This is the second in an occasional series on life on a modern ranch.

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SAN JUAN COUNTY — This spring, Heidi Redd went to India. She'd been invited to a wedding there, and she decided to make a trip of it, stay for three weeks, see the Taj Mahal and celebrate her 65th birthday in an exotic country.

But three weeks proved to be too long to be away. After one week, she says, she was homesick.

Redd has lived for 40 years at the Dugout Ranch. She married a rancher's son and came as a newlywed to what was then a remote part of San Juan County. She has lived for 40 years surrounded by red cliffs.

She and her husband, Robert, bought the place from his family — 5,000 acres, with grazing rights on hundreds of thousands more. The majority of the land their cows graze, 228,000 acres, belongs to the Bureau of Land Management.

In its entirety, the Dugout Ranch stretches over deserts, creeks, mesas and mountains. It is home to rare wildflowers, stands of willow and ancient cottonwoods, wild turkeys, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, Mexican spotted owls, cougars and bears.

Redd didn't know anything about cattle or range management when she came to the Dugout. She'd grown up in Idaho, but as a town girl. She'd majored in education.

Still, she was an adventurer. She'd been the first woman in the sky-diving club at Utah State University. From the beginning, she embraced ranching — learning from Robert and from the seminars that the young couple were always eager to take. She felt this life was the one she'd been born to live.

The Redds had two sons and were happy for a long time. Then, after more than 20 years, they divorced.

Robert moved away. Redd stayed on, a single-mom rancher who had to figure out how she was going to pay her ex-husband for his half of the land.

When they'd started out, the ranch was 20 miles down a dirt road. But the road was paved in the '70s. Two lanes of asphalt now stretch from U.S. 191 past the Redds' houses and corrals, into the Needles entrance of Canyonlands National Park.

The tourists sail by, more of them every year. So Redd has always known the property would fetch a good price from a developer, if she could stand to see it subdivided.

She didn't think she could.

She approached the Nature Conservancy in the early 1990s. As Redd recalls it, no one was too interested at the time. As the Conservancy staff recalls it, they were thrilled from the first. Sue Bellagamba directs the Nature Conservancy's projects in the Canyonlands region and says, "We knew this was a jewel."

At any rate, negotiations and fund-raising began. The land appraised at $6.3 million, and the Redds accepted $4.6 million and a tax deduction.

With the purchase, the Nature Conservancy of Utah took on the biggest project it had ever done. Chris Montague, director of conservation programs, describes it as "300,000 acres representing a chunk of the Greater Colorado Plateau — mountain, midrange, lower desert." He talks about the 42 miles of riparian-rich streams and about the "relic" lands on top of the mesas, places that have never been grazed or settled by humans. He talks of amazing possibilities for research, for making comparisons between the relatively untouched land within the park and the ranchland next to it.

As for Redd, she got a lifetime lease on her home and some surrounding acres, as well as a 10-year lease on the rest of the ranch. In the years since, she has continued to own the cattle and live the way she always lived: branding in the spring; round-ups in the fall; working alongside her sons.

This year, however, the lease is up. What happens next will be a new experience for everyone.

While she was in India, Redd thought about what should happen next. A lot of Americans retire at 65, she found herself thinking. And there have been days when retirement looked great, like "when its 110 degrees and you're tired, when its 20 below and you're tired." On the other hand, she's built her life around the rhythms of the ranch.

Montague says what happens next will be largely up to Redd. In any case, she can go on riding every day, Redd knows. But if she isn't working a herd, she wonders, how would she feel about riding? Would it seem kind of pointless?

If you had gone to visit her this spring, a few days after she returned from India, you would have caught her working the herd — castrating, vaccinating and branding calves — as competent today as she always has been. Her son Adam and wrangler Brad Atkisson worked with her.

It was a noisy scene. The cows were in one corral and the calves were in another, and every animal was bawling for its mama or its baby.

Adam roped. While Adam's horse held the back legs, Atkisson tied the calf's front legs to an inner tube, which was looped around a stake in the ground. The calf was stretched out straight and still.

As it happened, most of the calves were bull calves. Redd worked on them quickly. In seconds she sliced, reached inside, cut again, tossed the testicles away and walked back to the fence where the branding iron was heating.

As they finished a calf, and Adam headed off to rope another, Redd took a few minutes to talk. She leaned against a rail. Behind her stretched an expanse of rabbitbrush and sage.

On land like this, Redd explained, she'd never graze more than one cow per 100 acres. She didn't want to say how large her herd is this year. Later, the BLM confirmed that Redd is allowed to graze 1,004 head. But in fact, according to Nick Sandberg, assistant director of the local BLM office, Redd never runs that many.

