Ranching 1937 – 1978

By Shaun Brower

On April 13, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after noticing the fragile and unique ecology within the Sonoran Desert, declared the area a national monument.  This establishment of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument effectively ended nearly all local mining and ranching operations, much to the dismay of settlers who had lived in the area for decades.  One specific homesteader, Birdie Del Miller, wrote to Arizona senator Carl Hayden claiming that “the cactus ranger here is trying to take the place away from me.”[1]  While nearly all ranching operations were shut down as a result of the national monument designation, one particular family, the Gray’s, through its political sway was able to obtain annual grazing permits from the acting director of the National Park Service and continued ranching within the monument until the death of the last Gray brother in 1976.

Robert Louis Gray moved his family from Texas to the Sonoran Desert in 1919 after

Roundup in Alamo Canyon

purchasing Rattlesnake Ranch (later renamed Dos Lomitas Ranch) and a sizeable head of 300 cattle from a local man by the name of Lonald Blankenship.[2]  Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s Robert Gray continued to expand his ranching operations through the acquisition of numerous adjacent properties, including Bates and Daniel’s Well.[3]  At this same time, Robert’s children began to reach maturity and looked to branch out for themselves upon what was at the time open public land.[4]   Henry Gray, the eldest son, moved from Dos Lomitas ranch into a small house in Alamo Canyon in 1930 and later settled at Bates Well in 1935.  Jack Gray eventually took over the Alamo Canyon ranch, while his brother Bobby settled down at Dowling Well in the Sonoyta Hills in the early 1940s.[5]   The Gray’s continued ranching at these locations for many years but soon found themselves at the center of a long and controversial range war with the federal government.[6]

Bates Well Ranch

At the time the national monument was created in 1937 the Gray family was told it could graze as many cattle as it owned at the time on the land for an indefinite period of time at a nominal fee of $10 per year. [7]   By 1943 however, the permit was modified to include a herd of 1050 cattle under the insistence that they had more than the 550 cattle when the original permit was created in 1938.[8]  In the decades that followed, the National Park Service conducted numerous reports and found that grazing in the area caused extensive damage to the desert ecology.  Despite recommendations from the National Park Service and pleas from National Park Superintendent Bill Supernaugh to reduce their stocking rate, the Gray Partnership successfully fought any changes in grazing fees and stocking rates by enlisting the assistance of an attorney and by appealing to Arizona Senator Carl Hayden. Tensions between the Gray family and the federal government continued to mount in the 1960s and ‘70s when the National Park Service announced that they would no longer be renewing their grazing permit, and threatened the family with lawsuits.[9]  The subsequent death of Bobby Gray in 1976 however, brought this conflict to a close and ended nearly six decades of ranching within the park.[10]

While the death of Bobby Gray marked the official end of ranching within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the damage done by decades of grazing left a significant and lasting impact on the landscape and ecology.  Overstocking resulted in soil erosion, reduced density and vigor of plants, as well as the development of cattle trails.  National Park Service soil conservationists reported in 1948 that, “Everything edible and within reach of stock was eaten and the stock were all in poor condition.  The vegetation cannot endure this over utilization and continue to maintain its vigor.”[11]  These problems were most clearly evident in the southern boundary around sources of water such as Gachado Well, Dos Lomitas and Blankenship Ranch.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) noted in 1966 that the “most severe use exists around the Blankenship Well, where dead remnants of saltbrush are found.”[12]   A further study was conducted the same year by the BLM, which found that the estimated carrying capacity of the service area was 314 cattle, or one-fifth of the actual number of cattle grazing on the Monument land.[13]  Photographs taken at Gachado Well and Dos Lomitas areas in 1965 as well as a 1970 report on range conditions showed that virtually no plants more than a few inches tall existed, and young plants, when found, were severely hedged.[14]  Where the plant community was in poor condition, surface erosion was accelerated due to the lack of density and cover of vascular plants.  Furthermore, raindrop impact and sheetflow volume were greatly increased in response to the lack of cover from plants.  Erected roads and entrenched cattle trails directed concentrated rain flow, and as a result sheet erosion, rilling, gullying and channeling occurred.

The extensive ecological damage done to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument through years of overgrazing and mismanagement has served to make the Gray family ranching operation one of the most controversial in the history of the park.  However, the official removal of all 1700 cattle from the park in 1975, combined with the final declaration of Organ Pipe as a national wilderness area and restoration efforts carried out by the Soil and Moisture Conservation Program (SMC), has finally provided the fragile desert ecosystem with the opportunity to begin the process of healing itself.


[1] Carol Ann Bassett, Organ Pipe: Life On the Edge (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004), 31.

[2] Ibid., 29

[3] Mr. Elmer C. Coker, to Mr. Hillary A. Tolsen, December 10, 1946, Folder: Grazing, 1946-59, Box 172, Correspondence and Subject Files, 1928-59, RG 79, NARA-MD.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Carol Ann Bassett, Organ Pipe: Life On the Edge., 30

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mr. Elmer C. Coker, to Mr. Hillary A. Tolsen, December 10, 1946, Folder: Grazing, 1946-59, Box 172, Correspondence and Subject Files, 1928-59, RG 79, NARA-MD.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Carol Ann Bassett, Organ Pipe: Life On the Edge, 32.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Susan Rutman, “Dirt Is Not Cheap: Livestock Grazing and a Legacy of Accelerated Soil Erosion On Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona” (Arizona State University, Tempe, 1997), 364.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Susan Rutman, “Dirt Is Not Cheap: Livestock Grazing and a Legacy of Accelerated Soil Erosion On Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona”, 364 – 365.

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