One of Ranney Ranch's spectacular vistas.
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The spectacular vistas of the 18,000-acre Ranney Ranch are in line for an energy-generating facelift.
One of Ranney Ranch's spectacular vistas.

Thar She Blows? Wind on the Horizon in the American West

Ranching families in New Mexico face a difficult dilemma.

Last week I was in New Mexico attending a conference organized by the Quivira Coalition, a group dedicated to bringing together “ranchers, conservationists, scientists and public land managers around concepts of progressive cattle management, innovative stewardship and improved land health.” The topic of the three-day event was “The Carbon Ranch: Using Food and Stewardship to Build Soil and Fight Climate Change.” It was quite an experience for this city slicker — a confab of cowboy–booted and -hatted ranchers and scientists talking about carbon sequestration and global warming.

Dude for a Weekend

But the real eye-opener came post-conference, when I was the guest of one of its organizers, Nancy Ranney, at her family’s Ranney Ranch in Corona, New Mexico. (Full disclosure: Nancy is married to David Levi, the dean of Duke Law School.) The ranch is a magnificent, roughly 28-square-mile spread of grasslands crisscrossed by mesas and arroyos, purchased in 1968 by Nancy’s father, a businessman-turned-rancher from Chicago. Now Nancy and her siblings operate it.

Wandering over the landscape offers endless surprises: mule deer galore, cisterns erected by homesteaders from the ‘20s, pottery shards and other remains from an old pueblo site, and, high on a mesa, a petroglyph standing guard over the valley below. And everywhere you look, endless, uninterrupted vistas of land and sky. In many ways, I imagine, this land must be pretty much the way it looked to the folks who carved that petroglyph hundreds of years ago. But that is slated to change in the near future in the name of clean energy. But first a closer look at the ranch.

Ranching the Sustainable Way

Nancy and her family are at the forefront of the sustainable ranching movement. The ranch’s specialty is grass-fed beef, and its practices and product have received kudos from some pretty impressive outlets (e.g., Time magazineTime magazine and the New York Times). To raise grass-fed cattle in the arid Southwest requires getting as much as possible out of the land without depleting it. The Ranneys do this using rotational grazing and other land-management techniques that, in the words of Nancy, “try to keep every drop of water that falls on the ranch on the ranch.” (More on rotational grazing [pdf].) Nancy is convinced they are seeing dividends: more diverse grasses, healthier soils with more carbon, and better water retention.

But even so, the ranch, like most of its less sustainably operated neighboring operations, is struggling financially. Though the Ranneys don’t have to pay for feed, they are finding it a challenge to break even. The price of beef is simply not high enough to make raising cattle profitable.

But a Windy Solution Appears on the Horizon

The ranches in this stretch of New Mexico have something else going for them besides wide open spaces — lots of wind. And so energy companies have approached the Ranneys and their neighbors with a deal: the ranchers get lots of dollars and in return the energy companies get to put wind turbines on the mesas and sell the harvested electricity to city folk in, say, Phoenix or Los Angeles.

The offer poses s a difficult choice. The 440 feet of turbines jutting up from the top of 200-foot-tall mesas will profoundly change the landscape, and the noise from those turbines will make it hard to hear the peace and quiet that now descends on this land when the sun sets.

But on the other hand, the energy produced from the mesas will be carbon-free and non-polluting — huge positives. And the money is also a significant consideration. In the words of Nancy’s brother, the money from the wind leases would mean that their land could remain in their family for generations to come and this will mean that the Ranneys’ sustainable stewardship of the land will also be perpetuated.

The ranchers around Corona have banded together as a community to study and consider the offer from the energy companies. And as a community, they have decided to accept the offer and lease their land to the wind developers. If all goes according to the plan, the view from the Ranney Ranch will soon include huge turbines turning in the wind, turbines that will tower above the petroglyph that for hundreds of years sat atop all that it surveyed. It’s a bargain that Nancy and her siblings have made with a heavy heart. It’s progress, but progress that is bittersweet.