From Generation to Generation, Pt. 1

From Generation to Generation, Pt. 1

Conservation and collaboration were tenets of the ranches long before 1993.

by Jeremy D. Krones

Herb Metzger (L) of the Flying M Ranch and Ernest Chilson (R) of the Bar T Bar Ranch, at the Moqui cabin on Bar T Bar.

“Well, it just needs rest. It needs rest from livestock; it’ll come back. It has lots of potential.”

That’s what Napoleon Warren “Boss” Chilson, Judy Prosser's grandfather, said when he purchased the property of what is now the Bar T Bar winter country, around Meteor Crater next to I-40, between Flagstaff and Winslow.

Conservation is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “a careful preservation and protection of something, especially planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.”

Focusing on the ‘planned management’ part of that definition is exactly what the Diablo Trust advocates when it comes to conservation. The ideals of the Trust and the ranches that founded it didn't just appear at the founding meeting in 1993: conservation was a central tenet to the ranching philosophies of both Herb Metzger and Ernest Chilson, the previous generation of owners of the Flying M and Bar T Bar ranches, respectively.

Now it’s just as important to the current generation of ranchers: Kit Metzger and Diana Kessler on the Flying M, and Bob and Judy Prosser on the Bar T Bar.

Kit’s general philosophy when it comes to conservation on the ranch is much like her father’s: “Take care of your land and take care of your cattle.”

Herb, she says, was always involved in landscape conservation, starting down in the Beaver Creek watershed, closer to Camp Verde than Flagstaff. There, he advocated removing the encroaching cedar trees, much like the ranchers do today on their land.

“Bare ground was – and still is – everybody’s enemy,” she says, referring to the ‘clearing’ effect of junipers (Cupressaceae juniperus) on the land: as they grow, the trees suppress understory growth and over time many grasslands can turn into large swaths of bare ground under the low canopy, which is not very well-liked by livestock or wildlife.

Bare ground is also a poor "sponge," Kit says, meaning that it does not allow for water infiltration. Erosion and water run-off can be big issues in areas without diverse grasses, shrubs, and forbs on the landscape. They change the texture of the soil, which allows water to soak into the ground.

When Herb moved back up north to what is now the Flying M Ranch, which started with the original homestead at Ashurst Run, across Lake Mary Road from Mormon Lake, he acted quickly to revert it to healthy grassland.

Most of the homesteads in the area had been growing hay for the horses of the timber industry. When the industry went mechanical, the homesteads lost their primary source of income and had to sell, leaving behind pastures with little to no vegetation. Herb worked to grow native plants for his cattle.

Herb also accomplished this through what Kit calls "good water development." According to Herb, if you have to build a water stock tank, build a big one. That way you only have to build once, and you can leave much of the pasture undisturbed from the construction of new tanks.

Kit continues the effort by working with the US Forest Service, AZ State Land Department, and AZ Game and Fish Department to remove junipers and restore the grasslands that generations of ranchers have relied on and generations more will value.

Juniper removal is also done on the Bar T Bar Ranch; aside from practicing proper grazing management like her father and grandfather did, Judy and Bob also advocate partnership with their respective agencies. “[Ernest] was proactive with land, water, and infrastructure projects, and was always willing to pay his share of whatever the cost was. He was a really forward thinker.”

One example of that was his foresight about fire suppression on the forest. Ernest felt there were too many trees and an encroachment of ponderosas, and that the Forest Service was allowing it by advocating fire suppression too frequently. He knew that too many trees would not only result in wildfires, but also reduce the amount of forage for livestock and wildlife, like the turkey and mule deer.

A modern solution to this issue is the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, a Forest Service-led restoration effort on over 2.4 million acres of the Kaibab, Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves, and Tonto National Forests.

He had similar concerns about the high numbers of elk, which had been brought to the area from Yellowstone in the first half of the 20th century, and advocated on behalf of more native wildlife. Ernest just believed strongly in holistic management of the land, taking into account all users, ranging from the ranchers to the turkeys.

That belief permeates the generations, and there are many more lessons he and Herb taught their children about ranching, land and resource management, and conservation. Stay tuned for more!