Over the years Redd has talked about the size of her herd, giving numbers up to 700. The herd size wouldn't matter except that the Nature Conservancy will likely be more involved with the cattle now. And the way a conservancy uses the land is always of interest to local ranchers.

A year ago several Utah ranchers joined with Garfield and Kane counties to sue the BLM, saying the federal agency unlawfully awarded grazing rights to Canyonlands Grazing Corp., an environmental group bent on ending grazing within the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. The ranchers say the BLM has no right to let the group take taxpayers' land out of cattle production.

There's no fear of the Nature Conservancy ending grazing, says Dave Livermore, director of the Conservancy's Utah office. The Conservancy wants to preserve species but also preserve the ranching way of life.

Ten years ago his office listed three goals for the Dugout Ranch: To preserve ecological and open space; to use the property for ecological research and natural history interpretation; and finally, to maintain an economically viable ranching operation.

Of course "economic viability" isn't easy, even for experienced ranchers. Conservancy staff in Utah say they'll depend on help from Nature Conservancy staff in other states, such as Montana, where the Conservancy actually runs ranches. In Utah, the Conservancy has easements through several ranches. But the Dugout is the only ranch the Conservancy actually owns.

Bellagamba says, "We are beginning a ranch assessment this spring. We have to prioritize. We want to go deeply into it and do everything right." Larger scientific studies will begin in a few years. The topics of those studies will be not just ranching and range management but climate change, impact of recreation, land restoration. Livermore says dozens of researchers — from Utah State University to the U.S. Geologic Survey — are interested in being partners.

Meanwhile, Redd says environmentalists and ranchers are thinking more alike, as the years go by. She knows scientists who deeply appreciate the way ranchers have cared for the land.

Redd herself regularly rests various portions of the BLM land. She cuts the size of the herd during droughts. However, she says, the elk and deer keep on eating. She says her direct competitors are not environmentalists but state fish and game folks who never cut the size of the elk herds, even during droughts.

Redd imagines that if you took a poll, people would say they'd rather see elk on this land than cattle. She says this without any resentment, as she, too, finds beauty in the elk.

She talks quite serenely about all of it, in fact. She explains the ranch assessment the Nature Conservancy is starting up, sounding curious and excited to see what they will learn.

Redd came back from India stunned by the number of people who live in poverty, surrounded by the stench of sewage. For Redd, the land is a touchstone. The whole time she was in India she tried to get a sense of the land and she never could.

She has no doubt she did the right thing 10 years ago. As her lease expires, Redd seems confident that all is well.

The Nature Conservancy's Bellagamba says all options are open, now. One of the Redds could continue with the lease and run cattle on the land. If the Redds want out, another rancher might lease it. Or Bellagamba says, the Conservancy could go into the cattle business. That might be better. It might not be fair to do grazing experiments with a herd that belongs to someone else, she says.

"Adam has first dibs," Redd said, earlier in the spring. However, as of this week, Adam was not sure what "dibs" on a lease means. There have been lots of meetings with the Nature Conservancy, he says. "The Nature Conservancy wants me to stay," he adds.

As the owner of the herd or as an employee? Will his mom still be working cattle? He doesn't know, he says. Montague says the staff will travel to Dugout next week to talk further with the Redds. Montague says the larger scientific research won't begin for a few years at least. The Redd's grazing practices wouldn't be changed anytime soon. Still they need to be able to plan, he says.

Adam's wife, Melinda, looks forward to having things settled. She wants to know if they will continue to raise their boys here.

Harrison, who is nearly 4, and Sawyer, who is 18 months, love this life, Melinda says. Like their uncle and their father before them, the two little Redds run around outside, all day, every day. They are learning to help around the ranch, their mom says.

Of course Heidi Redd has a granddaughter as well. Her older son, Matt, lives in Colorado and has a 7-year-old, Hailey. When Redd talks of the future, she says she would love for her granddaughter to become a rancher.

As to the future of the Redd family as ranchers, well their story is a common story in the West right now. As Livermore explains, "More than 70 percent of the ranches currently in production will change hands in the next 20 years."

The vast majority of U.S. beef cattle spend a portion of their life grazing on public lands. And those public grazing lands lie almost exclusively within the 13 Western states.

The goal should be to keep the land open, Livermore says. When ranches change hands, he says, we should find a way to let sellers profit while at the same time helping the ranching operations to continue.


E-mail: susan@desnews.com