Spectacular Dugout Ranch: Cows plus science

July 2, 2016 GMT

MONTICELLO, San Juan County — The Dugout Ranch still has its spectacular world-renowned beauty, but it isn’t quite the same as it was when Heidi Redd first saddled up a half-century ago.

She now rides herd on a ranch that’s evolved into one of the most unusual in Utah.

“It’s a spiritual connection,” she said while riding across a pasture. “It’s a magical land, and I’ve been very, very blessed to have spent 50 years here.”

Scientists at the ranch about 20 miles northwest of Monticello are currently monitoring 4,000 young cottonwood trees that volunteers planted last year as part of an elaborate climate experiment. It’s just one of several research projects aimed at the future of ranching and the health of Western landscapes in the face of climate change.

“How can we help decisionmakers, ranchers, producers better be prepared for a warmer and drier world?” explained Sue Bellagamba, who oversees the ranch on behalf of its owner, the Nature Conservancy.

The Dugout Ranch scenery is so stunning that prospective buyers a generation ago included wealthy celebrities like Ralph Lauren and Christie Brinkley. But on any given day you’re still likely to find Redd where she’s most at home — in the saddle. Officially, she retired a year ago, but that hasn’t ended her ranching career.

“It’s always in your heart,” she said. “To hang up the stirrups, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.”

The Redd family sold the ranch in 1997 — not to well-heeled outsiders or developers, but to the Nature Conservancy, a land preservation group. Part of the deal was that Heidi Redd would stay on for life, managing the ranch.

The Nature Conservancy has preserved it as a working ranch, although 1,000 cows have been cut to 500. But now there are things you’d be unlikely to see on any other ranch.

“We knew that this was going to be a great sustainable cattle ranch,” Bellagamba said, “but we also knew that this landscape had another future.”

The ranch is now the home of the Canyonlands Research Center, which is focused on adapting Western rangeland to climate change. There are experimental plots for growing several varieties of grasses and for monitoring different types of biologically active soil crusts.

“They stabilize and build the soil,” explained Matt Redd, Heidi Redd″s son. He now manages the ranch following his mother’s formal retirement a year ago. “I still consider it my home and feel honored to live in such a place,” he said.

One project on the ranch involves so-called pack rat middens. Scientists have been excavating the debris piles where pack rats have stored hundreds of years of biological clues to a changing climate.

A year ago, Heidi Redd helped volunteers as they launched one of the most ambitious experiments, planting 4,000 cottonwood trees. The species provides much of the greenery in the West as it flourishes on the banks of desert creeks and rivers. The long-term worry is that climate change could drastically affect the cottonwoods.

“They’re oases for lots of organisms, from insects to birds and small mammals,” said Kevin Grady who leads a team from Northern Arizona University. The researchers have planted two other experimental cottonwood farms in widely varying locations, using cuttings from mature cottonwoods that display a variety of different genetic traits.

“We think that with climate change,” Grady said, “what you’ll see is some genotypes responding negatively and some responding positively.”

With better information about which plants do best, Grady hopes ranchers and land managers might be able to spread the right plants to the right places so they’ll thrive in a warming climate.

“I don’t want to lose species on my watch while I’m alive,” Grady said. “I want my children to enjoy the nature that I’ve enjoyed.”

The Redd family is comfortable with the new direction their ranch has taken because they believe it points the way to the future.

“I think it can be important in really allowing us to have sustainable operations,” said Matt Redd.

“It behooves all of us, whether we’re in the cattle industry, or whatever, that we get ahead of what’s coming with climate change,” Heid Redd said. “I just think it is a wonderful opportunity for me as rancher to be able to help save this beautiful landscape.”