Local journalist Hilary Sloane took me up to the The Rattlesnake Ranch in Johnson Valley, north of Joshua Tree on my first weekend in the Mojave Desert. It’s the home of Billy Mitchell and his family who have been ranching in the region for generations. It was an amazing experience to meet some true Cowboys.
The following are Hilary’s words as she describes it beautifully.
Less then a decade ago there were 16 ranching families in Lucerne Valley. Now there are six. There are constant changes in policy for grazing rights and leases have to be renegotiated every 10 years.
“We didn’t have problems with the environmentalist until 1983,” Billy said. He has been in Washington, D.C., this year lobbing for ranchers’ rights. He can’t say what brought on the change, but he is hoping to find a way for ranchers and environmentalists to work together. “Many environmental groups work well with us.” Billy says. The current lawmakers on both sides of the political fence are working hard to find equitable answers to these age-old problems, but the problems, for now, persist. Is this public land? Does the BLM have the right to give out the land for grazing?And, where and how are rights distributed?
On branding day at Billy’s ranch, everyone is given a job. The women cook, the children ride, round up, rope or feed the strays. Billy can no longer do many of the physical tasks. He sits upon his horse and oversees the action like a well-seasoned director. As hard as ranching is, Billy rarely complains. “My life is blessed,” he says. When all the cattle are branded, everyone gathers by the house. Homegrown beef is barbecued; someone brought salsa, guacamole, and beans. There is plenty of beer and even a private bottle of whiskey. Billy says a prayer before they eat. He thanks God for the cattle, his family, friends, the land and the animals.