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Standing in the shadow of Zion

Ranching, rodeo and a generational family’s struggle to maintain their Western way of life

The Wright family uses a love of rodeo to keep their other passion, a ranching operation in southern Utah, afloat.
| Weston Colton, for Deseret Magazine

Along a steep, dusty path, Bill Wright reaches a flat enclave of red dirt and scattered rock. In the distance, soaring sandstone walls jut into the glowing evening sky. Up here, among the pinyon pines and sage, it’s quiet. Serene. Almost eerily so.

On a clear day, the horizon stretches some 60 miles south, all the way into Arizona. Bill’s pretty proud of that — and rarely misses a chance to say so. “I still love the scenery and the beauty,” he says, looking out into the arid Eden stretched before him. “I get more attached to it the older I get.”

Bill, now 66, calls this the best view in Utah. It draws him back again and again. He often comes up here with tourists on horseback. And when time allows, he comes up alone. It’s this spot — among the thousands of acres he grazes cattle on Smith Mesa, along the western border of Zion National Park — where he hopes, one faraway day, to be buried.

What gives this place its siren song, even though he’s been up here hundreds of times before? “Oh, I don’t know,” he says. That’s his preferred way to start any answer to any question, his voice deep and syrupy. “Some people don’t understand why I love to be alone out here so much.” But the peace, the silence — he’s known them since he was a boy, since he started coming out here with his dad.

Bill Wright, 66, is part of a family that has grazed cattle on Smith Mesa for seven generations. Now, the family is turning to tourism, too.
Weston Colton, for Deseret Magazine

The view from here doesn’t change. At least it hasn’t yet. The Pine Valley Mountains tower above 10,000 feet to the west. In the east, the jagged cliffs of Zion rise over a grassy, golden valley, as they always have. Bill’s dad, Cal, homesteaded just southeast of here. His Grandpa Wright homesteaded to the northwest. And his great-great grandpa, Joseph Wright, homesteaded 10 miles away in what’s now called the Wright Meadows in the 1800s. He was the first of Bill’s pioneer ancestors to call this area, tucked under the sheer 2,000-foot red-rock formations of the Kolob Canyons, home. Six generations later, the family is still here. Bill quietly hopes that his grandkids will be the seventh.

If they choose to be, that is. And if a whirlwind of evolving legislation, a transforming economy and a changing culture allows them to be. Like many families across the rural West, the Wrights are trying to hold on to an increasingly rare way of life — and a family ranch — as American progress presses on.

Smith Mesa might not stay in the family much longer. Developers and conservationists make regular offers. Signs crowd the winding road from the I-15 exit at Toquerville to nearby Virgin, advertising hundreds of acres for sale. And tourism seems poised to replace agriculture as the area’s dominant financial force, if it hasn’t already. “When I was a kid, you’d come up here for six weeks and wouldn’t see anybody,” Bill says. “Now, you can probably see 30 to 100 outfits per day in late spring.”

Bill has the best view of Utah and of these clashing forces. The ceaseless tide of development and the traditions of his family ranch battle and tug at him from beneath his brown boots. To think, just 50 years ago, he flirted with going a different direction.

The first family of rodeo

Back in the ’70s, Bill nearly pursued a career as a rodeo cowboy. He won a few local contests in his teenage years. In fact, a belt buckle he still wears every day came from an all-around title he won at a high school competition. Right around the time that he and his wife, Evelyn, lifelong Latter-day Saints, were sealed in the Manti temple in 1973, he had saved $4,000 to pursue a full-time rodeo life. Then Evelyn came down with appendicitis, and he spent half of it on her treatment. With his savings drained, he had to choose ranching or rodeo. Ranching was what he knew, and what he chose — even if it contributed to the bills more than it paid them.

Since then, he’s supplemented ranching by breaking horses and pouring concrete, among other odd jobs, while Evelyn, now 64, works as an elementary school teacher. Her job has given their large family access to insurance — which they’ve needed since their sons picked up the sport that Bill left behind. Evelyn and Bill’s oldest son, Cody, discovered Bill’s old rodeo saddles and inherited his fascination, starting with Little Britches Rodeo in the mid-’80s. Cody stuck with it and became the first in a long line of Wrights to make careers of competitive cowboying.

From the Zion Wright Family Ranch, the cliffs of Zion jut into view in the West. The ranch is located just east of the national park.
Weston Colton, for Deseret Magazine

Inside Bill and Evelyn’s home, framed newspaper and magazine clippings exploit every pun of the family name imaginable — “Wright Stuff,” “Wright Place and Time,” “Wrighteous Win” — and posters of all the boys in their chap-covered denim decorate the hallway. It feels more like a shrine than a dwelling. Bill even has a practice arena out back, an oval of chain-link fence held up by rusted white poles. The practice arena is mere steps from the local hospital, for good reason.

Cody now has metal rods in both his legs. His youngest brother, Stuart, has been airlifted to the hospital twice. And Cody’s oldest son, Rusty, can hardly choose his worst injury. He recalls the bull that stomped on his chest as a high school freshman, the collapsed lung, the punctured lung, the broken sternum, and the “bunch of” fractured limbs before finally settling on the compound fracture he suffered in 2016. That one happened when his foot got caught between his butt and his saddle, and his lower left leg snapped and folded over, foot-to-knee. That one hurt his wallet just as much as his leg. To make a living, rodeo cowboys need to compete. There are no salaries in pro rodeo — only prize money.

The goal for any rodeo cowboy is to make enough money over the course of the season to rank among the top 15 in a given event, which earns them an invite to the annual National Finals Rodeo. The NFR is a 10-day event with a high-paying rodeo each night. If a cowboy makes it there, he can multiply his yearly winnings several times over with a few good rides. For example, the 15th-ranked saddle bronc rider entered the 2020 NFR with $52,303 in regular-season earnings. One first-place finish at the NFR would earn him $26,231. The cowboy who ends the year with the most money in each event wins a gold buckle.

Prize money is what the Wrights do best. Cody won his first saddle bronc gold in 2008, then won again in 2010. His success allowed him to invest in the ranch. He now owns about half of the herd. That’s taken some pressure off Bill, who’d endured some rough years on the ranch before Cody came on board. Another of Bill’s sons, Jesse, won in 2012, and another — Spencer — won in 2014. Bill’s grandson, Ryder, catapulted the next generation of Wrights into the spotlight by winning in 2017, and Ryder’s brother, Stetson, followed him by winning the 2019 all-around cowboy award — rodeo’s top prize — given to the cowboy with the most earnings across multiple events. But so far, they’ve invested their earnings elsewhere.

Today, the Wrights are the most decorated saddle bronc-riding family in the world. Their triumphs have landed them an appearance on “60 Minutes,” a book by Pulitzer-winning New York Times writer John Branch, and more prizes and buckles than they could possibly count. That success makes the Wrights better situated than most family ranches in the West, but better is relative. Bill still worries about losing what has long kept his family rooted here to forces he can’t control.

Family farms are dying, and have been dying for a long time. American agricultural infrastructure has shifted toward commercial, large-scale farms, which drive down prices for consumers while driving smaller operations like Bill’s out of business. The economics just don’t add up as they once did, leaving families scrambling to hold onto whatever pieces of their careers, their cultures and their sense of self they can grab. Rodeo, as a competitive mirror of ranching tasks, is one option. And for the Wrights, it’s been a lifeline. “Rodeo’s been important,” Bill says, “for them guys to keep up that lifestyle.” The 2020 NFR illustrates just how important.

Bulls on a baseball diamond

Dust fills Globe Life Field and fogs the lights as Stetson Wright emerges from the locker room. He’s one among three of Bill’s grandkids competing tonight. Because of the pandemic, the 2020 NFR relocated from Las Vegas to Arlington, Texas, at the home of MLB’s Texas Rangers. Stetson’s spurs jingle as he stomps through the curdled orange clay in what would normally be left field, his eyes invisible beneath the brim of his black hat. Tonight, he could win his second all-around cowboy award as well as his first bull riding title. His brother, Ryder, is on the verge of his second saddle bronc world title. And their brother Rusty is also competing; he can’t win a buckle, but a good ride could mean another $26,231. Here to watch is their grandpa Bill, who stands along the right field line, where he’s stationed as a gate attendant. His pose — legs crossed, arms crossed, leaning on the fence — rarely changes, and he almost never claps. “You’ve gotta smile out one side of your face,” he says. “And cry out the other.” Translation: No matter what happens, you can’t get too high or too low.

With their eight-second opportunities approaching, the three Wright boys begin working on their saddles. Their teams resemble NASCAR pit crews. They secure the “flank rope” — a strap that runs under the horse’s abdomen and makes the horse uncomfortable, causing it to buck more vigorously. All three adjust buckles and tweak the saddle location, trying to place it and secure it just tight enough. All three wear the same blue snap-button shirts they always compete in. Perhaps the blue snap-button shirts are a result of Wright family superstition. It’s more likely that they are simply — like much else — tradition.

Cody Wright, 43, was the first Wright to win the World Saddle Bronc title. He’s used his rodeo winnings to invest in the herd, of which he owns half.
Weston Colton, for Deseret Magazine

Stetson opens with a 91 out of 100 in saddle bronc. He’d already had the all-around title just about locked up, but his score punctuates his dominance. Bill, still at his spot along the fence, hardly moves. Rusty finishes with an 86.5, good for fourth in the world saddle bronc standings. Ryder’s up last. He just needs to stay on, avoid disqualification, and he’ll cruise to another saddle bronc title. With his left hand on the chute and his blue eyes tucked under the brim of his hat, he mouths the go-ahead and completes a masterful eight-second ride. His 91-point score ties with Stetson as the round winner, and he’s still panting to catch his breath during his postride interview. His final earnings total $358,470.66, good for the saddle bronc title. Down the right-field line, Bill uncrosses, then recrosses his legs.

About an hour later, Stetson mounts his bull. Eight second later, he hits the clay, stumbles, pops right back up, stretches his arms wide, and points toward the crowd. His 89 squeaks out the win in bull riding by just over $12,000, giving him two gold buckles and prompting the Cowboy Channel announcers to call him the brightest young star in pro rodeo. Bill watches the awards with Rusty. Finally, he claps.

Down in the right-field bullpen, the contestants gather for photos with their winning buckles and saddles. Most of the crowd is gone, save for a handful tossing programs and hats at the competitors for autographs. The official photographer requests a family photo of the Wrights, so all 28 of them crowd into the camera’s lens. They spill outside the pair of gray sheets that are hanging as a background, jostling for position and trying to make sure everyone can crowd in without spilling over the sides of the makeshift background. They can’t. “We’ll just get three backgrounds next time,” the photographer jokes.

It’s moments like these when it all seems to work, when it feels like their Western lifestyle will endure forever. But even the family’s rodeo success isn’t an antidote to the larger forces working against them — and families like them — in the rural West. Few are as elite as the Wrights, and top-level success is difficult to sustain in a decidedly unforgiving sport. Yes, rodeo helps preserve the culture, but what good is that if the culture it’s preserving vanishes into nothing but a Western trope? “By embracing rodeo without embracing the realities of ranching, we’re printing the legend,” Paul Starrs, distinguished professor of geography emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno, says. “And we’re not paying attention to the day-in and day-out, year-in and year-out, decade-in, decade-out ups and downs of livestock ranching.”

Bill Wright travels down the dry wash road about once a week, usually by horse, but sometimes by truck.
Weston Colton, for Deseret Magazine

Big government, small ranches

A few days later, back at Smith Mesa, Bill’s white GMC truck hums down a graded ribbon of uneven dirt that cuts through brush and rock. He calls it the dry wash road. Part of the reason Bill hasn’t seriously considered selling is because he’s worried, given the land’s proximity to a national park and various conservation agreements, that he’d unwittingly get dragged into a lawsuit and lose whatever money he’d gain in the sale. He’s always said he’d only sell if the family would be better off in the aftermath, but that’s more subjective than he’d like it to be. How does one weigh the memories of the past against the promise of the future? “It’d be tough (to leave),” he admits. “The only consoling thing would be we’d feel like we’re betterin’ ourselves.”

Some of the family’s operation has already shifted away from Smith Mesa. Branding day — a de-facto family reunion held every Memorial Day — used to take place at Smith Mesa. Now it happens up in Beaver, where the herd of 200 to 270, depending on the time of year, spends the summer. Traditions, lifestyles, cultures — better to preserve them than land, Bill says. But that doesn’t make the prospect of leaving any easier.

The truck bounces and bobs along the bumpy road, the chassis squeaking as the front dips into a small hole. “Oooh-wee,” Bill says. His great-great grandfather, he explains, ranched cattle along this very same road. The herd is spread across 20,000 acres in this area. But only about 1,200 acres actually belong to the Wrights. Everything else is public lands, loaned to Bill for grazing via a mix of federal and state leases. This kind of arrangement is common for Western ranchers, and government lease prices are generally fair. But the land isn’t theirs, so ranchers live with the possibility of the government refusing to renew their leases, or decreasing their allowed herd numbers because of drought or conflict with an endangered species. “One of the things ranchers hate, more than anything else,” Starrs says, “is unexpected change.”

The federal government owns large swaths of Western states. In fact, the government owns more than half of all the land in Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Alaska and Oregon. The idea of westward expansion became ingrained in the time of Thomas Jefferson. Conquest, Native American displacement and — eventually — agreements like the Louisiana Purchase and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo created a “new frontier” that the government enticed white Americans to settle under the banner of Manifest Destiny. The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, offered 160 acres of government land to anyone who promised to either settle or cultivate it. But in the arid, mountainous West, a lot of land isn’t suitable for farming or settlement — which left it unclaimed and under federal control. Some, however, made use of it by grazing their cattle in the wide-open spaces. But despite its reputation as a ranching paradise, the American West actually isn’t very suitable for grazing, either. “The land is so marginal,” says Starrs, who adds that the Southeast actually has the best climate for ranching. “In Florida, you can graze a dozen cows and calves on an acre of land, pretty much year-round. In eastern Nevada, it’s not uncommon to need 640 acres to graze one cow and one calf year-round. So the ratio of productivity in Florida versus eastern Nevada is tremendous.”

Despite the delicate ecosystem’s natural inability to support livestock, these canyons and desert plains were once a rancher’s paradise — in terms of lagging oversight. “They were pretty profligate about the ways in which they allowed livestock ranchers, at the very start of the 20th century, to use public lands,” Starrs says. “A lot of those public lands were pretty badly abused by ranching. They basically grazed it to the nub.” Which is why nowadays, the federal government only allows a certain amount of grazing on a certain amount of land — to prevent complete environmental destruction. But this creates a fundamental tension, Starrs says. If we know grazing is a bad use for the land, why does it continue? On the other hand, how can you take away land given to ranchers more than 100 years ago? And where does giving land back to Native American tribes fit into all of it?

Cody Wright, 43, is semi-retired from rodeo and spends his days working the ranch or training cattle dogs. Three of his five kids compete in rodeo professionally. His son Ryder is a two-time Saddle Bronc World Champion, and his son Stetson has twice won the All-Around Cowboy title, the highest honor in rodeo.
Weston Colton, for Deseret Magazine

Bears Ears, an undeveloped swath of public lands in southeastern Utah surrounding a towering pair of buttes that resemble bear ears, was designated as Bears Ears National Monument by former President Barack Obama in 2016. The designation pleased environmental groups by offering extra protection for the land, but it worried local ranchers. The designation of a national monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act gives the president the power to ban grazing. It rarely happens (grazing remained in place at Bears Ears), but more federal oversight is a non-starter for ranchers who’ve grazed the land for decades, and they fought back. Less than a year later, former President Donald Trump reduced the size of the national monument by 85%. And President Joe Biden, on his first day in office, began the process of reassessing the boundaries of Bears Ears once more. The ongoing controversy raises the heart of the debate: Who should control public lands? Ranchers, on one hand, can’t sustain their livelihoods without them since the West is largely federal property. On the other hand, public lands are supposed to belong to everyone and reflect what Wallace Stegner called the “geography of hope” — the unspoiled condition through which wilderness rejuvenates and inspires. “Laws have reflected the values of all Americans — not just those few Americans whose great-great grandfather happened to have settled here,” says Tom Butine, board president of Conserve Southwest Utah, “and taken the land away from Native Americans.”

The push to make Bears Ears into a national monument started with Native American tribal leaders seeking to protect their ancestral homeland, rich in archaeology and history, from damage by settlers. Bill’s ancestors homesteaded on land most recently occupied by the Southern Paiute tribe, which was nearly wiped out by 1880 due in large part to interaction with pioneer settlers. The tribe has regained a foothold in recent years, though, and perhaps someday its leaders will stake a similar claim to the land around Zion. Or perhaps the federal government will decide to expand the borders of Zion National Park and push Bill out.

Zion Wright Family Ranch, open for business

Bill continues down the dry wash road. He approaches a cliff’s edge and peers out the window toward the canyon below. “We gotta get some rain or snow,” he mutters. It’s the driest stretch he can remember. Less water means Bill must spend money to supplement his cattle’s consumption. It also throws off birth rates, making the herd’s numbers less predictable. And that’s on top of the economic forces already squeezing him out. “The number of livestock ranchers — whether it’s cattle, sheep or whatever — is down,” Starrs says. “The third son and the fourth daughter are not interested in ranching, and neither are the first and second and third.”

Indeed, small family farms — those that make less than $350,000 in yearly revenue — accounted for 89.6% of all American farms in 2019, per the USDA, but only 21.5% of production. Large family farms — those that make over $1 million annually — and commercial farms, meanwhile, accounted for only 5.1% of farms, yet 57.4% of production. As farming and agriculture have modernized and moved toward new technology and increased efficiency, smaller operations can’t keep up. Cattle ranchers also have more competition from cheap foreign beef flooding the market largely unabated, leading to (fruitless, so far) campaigns to require country-of-origin labeling. And with financial opportunity beckoning elsewhere, the kids of the Wright family have followed the money.

The Wright family uses their horses to work the land and entertain tourists.
Weston Colton, for Deseret Magazine

Running the family ranch once offered a chance to make a stable living using skills passed down from parents to children. But now, the economics no longer make sense — especially for a small-scale operation like the Wrights’ combined with their large family. Bill and Evelyn have 13 kids, 42 grandkids and 15 great grandkids. Their oldest, Selinda, was a prison guard with a criminal justice degree who planned to become a lawyer until health problems sent her off course. Cody did rodeo, invested in the ranch and trains competitive cattle dogs. Laurelee is a dental hygienist in St. George. Calvin shoes and breaks horses as a ranch hand for families all over southwest Utah. Monica is a custodian. Michaela teaches kindergarten. Alex used to ride broncs and pour concrete but now works for his wife’s family’s ranch up in Oregon. Jake recently bought a hog farm near Milford. Jesse worked on an oil rig; now he rides broncs and does construction for his father-in-law. Spencer rides broncs, pours concrete and does leatherwork. Kathryn, who lives in Montana, is also a dental hygienist. Becca is into photography and works at a day care. And their youngest, Stuart, is on his way to becoming a nurse. Twelve out of the 13 went to college in search of economic opportunity and independence that can’t be found working the family ranch. “I didn’t really feel that our family’s ranch is gonna be a long-sustaining thing,” Stuart says. “With as many people as we have, there’s not enough room for everybody.”

