Homesteaders Turned Conservationists Head Back to The Land

Jesse Wolf Hardin shares his family's experience as homesteaders turned conservationists when they go back to the land.

| August/September 2002

Homesteaders turned conservationists promise to conserve nature on their land.

Firsthand: Reports from the Field

Many homesteaders return to the land to assert their independence, grow their own food, raise their families and reestablish their connection to the natural world. As homesteaders turned conservationists, our goal was not only to experience nature intimately, but also to make a commitment to conserve, nourish and heal it. What I realized was it works the other way, too: The restoration of a small piece of land to its original natural state restored my sense of health and wholeness.

Finding Your Place: Back to the Land

The price of fertile farmland keeps climbing, and a 20-acre homestead within driving distance of the basic amenities can cost a small fortune. Properties that are the best candidates for wildland restoration however, can be purchased cheaply. Prime restoration tracts are often isolated, with unmaintained access roads or no roads at all. It may be too marshy for development, but perfect for re-creating a bird-loving wetland or it could be a narrow canyon that's half floodplain and half "unusable" rocky terrain, as our land was first described. It was this very undesirability for development that attracted us to what I has become a premier wildlife sanctuary of Southwestern New Mexico. Our property near reserve is located on a gorgeous bend of the St. Francis River, seven jeep-sinking crossings from the nearest pavement.

The area's pine-filled valleys are faced with streams and spotted with hot springs, while its mountain peaks up from their ancient sea beds to nearly 12,000 feet. Scattered throughout the sanctuary are the remains of a pit-house village, where the Mogollon people once gathered Juniper trees grow out of the center of a kiva, filled with rock and earth over hundreds of years.

Restoration of Nature

We arrived to find more than a hundred years of unrestricted cattle grazing had left die arid canyon nearly barren of ground vegetation. There were hardwoods and ponderosas, as well as a dozen varieties of cactus, but no grasses or wildflowers. Many of the magnificent old cottonwoods were gone, washed away by erosion during floods. Cattle quickly consumed tender willow and cottonwood saplings. The first step toward restoring this fragile riparian ecosystem was to fence out any free-ranging cattle.

Our property is an inholding surrounded on all sides by national forest. The last thing we wanted was to stretch barbed wire across this unmarked landscape. But now, after 11 years of being fenced, our land has a dense forest of red willows and young cottonwoods 30 to 40 feet tall. Assistance with the cost of the fence came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's innovative Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program ( Anyone can apply by demonstrating their commitment to restoring a piece of land and by promising to maintain it in part as habitat for waterfowl or other foraging wildlife.

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