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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Texas Drought Update

Air Date: Week of

The rain has finally fallen in some parts of Texas - too much in a few places, like Del Rio on the Mexican border, which got 20 inches of rain in 24 hours late last month. After the deluge, some sheep and cattle ranchers said their herds will get enough grass to see them through the winter. But in west Texas, the rains have been few and scattered, and the drought that began in 1993 is still far from over. As Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan reports, season after season of hot, dry weather has taken its toll on the land, and the people who live on it.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The rain has finally fallen in some parts of Texas, too much in a few places like Del Rio on the Mexican border, which got 20 inches of rain in 24 hours late last month. After the deluge, some sheep and cattle ranchers said their herds will get enough grass to see them through the winter. But in West Texas, the rains have been few and scattered, and the drought that began in 1993 is still far from over. As Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan reports, season after season of hot, dry weather has taken its toll on the land and the people who live on it.

(Western music plays. "Baby, keep that fire burning...")

TOLAN: Driving south toward Big Bend country just north of the border, you see a batch of green next to a swath of dirt and twisted mesquite. Then more good grass, followed suddenly by a field of curling brown grass. It's like someone's painted lines to mark where the rain is supposed to go.

(Clinking silverware and ambient conversation)

CHANDLER: We used to get right out here to raise fat cattle. It's just disappeared the last 10, 12 years.

TOLAN: Al Chandler sips coffee at the Ponderosa in Alpine. He's run cattle in this ranch country for the last 30 years.

CHANDLER: Just because we've got rain right now, we made a little grass for winter, we've been in a drought for 5 years. So if it rains again for another 5 years, real good, prices really get up, we'll break even in a 10-year period. You know, we're not going to come out of this drought just because we've got 1 good rain here, what it's rained 2-1/2 months now? That don't mean nothin' here.

TOLAN: The rain is too late for many ranchers here, says Mr. Chandler.

CHANDLER: Guys that own the country, they just sold out, most of them, or cut way, way down. You know, in this country here you don't have...we probably lost 65% of our cattle in Brewster County. The ranchers sold off, just left the ranches. A lot of them retired, quit. There's other things. I got another job; I couldn't do it ranching.

TOLAN: As we talk, Al Chandler reaches back, absently fidgeting with his spurs. It must be pretty stressful, I say. He looks at me funny, shakes his head, pushes back his straw cowboy hat, points at his scalp.

CHANDLER: I used to be black-headed about 3 years ago. Now I'm thoroughly gray. Yeah, you worry about prices, it's stress on everybody. You get up in the morning, you look outside and there's not a cloud in the sky and it stays that way year after year after year. You're feedin', you're fightin', you doing everything you can do to make a living. And then you get some rains and you get to hopin' again, but that's just part of the ranching life out here. It's just hard.

(More ambient conversation and clinking; fades to church organ and preacher on microphone)

McCRAW: While we continue to pray for our land, indeed for rain, it seems such a mixed bag with the supports of our communities getting too much. And all across, we still suffer because there have been those who've been without rain for so long. Pray for them, unselfishly...

TOLAN: At the First Baptist Church in Alpine, Pastor Philip McCraw.

(More organ music)

McCRAW: So we pray this morning for renewal, for revival, for the types of showers that might make us want to worship you more. It might make us zealous to serve you more effectively...

(Fade to piano playing)

TOLAN: After the service, Betty Tanksley, a ranch mother, visits on the church steps. Her son has taken a second job, too, in another part of Texas. He comes home on the weekends.

TANKSLEY: Yesterday, I sat down and figured the rain totals that we had had. We've got rain gauges in probably about 8 or 10 different places scattered out over the ranch. The highest total that I showed in any rain gauge was 5.1 inches for the year. And that's not very much rain.

TOLAN: What's the lowest of those gauges?

TANKSLEY: The lowest was under 2 inches, 1.75. They say the yearly average in this area is supposed to be around 15 inches.

TOLAN: No rain and no grass means skinny, hungry cattle, and ranchers paying out of pocket to keep the cows alive.

TANKSLEY: We have been supplementally feeding. You can only afford to feed so long. Then it becomes economically not possible, but of course cow prices are so bad right now you can't afford to sell out, either.

(Creaking sounds, gates, barking dog)

TOLAN: But now the cattlemen are beginning to sell out, bringing their cows to these stock pens for the 5-hour ride to the auction in New Mexico. The going price now is about 60 cents a pound. Ranchers say that's about what it was 30 years ago, when a pickup truck cost less than $2,500, not $25,000. As ranchers sell their stock, cattle flood the market, driving the price down.

