into ranching. You can’t make any money at it.’ But I wanted to make a go of it. I like the solitude. I like the beauty out here. You wake up every day with something new to do.”
Always there is the calculus, the gamble. Will it rain enough this year to coax the grass and the forage out of the ground for the cattle out there or is this the year some of them have to go? Will it rain so much tomorrow that the next week will be spent fixing washed-out roads and repairing fences?
“You pay a lot of attention to the weather,” McDonald said. “Sometimes you have more cattle than you want, then there’s a drought and not nearly as many as you could have when it’s raining. What you hope is that you get enough rain when you need it. There have been times when the only thing that kept us from selling is a rainstorm that comes along at the right time.”
No one ever takes full advantage of the good years, McDonald said. That’s just setting yourself up for failure. You find the place in the middle and you give thanks that you can keep doing it, along with your neighbors.
“There’s a lot of open country that is not going to stay open,” he said. “It’s subdivided now. A lot of areas people think are open Wild West won’t be soon. But this area will be. We’ve set it up to protect the land and what we do.”
‘I learned everything they could teach me
Kelly Glenn-Kimbro never got to sit down for lunch with everyone. She piled food on a plate, but too many other things pulled her away. A delivery truck with a new refrigerator, one with a built-in ice maker. Ranch business. Neighbors with legal trouble.
“Sometimes I’ll be up at 3 or 4 in the morning and never stop until after the sun is long gone,” she said. “Then it’s on to the next day. You’ve got to love it. You’ve got to love this way of life.”
Malpai Ranch has always been her home. When she got engaged, she informed her prospective husband — who is still her husband — that she intended to stay in Douglas, to work the ranch and go on hunting trips with her dad.
One of her first memories was learning to ride a horse, sometime around age 3.
“Dad and I would be loping around the ranch,” she said. “They put me on old gentle horses. I had to climb up on a stump to get on. I loved chasing cows.”
Her brother wasn’t as interested in the ranch and he moved to California when he found another career. Kelly couldn’t leave. She learned the business from her dad and mom, Warner and Wendy, as almost everyone in the valley calls them, including their daughter and, later, their granddaughter.
And then there was the hunting. Kelly’s grandfather worked as a hunting guide to bring in extra money when the ranch wasn’t producing as much. He taught Warner, and the two of them brought Kelly into the fold.
“Dad, Grandpa and I, we were the three musketeers,” Kelly said. “I learned everything they could teach me.”
The Glenns’ hunting-guide business has thrived. Warner and Kelly take hunters out for a few days or as many as 10. They go after deer or javelina sometimes, but the real lure are Warner’s mountain-lion trips.
“When you’re hunting, every day is a new day,” Kelly said. “The night before, a lion may have come into the canyon. And it’s not always about killing them. If my dad or grandpa found a lion with cubs, they’d leave it alone. That’s good for the species.”
In his years hunting, Warner has twice encountered a jaguar, the rarest of big cats in Arizona. He took pictures, but didn’t shoot, even after one of the big cats took a swipe at one of his hunting hounds.
“I would not go in a hole after a jaguar, I know that,” Warner said.
He will chase a mountain lion into a cave, he and the hounds. He likes to tell the story that he lost some of the hearing in one ear to the repeated cacophony of a mountain lion screaming in the corner of a narrow cave and the hounds’ incessant barking behind him.
Kelly left home for college at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, and when she returned, she got work for a while setting up location shoots for movie- and television-production companies. She would work two or three a year, and collected credits like the “Young Riders” television program.
Her experience in that business helped her work out a deal with a production company that wanted to make a non-scripted TV show about the ranchers in Arizona’s southeast corner. It’s called “Border Cowboys” and it would tell stories through the eyes of the Glenns and several other ranching families. Its producers are signing up backers and spent much of summer 2016 on the range.
A little more than two and a half years ago, the Glenns paid off the last of their big debts, a rare achievement for a rancher. But the family couldn’t celebrate because at almost the same time, Wendy Glenn died. The loss devastated Warner, Kelly and Mackenzie, Kelly’s daughter.
