Holistic range management at Big Bluff Ranch

Sustainable practices now enhanced by conservation easement

Tyler Dawley points to a bald eagle flying past as his parents, Vicky and Frank Dawley, look in that direction. The family built the lake behind them for use as a reservoir for their Big Bluff Ranch as well as an attraction for hunters and fishermen. A small cabin is available for rent. The dog, Gucci, is an Akbash, a Turkish breed developed to live with and guard flocks of sheep.

Tyler Dawley points to a bald eagle flying past as his parents, Vicky and Frank Dawley, look in that direction. The family built the lake behind them for use as a reservoir for their Big Bluff Ranch as well as an attraction for hunters and fishermen. A small cabin is available for rent. The dog, Gucci, is an Akbash, a Turkish breed developed to live with and guard flocks of sheep.

Photo By Robert Speer

Big Bluff Ranch: www.bigbluffranch.com
Tyler Dawley: www.barbarosa.com
The Foragers: www.theforagers.com
Holistic range management: ww.holisticmanagement.org.
Allan Savory: www.savoryinstitute.com

Spend some time with Frank and Vicky Dawley, owners of Big Bluff Ranch in far western Tehama County, and the conversation eventually will come around to how they met and fell in love. It’s an oft-told family tale that reveals, more than any deed of trust could, their deep connection to the land.

The ranch comprises 2,776 acres of rolling hills, grasslands and oak woodlands, bordering the Mendocino National Forest and the Coast Range. It’s reached from Red Bluff via 25 miles of increasingly twisty roads until finally the last road turns to dirt and ends at ranch headquarters—two houses, some metal storage barns, a century-old wood barn and a yurt.

The ranch is three miles from the nearest electricity line, so it produces its own power from solar and a small hydroelectric plant, augmented by a backup generator. It’s also the last house on the telephone line.

The Dawleys’ son, Tyler, lives in the yurt with his wife, Holly, who is expecting their first child around the Fourth of July. Frank and Vicky live in the cozy main house, which they built themselves. The second, smaller house is for guests.

I came to the ranch because the Dawleys had recently signed an agreement putting their ranch into a conservation easement, meaning they had pledged never to subdivide it. The Burrows family, which owns the neighboring ranch, also had signed such an agreement. Together, the agreements ensured that two working ranches and more than 7,100 acres of contiguous rangeland—habitat for legions of plant and animal species—would be protected forever.

I wanted to know why the Dawleys had made such an irrevocable commitment.

Joined by Tyler, we sat and talked at their dining table, which is flanked on two sides by large windows looking out on fields and trees.

How the Dawleys met is one of those small-world stories that are so unlikely you’re amazed they’re true.

When the previous owners put Big Bluff Ranch up for sale in 1959, Frank’s father was interested in it, and the family drove up from their home in Santa Barbara for a look-see. Frank and his sister loved the place and entreated their father to buy it, but he opted instead for a spread in Shasta County.

The following year Vicky’s father, Newell Partch, a successful businessman in Berkeley, and mother, Anne, purchased the ranch as a family getaway spot. A hired manager ran the cattle operations.

More than a decade later, Frank’s father encountered the real-estate agent who’d shown him Big Bluff Ranch and asked who’d bought it. Turns out Frank’s mother had known the Partch family when she was growing up in Southern California. One weekend, returning to Santa Barbara from their ranch, the Dawleys stopped at Big Bluff Ranch to visit the Partches.

That’s when Vicky and Frank met. She was 16; he was 22. “And that was it,” she said, smiling.

The couple stayed in touch until she joined him at UC Davis. They married in 1974, when she was 19 and he 25. The following year, the ranch manager quit. Frank and Vicky decided to take a year off from college to live on the ranch and keep things running.

They never went back to Davis. Instead they started having children. Tyler, 32, is the oldest. The couple’s two daughters, Valerie and Margo, live elsewhere but come home often “to charge their batteries,” as Vicky put it. All three children graduated from Claremont McKenna College in Southern California.

It helped that Frank had studied horticulture and viticulture at UC Davis and Vicky had majored in plant science. Even with those backgrounds, they had a lot to learn about running a cattle ranch.

Cows can be hard on land, overgrazing it and tearing up streambeds. When the Dawleys learned of a practice called “holistic range management,” they decided to investigate.

Developed by a Zimbabwean rancher named Allan Savory, it emulates the natural patterns of grazing animals by carefully moving livestock from place to place on a piece of land. That way grazing areas are allowed to rest and recuperate, water sources build up, and the land flourishes.

Unlike most local cattle ranchers, the Dawleys don’t truck their cows to higher pastures in the summer. By limiting head count, carefully moving the herd around and irrigating some pastureland, they are able to sell their meat as high-end “grass-fed” beef.

Over time, Frank said, they observed “a bunch of collateral benefits that kind of opened our eyes.” Once-seasonal creeks began running year-round, native plants flourished, the whole place seemed more alive, healthier.

Seeing the benefits of holistic management, the Dawleys’ neighbors, the Burrowses, also began using it, with similar results.

It was a natural progression to go from that to a conservation easement, Tyler said. “We have encapsulated our beliefs about stewardship into the easement.”

The agreements were midwifed by Chico-based Northern California Regional Land Trust and funded by the California Wildlife Conservation Board in the amount of $3.9 million, split between the Dawleys and the Burrowses. It’s the largest easement in the 20-year history of the trust.

Frank and Vicky didn’t see a dime of the money, however. She used her share to buy out her three siblings and their interests in the ranch, thereby avoiding the kind of succession battle that tears apart so many farm families and breaks up ranches like theirs.

“I have to give a lot of credit to my family for hanging in there,” Vicky said. “We were determined to stay amicable.”

They are now gradually passing control of the ranch to Tyler so they can retire, though it’s hard to imagine Frank, who’s a vigorous 61, sitting around when there’s work to be done. Vicky, who’s 55, has a day job she enjoys as manager of the Tehama County Resource Conservation District, so they’re in no hurry.

Tyler, a rangy man with a thick reddish-brown beard, majored in literature in college and had no plans to stay on the ranch, but he found that at every school break he was eager to come home. “I didn’t recognize how closely I was attached to here until I left,” he explained.

He’s reinvented the ranch’s business model somewhat, adding sheep and pigs, and direct-marketing his meat at farmers’ markets and via an online subscription service (www.theforagers.com) that he operates with a Chico-based partner, John Raftery.

Meanwhile, Big Bluff Ranch has diversified. It’s long operated a hunting club, and since building a 25-acre lake a number of years ago, it offers fishing and overnight stays at a small cabin there. It all fits together, Tyler said: “This way we can loop taking care of people with taking care of the land.”