Monday, Dec. 17, 2007 | Used to be that Jim Kemp would run cows along dirt paths from Campo north to Mount Laguna and south to Mexico. But then the roads through the region were paved, so he began using them to move the cows from pasture to pasture.

“Now, I shudder just to drive them across the highway,” he says, speaking quietly, his voice carrying a hint of Jack Palance gravel.

At 77 years old, Kemp is a remnant of a once-vibrant breed. Cattle ranchers, dusty denim and spur-wearing cowboys, are fading into San Diego County’s history. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of cattle farms in the county dropped 40 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 1975, the USDA says the number of cattle dropped from 61,000 to 22,000.

Ranchers who ran 6,000 cattle a few decades ago are lucky to run 300 today. Higher land prices and the region’s dry climate have transformed ranching from a full-time business into a supplemental job.

The transition has had significant implications for development and conservation, a trend that continues while ranching endures its long and sustained decline. For more than a century, ranching has defined much of San Diego County’s landscape. Look no further than the place names given to the region’s neighborhoods: Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Peñasquitos, Otay Ranch.

As ranching continues becoming less profitable and prolific, many wonder what will take its place. The decline has historically provided opportunities for housing subdivisions. But tighter county zoning laws and massive efforts to buy ranchland for parks and open-space preserves have changed that over the last 15 years.

“When the first settlers came out, they tried raising sheep,” says Larry Johnson, an in-law of Kemp’s and a Campo resident. “Then a tough winter storm came through and killed thousands of sheep. Then they went to cattle and cattle worked for a long time. Things are shifting again.”

Kemp’s land has been in his family since his grandparents left England and settled in California in the late 1800s. “We’ve owned the land forever,” he says. Still, the phone occasionally rings with a developer asking the same question: Want to go in on a housing project?

Kemp isn’t sure what to do with his property. He wants to leave it to his son, and he has weighed whether to sell some for conservation. Developing is an option, too, though Kemp calls it “selling out.”

“This land here, if you want to sell it, you’ll find a buyer,” he says. “A lot of people don’t have any alternative. If the bank’s rattling on your door, you don’t have much choice. I hope we put ourselves in a position that we don’t have to do that.”

Economics and Environmentalists

On a foggy morning west of Ramona, Steve Tellam and more than a dozen friends covered in chaps and spurs, button-downs and denim, gather around a corral and cheer each other on.

Twelve men stand inside the corral lassoing calves to be castrated and dehorned. All but two of the men have gray hair.

A handful are ranchers, others work horses for a living. Those whose lives revolve around cattle are frank when they talk about their future. When Tellam was a high school senior, his family ran 6,000 cows on 13 ranches. Today, Tellam is 52 and his family has 280 cows. They no longer brand them. They don’t need to. No other farms or cows are nearby.

The family used to raise cattle from “womb to tomb,” Tellam says, from the time they were born until they went to slaughter. Today, they just raise calves, selling the young cows to feedlots across the West, a practice that minimizes the amount of grazing pasture the herd needs.

Ranching is no longer a full-time income. Tellam trains horses and works horse events on weekends; his brother ranches and has a firewood business on the side. “It’s the dying West, you might say,” Tellam says.

After lassoing dozens of calves, Wayne Bryan sidles up and diagnoses the industry’s problem in a word. “Economics,” he says.

Spike Alford, a 70-year-old Mesa Grande rancher who traces his family’s lineage to the Mayflower, jumps in.

“Environmentalists,” he says, holding a cold beer in hands still stained with cow blood. “The county and state are trying to take all the land.”

As they say this, the men stand on land owned by The Nature Conservancy. The nonprofit environmental group and other agencies have acquired 3,300 acres of grasslands around Ramona in part to protect the Stephens’ kangaroo rat, a tiny rodent listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The acquisition of the land and subsequent lease to Tellam’s ranching operation makes for an unusual alliance. Not all conservationists agree that ranching is good for the land. But with ambitious goals for conserving habitat throughout the county, responsible grazing can be a helpful management tool, says Mike White, San Diego director of the Conservation Biology Institute in Encinitas. He points to the Ramona grasslands as an example of how ranching can benefit some species. The endangered rat likes the bare ground maintained by grazing cows.

“I don’t think you can buy everything that you would like to keep in some sort of open space,” White says. “For us, a well-managed cattle ranching operation is the next best thing.”

Other conservationists say grazing causes too much harm to native plants to be beneficial to the majority of species. If ranching is a tool in the toolkit, then it’s “the rusty screwdriver that will likely break in your hand,” says David Hogan, conservation manager for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group.

“It’s a false choice, cows or condos,” Hogan says. “There’s not going to be Rancho Bernardo-style development in Campo or Santa Ysabel, even if all of the ranches go under.”