A year later, they welcomed hundreds of friends and neighbors to a memorial celebration at a city park. Everyone seemed to have known Wendy and loved her. Down here, you take care of each other.
A ranch kid at heart
On the day before Thanksgiving, Mackenzie Kimbro finished her morning chores at the family house on the north side of Douglas and then planted herself in the kitchen. She lined up bags of flour, boxes of sugar, spices, graham crackers and a dozen other baking ingredients on the counter.
She figured she needed to bake about 600 cookies, cupcakes, truffles and mini-pies for a charity fun run in town the next morning.
“I’ll freak out around 8 o’clock tonight and wonder what I got myself into,” she said. “Then I’ll be up early tomorrow to deliver them.”
Mackenzie has been baking and cooking since she could reach the oven. She honed her skills inventing cookies to take to school (one that she’s known for is a bulldog cookie, named for the mascot of Douglas High School and filled with semisweet chocolate, white chocolate and butterscotch morsels, for the school’s black, white and gold color scheme).
But this is part of her business, Cola Blanca Productions, which has grown since she graduated from high school in May 2014. She cooks and bakes, she has published a cookbook and she’s looking for other opportunities, all while she performs the duties of “beef ambassador” for the Arizona State Cowbelles, a group that promotes the state’s beef industry.
At heart, Mackenzie thinks of herself as a ranch kid.
“I could ride before I could walk,” she said. “Mom would lead me around. As I got older, maybe around five or six, I’d be out there all day. By the time I was six or seven, I was winning prizes in barrel racing.”
When she got to school, she found there weren’t as many ranch kids as you might think down here in ranch country.
“Agriculture is an extremely tough, down and dirty business,” Mackenzie said. “It’s really hard for young families. There are a lot easier jobs that don’t demand as much and pay better. It’s hard to get kids to come back to the family operation.”
Mackenzie stayed busy in high school. She worked as the football team manager and showed livestock through Future Farmers of America. She never wavered in her belief that she would take over the Malpai someday, though she knew from her mother that the path to that day might take her in unexpected directions.
Then in 2014, her grandmother Wendy died.
“That’s when everything changed,” Mackenzie said. “It literally turned our world upside down. But it brought everything together too. It gave me a vision that I wanted to dedicate a cookbook to my grandma. She was the beacon in the storm. She was my best friend.”
Mackenzie’s cookbook, “Roots Run Deep: Our Ranching Tradition,” includes page after page of family photographs, of Wendy out on horseback, searching for artifacts, hanging out with Warner. She wrote a heartfelt tribute to her grandmother and told stories about her family, about the mountain-lion hunts, about Warner’s encounters with the jaguar.
“When Warner photographed the jaguar, a lot of ranchers asked him if he was crazy,” Mackenzie said. They worried if the jaguar survived, the government might impose new rules on the land to protect the habitat.
“But it never crossed his mind to shoot it,” Mackenzie said. “Letting it go was the right thing to do.”
Warner Glenn would like Mackenzie to take over the ranch, to fulfill his work preserving the way of life in this isolated corner, the work of the Malpai Borderlands Group, the work of the other ranchers who don’t want to give up.
Mackenzie thought she’d never want to want do anything else, but about halfway through high school, as her classmates were starting to think about college, Warner sat his granddaughter down. There wasn’t much time to talk; the ranchers were all preparing to ship cattle to market, a stressful season.
“You’re great at this,” he told her. “It would be amazing if you could come back and keep doing it. But I want you to do what you want to do.”
Mackenzie pulled a baking sheet from the oven and set it on top to cool. She scooped out more batter into another pan.
“A lot of people think if you don’t get out, you’re going to be stuck. That’s not how I see it.” She moved the pan to the next spot on the counter. “Ranching is a privilege. We ‘get’ to do it. If I leave for a while, I know I’ll be back.”
She walked out the kitchen door, surrounded immediately by two of the family dogs. She looked around at a landscape too big even for a movie screen.
“It’s so serene and gorgeous,” she said. “It’s just gorgeous here. When a storm rolls through … you know everything’s going to be fine.”