(Footfalls in pens, man shouts, "Whoa, whoa!")

TOLAN: A trucker with an electric cattle prod moves a dozen cows forward from pen to pen, and up a metal ramp into the back of a semi.

(Metal slides)

TOLAN: Business is up for the shippers and for the slaughterhouses and the giant meat packers, who mark up the 60 cent beef until it reaches a few dollars a pound in the supermarket.

(A motor revs up, fidgeting cows on metal)

MOORE: The traditional rancher, we believe, is slowly being driven out of the marketplace and out of business.

TOLAN: David A. Moore, president of the First National Bank in Alpine.

MOORE: So, we're going to see a liquidation. They'll probably sell an awful lot of cows this fall. Those that are fortunate enough to have some grass will carry over some calves until the spring in hopes of a better market. But there are not going to be a lot of those that have that luxury.

TOLAN: The ones who do have that luxury are the oil men and investment bankers and CEOs from Houston and Dallas, who are buying up the ranches as locals go under, converting the land to dude and hunting ranches and places to watch wildlife. If the land's not making any money, they can get a healthy tax write-off, too.

MOORE: Over the last 5 years or so, we in West Texas have seen a dramatic change in the type of ownership of our ranches here.

TOLAN: The Nature Conservancy has bought prime ranch land as well, and that land is getting rain, bringing good grass back as other ranchers look on with longing.

MOORE: We have one customer who unfortunately, because our rains have been very spotted, very isolated in areas, his ranch has been totally missed. It looks like the top of my desk, it's so dry, and he will be liquidating.

SCHOENFELD: At this point, this drought, I've been fighting it for 3 years waiting for the elusive rain, and it hadn't worked. And so I made a decision about the 15th of August that, you know, if I didn't have some real serious grass growing, I was going to have to bite the bullet and try to eliminate my herd.

TOLAN: Twenty miles north of the bank, Roddy Schoenfeld sits in his truck cab surrounded by hungry cows.

(Truck engine, lowing cow)

SCHOENFELD: Cause, as long as I've got them, I've got to keep them watered and fed, and at this point that's what we're doing right here.

(Wheels over pebbles, scratching sounds)

TOLAN: Roddy Schoenfeld eases his pickup down a dirt track, yanking a rope connected to a feed dispenser in the back. Hard pellets scatter on hard earth. The cows run up to greet them. They move across the ranch this way, looking for cows, driving over land in parts so dry that cactus are dying. So overgrazed it looks like a parking lot. The cows beat up the land pretty good. With the next rains, the rivers could run with topsoil. Roddy held too many cows out of the market for too long, just waiting, watching it rain all around him. But now, the waiting will stop.

SCHOENFELD: I got to take a load a day, was telling a guy I've got to allow them to go out. And he said, "What are you going to do, Roddy?"

TOLAN: Mr. Schoenfeld sits at the kitchen table in his log house, beneath a mounted buffalo head flanked by giant flags of Texas and the USA.

SCHOENFELD: And I said, "Well," just jokingly, about half-serious, I said, "Well, I guess go to town and pump gas." I got about halfway from town without having a ranch and I started grinning and I thought, "Well, you dummy," (laughs) "the heck, there aren't any fools, who's going to hire you to pump gas? There isn't any fool service gasoline stations any more, you know? You'll have to figure out something else to do now, you know."

TOLAN: For years he's cooked around a campfire for cattle roundups. Now he's beginning to take that talent to some of the new landowners and their ranches, and the tourists who come there.

SCHOENFELD: That may be my salvation. That may be the only way I can spend the rest of my years in a semblance of what I used to do, is by working for one of these outfits that's doing something like that, you know? Tourism.

TOLAN: In the next few months, Roddy Schoenfeld will sell off his last cow and wait for the rains to return and the grasses with them. It's hard to imagine grass coming back on some of that rock, but he says the land is resilient. When it does, if it does, maybe he'll have the cash to buy some cows back, or maybe he'll be catering to the rich, hauling his chuck wagon to a nearby tourist ranch, singing songs around the campfire while the grass grows back on his own land, green and vacant.

SCHOENFELD: No, it's not a bad deal. It's not the end of the world. But I'm going to go screaming and kicking.

(A guitar twangs)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan in Alpine, Texas.



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