Matters of Scale

On a cold early morning in February, Stevens took me to Lava Lake. He hardly makes the drive anymore, since he began full time at Pioneer Mountain Group. He travels frequently. But this morning, he wore heavy boots and a faded down jacket. A gas station south of Hailey blasted Abba as he filled the tank—“usually it’s ’80s death metal”—and we continued south to Craters of the Moon.

The ranch meets the craters on the Snake River plain. Here, over millions of years, lava erupted from volcanic fissures and set into vast, dark flows pocked with cones of hardened magma. To avoid Shoshone territory, travelers on the Oregon Trail skirted the craters to the north, emerging at the center of what is now Lava Lake Ranch. “Twenty-thousand people and all their animals in 25 years,” said Stevens, pointing to the route, a small notch in the mountains. “Can you imagine the impact?”

The ranch’s entrance was an unmarked turnoff on an empty road. Stevens’s truck rattled over frozen heaves, scaring a Chukar bird from the sagebrush. At the confluence of two drainages stood the main ranch, a hodgepodge of corrals, a lambing barn, a yurt where the Beans stay on visits, and an old house where Tim Bennett, the farm manager, lives with his family. We parked past the house, and Tim came to greet us. He shook hands with Stevens, who asked about the farm. Everything was fine, said Tim, who wore only a sweatshirt despite the cold. Stevens pointed to the drainages and ridgelines where sheep would graze come spring. (The flock spends the winter in California.) Sagebrush poked from white, wind-scoured hills. “Not much snow,” he said to me. “It’s a little alarming.”

We stayed only a short time at the ranch and headed west to Carey, a town largely emptied since a Kraft plant closed and many ranchers sold their operations. “Carey is the community that matters,” Stevens told me. The town, set on flat bottomland between the Pioneer Mountains and the Craters of the Moon, is at the center of two million private, developable acres—essentially an island amidst vast stretches of public land. Among Stevens’s first projects at the Pioneer Mountain Group was the Pioneer’s Alliance, an assembly of landowners, nonprofits, and agencies in the Carey region whose purpose, aside from revitalizing the community, is to encourage landowners to place their private holdings under conservation easement. A dozen have already done so.

We stopped in Carey at the city hall to meet Vonnie Olsen, a councilwoman with whom Stevens works at the Alliance. Olson had large painted eyes and frosted hair. She was sitting at a table in the council chambers, sorting through a stack of faded photographs. “I just had to show you these, Mike,” she said. “I found some gems.” Stevens looked for a moment but was distracted by something more serious: An article in the local paper had quoted one rancher calling another “crooked” for earning $4 million in an easement deal. (The money, which came mostly from the Nature Conservancy and a federal conservation program, reimbursed the rancher for value losses he incurred when he gave up development rights on his property.) “What landowner is going to stand up if they have to deal with allegations that they’re corrupt?” said Stevens. Olson rolled her eyes. “That’s the kind of thing we deal with all the time,” she told me.

Olson admitted that she and Stevens don’t always agree. But when I asked for an example, she struggled to find one. “For one thing,” she said, “Mike doesn’t send out his herders with rifles. If I was out there, I’d want a rifle.” I asked if that had anything to do with wolves. Olson sighed; Stevens shook his head. “I don’t think we’re ever going to solve the wolf controversy,” she said—then, speaking figuratively, “If you let wolves become part of efforts like these, it will consume and destroy things.”

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