Tavaputs Ranch wins 2009 Leopold Award

Mar 23, 2010

Utah’s Tavaputs Ranch wins 2009 Leopold Award

High in the remote aspen-covered mountains of eastern-central Utah, the Tavaputs Ranch sits in a panoramic wonderland. Owned and operated by Butch and Jeanie Jensen, the ranch was founded in 1889 by Jeanie’s great-grandfather. The Jensens’ son Tate and daughter Jennie represent the fifth generation to be successfully ranching and improving this sensitive, arid land, proving yet again that with conscientious stewardship, ranching and environmentalism are natural partners. In November 2009, the Jensens were recognized for their dedication to land stewardship by being awarded the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award for Utah. Sponsored by the Sand County Foundation and its partners, the award, named in honor of world-renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, rewards recipients with a $10,000 purse and a Leopold crystal. The award is presented annually in seven states to private landowners who practice exemplary land stewardship and management. 

The Tavaputs Ranch is a commercial cow/calf operation situated 50 miles east of Price, UT, and 120 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. The Jensens’ summer range is a mix of mountain meadow and plateau country located in the scenic Book Cliffs region where summer pastures reach an elevation upwards of 10,000 feet. Their winter range, largely salt desert and cedar country, is on Bureau of Land Management desert allotments outside the towns of Green River and Moab.

In this unforgiving country, the Jensens are carrying on a long tradition of stewardship with their thoughtful and innovative management practices. Drought here is a continual threat, and the delicate balance of water, wildlife, and cattle needs careful monitoring. The Jensens have invested untold amounts of energy and resources into developing and maintaining water sources. Springs, runoff ponds, and stock ponds all require constant attention in this dry climate where water is a precious commodity. The Jensens have also made good use of their water as a management tool. In some of their large unfenced pastures, cattle rotation is managed simply by water placement.

Tate Jensen, who holds a degree in range science from Utah State University, explains: "Going by the pond cycle, you’re never grazing [the same area] two years in a row. You can keep [cows] rotated well just by water placement. That really helps the rangelands out. One pond will have water this year, but next year it may be dry, [so] the range gets grazed differently every year. That really benefits the range, and makes it a long-range sustainability type situation."

In extremely dry years, the Jensens haul water to their stock tanks, providing water not only for their cows, but also for the native wildlife.

In a refreshing change from the all-too-common tactic of enforcing environmentalism through government regulation, the Leopold Award is meant to encourage and recognize extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation efforts by private landowners. The award also recognizes individuals who inspire other landowners in their own communities through their examples, and provides a platform where producers from the agriculture community can be recognized as conservation leaders by the general public.

Brent Haglund, president of the Sand County Foundation, points out that the Jensens’ independent efforts to improve and benefit the land should be recognized as a benefit to all Americans who, otherwise, might have to pay taxes for similar efforts if they were provided by the government.

Says Haglund, "There’s an implicit part of what you see in the Jensens’ work ... [that shows] private agricultural operators ... are investing their own dollars and ingenuity in things that don’t cost the rest of us tax dollars."

But according to Haglund, voluntary conservation work like the Jensens’ is preferable to governmental environmental regulation for other reasons, as well. Landowners are intimately familiar with the property they depend upon. Because of their deep connection and familiarity with the land, it is the private citizen, not the government, who is often best positioned to care for natural resources. Says Haglund, "Government doesn’t have enough resources of either personnel or money available to do the detailed, careful job required to manage dispersed land and resources."

Voluntary conservation also cultivates good stewardship from a sense of personal responsibility and pride, as opposed to forcing people to follow regulations. The key difference for Haglund is between practicing conservation because you are being told what to do, and doing it voluntarily because you believe it is the right thing to do. According to the philosophy of the Sand County Foundation, it is the second approach that embodies the most fruitful form of conservation. Haglund summarizes, "[Ideally], the job of conservation and improving the health of the land ... is done out of an ethical commitment; it’s done voluntarily, and it’s done privately with support by partners."

Back on the ranch, the Jensens have been practicing this common-sense ethic for generations. Another way they are conserving the resource is by taking advantage of an abundance of animal unit months (AUMs) on their grazing allotments. Instead of grazing at capacity, the Jensens choose to stock at lower numbers and leave some feed, which allows them to maintain herd numbers in bad years when AUMs are cut back.

Explains Butch, "Historically we’re only using half, or maybe sometimes up to three quarters of our AUMs. That kind of gives you a buffer zone when these terrible years come along. We’ve prided ourselves in ... leaving a lot of feed, not grazing it extensively. We were always taught that if you don’t take care of the range, it won’t take care of you, and you won’t be in business very long."

The Jensens’ efforts to tread lightly on their range have not gone unnoticed. Reports Haglund, "What we are told by the people who made the recommendation [for the award] is that not only do the Jensens leave their own land better than they found it, they’re leaving the public land, on which their operation depends, better as well."

Other examples of voluntary conservation efforts abound. At their small feedlot, the Jensens have worked closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, fencing cattle out of live water, building runoff ponds, ditches and berms, and drilling a well for stock water, all of which help to minimize pollution.

The Jensens have also undertaken sagebrush management projects, and work co-operatively with local weed agencies to keep invasive species such as knapweed and musk thistle in check.

Conservation projects have made the Tavaputs Ranch a showcase of good land management, and the Jensens have made a point of sharing their hard work with the public. In addition to the cattle operation, they also run a guest ranch and hunting guide service. Visitors can come and hike, ride, view wildlife, and hunt trophy elk while experiencing the results of five generations of good stewardship.

Explains Tate, "People from all over the U.S. and all parts of the world will come here, and they can see the cattle on the land living right with the wildlife, and they can see that the range is in good health. It amazes a lot of people that we’re living in the same place and making a living the same way that our ancestors did 120 years ago."

Guests and field study classes can also visit the Fermont Indian historical site in Range Creek Canyon, located on the edge of the ranch.

As active participants in their local, state, and national cattlemen’s organizations, the Jensen family has also shown a strong commitment to sharing their experience with fellow cattlemen. In keeping with this tradition, the Jensens will be offering a range tour on the ranch at the upcoming Utah Cattlemen’s Association meeting in Price this July.

Though the Jensens show characteristic humility at receiving this prestigious award, it should come as no surprise that the Tavaputs Ranch has been singled out for recognition. Conservation is a tradition here.

Observes Tate, "This award is really a testament to our ancestors, as much or more than to us. This is the fifth generation, and everything we are and everything we have is because of the old timers, the ancestors who kept it going and made it better along the way. We just try to keep up the ethic."

But for Haglund and the Sand County Foundation, the beauty of the Tavaputs Ranch goes well beyond the fruits of exemplary stewardship. For them, the Tavaputs Ranch embodies a natural union of the human endeavors of agricultural production and environmental conservation. And a living, breathing example of this natural partnership will help to build the human bridges which the Leopold Award is meant to facilitate. Says Haglund, "We do not anticipate that the bridge building is going to hit every [environmentalist group] ... but there are people of good will on both sides of [this] issue. Most issues in our experience that relate to land health are not Grand Canyons that are unbridgeable. And if you work your way back to the headwaters of the Colorado River, you’ll find that way up there at the headwaters, there still may be a little canyon that lets you reach across to the other side."

The Tavaputs Ranch Web site is www.tavaputsranch.com/index.php. A video of the Jensens and the ranch can be seen at: www.sandcounty.net/video/LCA_UT_2009/. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent