Mountain Characters: Wayne Ives had front row to the changing West as range manager
Wayne Ives is truly home on the range.
For more than three decades he served as a range technician for the U.S. Forest Service in the Aspen and Sopris ranger districts, which are now merged into one. He helped determine where ranchers could run their cattle and sheep on public lands in the high country and at what time of the summer. He oversaw the public grazing allotments from the summit of Independence Pass to the classic cow country of Thompson Divide.
He remembers the era when cattle were commonplace on Buttermilk Ski Area during summers and sheep called Difficult Creek and Lincoln Creek home.
Ives spent as much time in the field as he could — checking out conditions with the ranchers who held grazing permits. They would check on fences and gauge the suitability of the grasses. He had to make sure areas weren’t getting overgrazed or that water resources weren’t permanently damaged.
Ives was on a horse as often as possible and off the beaten track more often than not. He’s not one to toot his horn, but he acknowledged that he’s seen a lot of outstanding backcountry terrain.
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“I’m pretty familiar with the valley,” he said with a grin. “I haven’t been everywhere.”
Ives retired in September after 35 years of full-time service with the Forest Service. He was hired as a seasonal worker in 1976 and taken on a few years later full time as a range technician. Forest Service workers at that time had to be able to do a little bit of everything — from fighting fires to providing a friendly face at campgrounds.
Although Ives missed the ranching heyday in the Roaring Fork Valley, he still had a ringside seat for the transformation of the valley from a rural area dominated by farms and ranches to a recreation juggernaut. He witnessed the changing of the guard from the Old West — based on grazing, logging and mining — to the New West, centered on tourism.
Just as he was joining the Forest Service, there were four or five bands of sheep grazing forest lands in the Marble area and three or four grazing in the high country around Aspen, he said. Now, just one sheep-grazing permit remains active in the Marble area. There’s nothin’ with mutton around Aspen, anymore.
Cattle-grazing permits dropped during his tenure but not nearly as drastically as sheep grazing.
“It’s nothing the Forest Service did. It was land values,” he said.
As rural lands in Pitkin County soared in value in the 1970s and ’80s, many of the ranching families sold out. Their grazing permit on national forest became available, but not all of them were acquired by remaining ranchers.
The number of grazing permits in the district has remained steady over the years.
“I get the feeling that the people that are in it are here to stay,” Ives said.
The 2014 annual report for the White River National Forest said there are 89 grazing allotments on the forest covering 337,000 acres. That includes the Rifle and Rio Blanco ranger districts, where ranching still thrives.
Ives said there were 18 active grazing permits in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District when he retired in the fall. In a December 2011 article in The Aspen Times, Ives said there were about 202,000 acres in the district open to domestic livestock grazing. In 1985, there were about 100,000 more acres open to grazing than in 2011. It fell so drastically because of the changing economics of ranching rather than the Forest Service withdrawing lands.
However, the agency has made sure that grazing is more sustainable. Parts of the White River National Forest were probably overgrazed in 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Ives said. Cattle were allowed on public land much earlier in the year than today.
“They just followed the snow up,” Ives said. “The theory was if there was any grass left (by fall), it was wasted.”
Ives said he enjoyed working with the permit holders to craft plans that helped their operations without hurting public lands. In general, cattle are allowed into high-country pastures in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District from mid-June until early October, right before deer and elk hunting seasons start. However, adjustments are constantly made because of heavy snow years and droughts. A severe drought in 2002 required the Forest Service to “rest” pastures, he said.
The Forest Service also worked with ranchers to help them hold onto grazing permits. Permit holders are required to use their allotment to the full extent or risk losing it. During periods of drought, ranchers often cut their herds to survive tough economic times, then rebuild the herds back when they can. The Forest Service can acknowledge those conditions and work with ranchers.
Ives said sustainable ranch management also means guiding livestock to different ground within an allotment.
“The same ground isn’t being grazed year after year,” he said.
Ives also helped with range reclamation projects. One particularly notable project is in Coal Basin, west of Redstone. Large tailings piles from coalmines were devoid of vegetation and susceptible to erosion. Dirt runs off into Coal Creek, which runs into the Crystal River. The Forest Service worked with a rancher in a demonstration project of high-intensity, short-duration grazing. Cattle were confined to a small area, covered in hay and allowed to stomp seed into the ground and fertilize.
“It’s showing some promise,” Ives said.
Though he is now retired, Ives helped lead a tour recently for public-range managers from across the state in the Roaring Fork Valley. They were checking out effective high-altitude, range-management practices. It was a testament to Ives’ hard work and the Forest Service’s commitment to sustainable practices.
“I am pretty proud of my career and the Forest Service mission,” Ives said.
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