Over the years, Sanpete County's sheepmen have made their county the state's leading producer of wool and mutton. They have survived the depredations of coyotes and cougars, the years of drought, the sometimes deep snows on the winter range and the vagaries of the marketplace.
Now they're asking if they can also survive the doubling of grazing fees, the loss of a wool subsidy that brought 226 of them $1,540,416.68 in support payments in 1993, and the tough competition from low-cost Australian and New Zealand mutton and wool in a free market.David Christensen thinks many - those who depend primarily on their access to the public lands - will gradually disappear from the scene.
The survivors, he predicts, will be the producers who have a farm flock of 100 to 200 ewes that isn't their main income source, and the "big boys" who have large private land holdings.
"We're seeing the end of an era," Christensen said. "I saw it coming 10 years ago and decided it was time to get out."
That meant gradually liquidating one of the area's largest livestock operations.
David and his brother, Perry, Manti natives, got started in the sheep business as young men with the backing of a hefty bank loan and the encouragement and sometimes wise counsel of their uncle, a successful livestock man.
Their start was around 2,000 head of range sheep and a heavy load of debt. They made Grand Junction their base because it was near their grazing rights.
"We worked hard. We sweated - gallons of it," David Christensen said. "We had our good years and our bad years."
They gradually expanded their operation to 12,000 sheep and 3,000 cattle, grazing mainly on public lands in Utah's Uintah Basin and east desert.
A few years ago Perry Christensen lost his wife to cancer and decided to drop out of the livestock business. His brother hung in there for a while longer. "For the past 10 years the wool subsidy enabled me to hold it together," he said. "But I realized it was time to get out. There was a sense of movement - of change - in the air."
The Christensen brothers have moved on to new ventures. About 25 years ago they saw opportunity close by Manti, and bought more than 200 acres of raw hillside land in Six Mile Canyon near what is now Palisade State Park.
Now they're making their move. Operating under the name Palisade Corp., they're developing around 100 acres into a group of home sites they call The Palisades.
They've built a mile of roads, winding around among the shrubs. They've installed telephone, water and power facilities, erected a fancy sign at a strategic location and renovated an old home.
Perry Christensen, the junior partner now, is living with his new wife in St. George. David Christensen, now the senior and managing partner, is using the remodeled house as his office and sometimes home.
They plan to build a model home at The Palisades soon.
"Forty years ago our big adventure was a herd of sheep," David says. "Then two herds, and a bunch of scruffy Herefords. Now it's home sites."
Does he miss the years spent docking lambs and branding calves, paying off bank loans and adjusting to cuts in grazing permits?
"Not much," he said. "But I feel for the men who've stayed with the sheep. They have a rocky road ahead.
"As for me, in a sense I've returned to the place of my roots and I want to share in the new growth and the change."