With county zoning rules in place to prevent widespread tract housing, Hogan says building homes and removing cows can sometimes benefit plants and animals. Clustered housing, with open space and land dedicated to conservation, can have less impact than grazing, he says.

“We’ve got to get away from this whole thing that ranchers are stewards of the landscape and their presence is a positive,” says Rick Halsey, director of the Escondido-based California Chaparral Institute, which aims to educate about the benefits of native vegetation. “Wherever the cattle are, it wipes out the natural system and replaces it with weeds. The only way any of these systems are going to recover is by removing these animals.”

‘It Changes Everything’

For sale signs shout from the sides of Campo’s winding roads: 40 Lot Subdivision Now In Progress. Your own slice of the backcountry is just a phone call away.

Down the road from Jim Kemp, a property owner is developing plans to build homes atop a long-time cattle ranch 50 miles east of San Diego. Star Ranch, as it is called, aims to expand the town center of tiny Cameron Corners. In addition to commercial space, the project would build 460 homes, condos and senior housing on part of a 2,150-acre ranch.

Doug Paul, the project’s developer, says selling the homes will allow the ranch to continue operating, even though the business is no longer economically attractive. The development will occur on about 300 acres, he says, leaving the rest as open space for grazing.

He believes the ranching operation can be a marketing tool to entice prospective homeowners. “They can feel like they are part of the agricultural environment,” he says. “That will be the amenity and the attraction to the community.”

Some worry the project will clear the way for more development. Paul says the community’s sewage-treatment plant is old and should be rebuilt and expanded. He’d be happy to help pay for it. Doing that could remove a bottleneck for development.

Those who work to conserve land in the backcountry say the housing project typifies the development they are most concerned about.

“Star Ranch is the perfect example. It changes everything,” Mike White says. “You should be putting those people in the city as opposed to pushing the envelope back into the country. If Star Ranch happens and they put in a sewage treatment facility, forget it. Katy bar the door. Campo is toast.”

Though many ranches were developed as the region grew, the industry’s decline in recent years has given land conservation a massive boost. Since the early 1990s, former ranchers have sold property to land trusts and local and state governments at an unprecedented rate.

From the slopes of Volcan Mountain to the flats around Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, more than 60,000 acres of land has been conserved across the county. Most of the parcels were former ranches, says Philip Pryde, emeritus geography professor at San Diego State University.

“Cattle ranchers have been good stewards of the land over the last 150 to 200 years,” says Tom Oberbauer, chief of San Diego County’s habitat conservation program. “But the sale of lands has resulted in preservation.”

The Faltering Legacy

Just outside Escondido, San Diego County’s last intact Mexican land grant — an 1845 gift from a Mexican governor to a loyal follower — faces an uncertain future. The 21,400-acre Rancho Guejito (wah-HEE-toh) has been ranched for decades. Today, its owners have explored different options for its development, including a potential annexation by Escondido.

The fates of other land grants like it have long been decided. One became Camp Pendleton, another turned into Rancho Bernardo. Conservationists who hope to preserve Rancho Guejito say it is an example of the challenge they increasingly face. Land has been handed down through generations, diluting family ties that date to the original homesteaders. The Guejito’s owners aren’t ranchers, have only owned the land a few decades and no longer live on the property.

“The fact that we’re seeing this now is a logical extension of how families are born and die,” Halsey says. “You’ve got third-generation, fourth-generation people now, and they don’t give a damn. And it’s going to get worse as time goes on.”

Steve Tellam’s father ran cows on the Guejito for decades. Tellam has roamed that property since he was 13, knows it like the back of his hand, he says, from the highest peak to the most remote canyon.

“There’s no other place like it,” he says. “It’s like a step back in time. Escondido’s on one side, Valley Center on another. You can just go up there on that ranch and it’s isolated enough you can go back in time.”

And still, even he is torn about what should happen to it — or to any of the remaining ranchland in San Diego County. He believes in property rights, in the right to develop. But he’d hate to see the Guejito chopped up and sold in parts.

Like the Guejito’s faltering legacy, ranching isn’t being passed down, either. Across San Diego County, all the slaughterhouses have vanished. Cowboys are fading away, too. Tellam has no children; his only nephew has no interest in the business.

“My idols in my growing up, you’re 14 and they’re in their 50s, 60s and 70s,” Tellam says. “You think that sure is a long ways away. There aren’t that many old timers left. And now I’m getting to be one of those old timers.”

He sees it coming, the disappearance of ranchers like him. With it will go the knowledge of how to properly graze land, he says, or how much protein you’ll find in certain grasses. Some day, he reckons, folks will want to control the spread of weeds, and they’ll want to turn to ranchers to do it.

But once the knowledge is lost, Tellam says, it’s gone forever.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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