Heck, hardly for anybody. Which is why Stuart thinks his best path to preserve his Western way of life — an important goal to him — is through a nurse’s salary. “I do wanna have my own property where I can have my own horses and a little bit of cattle,” he says. “Me and my wife decided we wanted to go into nursing because it pays for the lifestyle. ... There’s just a lot that is entailed with being a rancher now, and you’ve gotta have money for it. Ranching honestly doesn’t pay for ranching.”

Stuart is a bit of a trailblazer in the family. Not only did he look to education over rodeo or ranching; he was also the only of Bill and Evelyn’s children to serve a mission — two years in Ghana. “I knew school had to come first,” he says, “and the same with my service to the Lord.” Bill also serves a mission of sorts. A recovering alcoholic, he’s a group leader for a 12-step recovery program at his ward. Been doing that for three years. He admits he’s strayed from his godly obligations at times during his life, but he’s proud to say he’s found his way back thanks to his family. They’re always around to help, he says, with religion, ranching or anything else. “It’s kinda like having Christ in your life,” his son Calvin observes. “There’s always someone right there.”

For now, though, finding a Wright willing to take on the next generation of the ranching responsibilities hasn’t been a problem. Yes, many have left in search of making their own way, and yes, some aren’t interested. But enough are to keep things humming as Bill tries to usher the ranch into the future. “The Wright family is … just a perfect example of this: They’ve diversified,” Starrs says. “They realized that just raising cattle would work for some really big operations, but very few of them.”

In 2018, Bill opened Smith Mesa as a tourism business venture. At Zion Wright Family Ranch, $35 buys a night of camping in the grassy meadows and $99 gets you two hours of horseback riding guided by Bill himself. It’s a somewhat crude addition — the signs welcoming visitors are hand-painted in white on plywood, with Bill’s personal cell number sketched onto the sign just outside the horse corral. But out here, the crudeness adds to the charm, and the new venture has been a major boost. “It’s changed things,” Bill says. “I’ve probably done as well on that as I have on my cows.”

Due to the pandemic, 2020 in particular was a boon. Business tripled. But many of Bill’s clients come from California, and when California locked down, business nearly collapsed. That’s one reason why he’s not eager to turn Smith Mesa into a dude ranch. Cattle, he’s long believed, are more reliable than people.

By adding horseback tours and campsite rentals, Bill Wright’s nearly doubled his ranch’s income. “It’s changed things,” he says. “I’ve probably done as well on that as I have on my cows.”
Weston Colton, for Deseret Magazine

Where to next?

Not far from the “best view in Utah” is a place Bill calls Lee’s Lookout. Legend has it that John D. Lee, of Mountain Meadows Massacre infamy, hid out nearby while authorities searched for him. He’d climb up to this lookout every day, Bill explains, to scan the horizon for the law’s approach. Bill loves to talk about the legends of his Latter-day Saint heritage, of “Ol’ Porter” and “Ol’ Brigham.” He hopes future generations of Wrights will, too. The question is whether tradition alone will be enough to weather the forces of development, conservation, tourism and finance converging at Smith Mesa.

Bill’s no prophet. He can’t say what’ll happen next. He can’t say what’ll become of this breathtaking landscape. And he surely can’t say if the family ranch will live on past him, though he surely hopes it does. There’s a reason he often answers questions by starting with “I don’t know” — he doesn’t.

No one does.

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

Correction: The print version of this story misstated Ryder Wright’s 2020 saddle bronc winnings. He won $358,470.66, not $320,984.16. The online version has been changed to reflect the correct amount.

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