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New Mexico, USA



The Grey Ranch

Fortunately there are those who are dedicated to preserving what's left of a fragile ecosystem. The Gray ranch is in the southern part of New Mexico. It's become a laboratory for studying old and new ways of sustainable ranching — a unique partnership between traditional cowboys and rangeland ecologists. The herd is carefully managed — it's never allowed to exceed the grazing capacity of the land.

In the spring the cattle are rounded-up. This is the time of year when calves are separated from the herd, branded and vaccinated. Here at the Gray ranch they use more traditional methods of working the cattle. For the younger generation it's a learning experience that's meant to be passed on to future ranchers.

Ben Brown:

"We've got 502 square miles here. It's not pristine but all the pieces are there, all the systems are still functioning. This not only means that we have, an incredible array of biodiversity, but it also means that we can use natural processes to do much of our management here on the ranch."

Controlled burning is perhaps the most important grassland management technique used at the ranch. If a fire starts during a lightening storm it's allowed to burn. More often, it's ignited by fire management experts. Grassland fires regenerate the land. They clear away dead growth and invading trees and shrubs. Though the blades of grass are consumed, the root systems are undamaged by the fire.


Charles Curtain:

"The fire ... is part of a long-term ecological research study that looks at the interaction of fire with grazing and fires is important in arid grasslands. Really any grassland. It increases the nutritional values of the grasses which is good for both the cattle, but also native species such as antelope."

Warner Glen:

"It goes together. If you have a healthy wildlife habitat, it's gonna be good for your agricultural interests. What we're doing here is trying to maintain and manage open country, for open country keeps your wildlife borders open and your habitat healthy, and that benefits your livestock, too."

But for the people that work at the Gray Ranch, it's not just about saving the grasslands — it's about preserving a way of life.

Cimmaron, New Mexico is the heartland of the American west — home to many of the dreams and hopes that built a nation.

Cimmaron is also a place that still celebrates the traditional skills of the American cowboy. These are the children and grandchildren of early pioneers — the thousands of settlers that forged a life from a vast unspoiled wilderness.


Rodeo in Cimmaron, New Mexico

Rodeo in Cimmaron, New Mexico

The nearby ruins of Fort Union are a reminder of those early days. One hundred fifty years ago this was the west's biggest military outpost. The fort played a key role in shaping the destiny of the southwest. It kept guard over this part of the Santa Fe Trail — and the thousands of settlers heading for the fertile prairies of the Great Plains.

The destruction of the North American grasslands proceeded with a speed and intensity unparalleled in history.

They came by wagon train — and what they found was astonishing: four hundred million acres of shimmering grassland that stretched from the Missouri River to the Rockies — from Texas to Canada. It supported 30 million buffalo — and vast herds of deer, antelope, and elk. It was an ecosystem that seemed inexhaustible. It wasn't.

Ruins of Fort Union

Ruins of Fort Union

The destruction of the North American grasslands proceeded with a speed and intensity unparalleled in history. Gone are the vast herds of animals that roamed the plains. Gone are the thousands of species of plants and flowers that blanketed the prairie. And gone are four hundred million acres of open rangeland.

In the end, 80 percent of North America's grasslands were plowed under — permanently destroyed to make way for endless rows of wheat, corn, and soy beans. It didn't take long — less than a hundred years. Today the Great Plains feed a nation — it's become a breadbasket for the world. But at what price? Like the pampas of Argentina and the veld of South Africa — the prairies have become the domain of big business.

One hundred years ago farmers were nearly 35% of the American population. Today, less than 2% of American families work the land.

Most small farmers have given up. Unable to compete — they left behind quiet reminders that mechanization means fewer people are needed to farm larger tracts of land. One hundred years ago farmers were nearly 35% of the American population. Today, less than 2% of American families work the land.

Rural villages like Springer, New Mexico are on the verge of becoming ghost towns. The signs on their boarded up shops are sad reminders of a once thriving farm and ranching community.



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