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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
Ice Manliness Cometh
A Six-Dog-Power Engine
I (Heart) Snowshoeing
Skiing Yellowstone
Welcome Back to the World
Rotten Fish Tales
Big Fun in the Green Zone
Hey Mr. Green
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
Last Words
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About Sierra
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Sierra Magazine

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Beauty & the Badlands | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Just as I was leaving the Elkhorn, the rain stopped. I cracked the car window and the smell of wet sage wafted in as I drove east 20 miles, to the town of Grassy Butte, to meet with the man who is arguably the most stalwart advocate for wilderness on the Grasslands, John Heiser.

Heiser, 51, is a fourth-generation Dakota rancher; he founded the Badlands Conservation Alliance three years ago. Just before I got to North Dakota, Heiser had defended his campaign for wilderness by telling the Associated Press, "There are things that need to be said, and I’ve said them, and now my neighbors won’t talk to me." In the picture that ran next to the quote, Heiser was lean with a rough, wind-weathered face and cool blue eyes that were piercing in their conviction. I felt like I was paying a visit to a sort of grasslands Thoreau.

The first thing Heiser wanted to show me, once I rattled into his driveway, was the pasture where the vesper sparrows had built their nest and laid eggs early that spring. The eggs were still there—brown-speckled, oblong little things in the wheat grass—and Heiser expected them to fledge in a couple of weeks. "I never drive in here," he said, striding beside me in worn denim coveralls. "I don’t like to drive on wild grass."

Heiser’s voice was deep and unfaltering and he seemed to revel in making absolute statements. I guessed that he probably never fit in too well with North Dakota’s rock-ribbed mainstream. "No," he said, "when I was a kid and my dad cut down green ash to make fence posts, I felt sad for the dead trees." Heiser deepened his ecological ethic after college when he took a job herding bison for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. "I chased them on horseback," he said, "sometimes for twenty miles at a dead run. I grew to respect them. Bison are independent. They have fire in their eyes. They resist being tamed."

We walked on and Heiser pointed out the western wallflowers underfoot, and the prairie smoke, a flower whose thin, hairlike fruits look, collectively, like a red mist. Heiser’s cows plodded nearby in the blue grama grass. He has 95 head on his 760 acres, and caring for them is hard work. Heiser doesn’t use a backhoe to muck out the corral where he winters his yearlings; he uses a wheelbarrow. He doesn’t use a pickup to check on his cattle either. Instead, he goes from pasture to pasture on horseback or, more frequently, on foot.

Heiser’s whole ranch is ribboned with thin paths he’s beaten into the soil, and as we walked one along the edge of a Forest Service–managed pond, Heiser told me about "an incredible evening. I sat by the shore here the other night," he said, "and I saw two beavers—half-grown, the size of footballs—building a dam. One kept diving and bringing up mud, and the other would bring sticks from across the water in his mouth. I watched for an hour, and then I told my neighbor about it. A few days later, I found one of the beavers floating head-down in the pond, shot."

We climbed to the top of a hill, and Heiser kept talking. "This is where I grew up, from the time I was zero," he said. "It’s where my connections to nature were formed. It’s where I saw bighorn sheep come in from the cold and prairie fires burn. You have experiences like that, when you are young, and you acquire a deep topophilia, a love of place, that you can’t escape. It leads you to defend that place."

Since starting the Badlands Conservation Alliance, Heiser has helped defeat an oil company that sought to drill within sight of the national park, and has led nature walks into the badlands’ backcountry springs. He is typical of North Dakota environmentalists, who tend to be homegrown and take action because they’ve seen the idyllic places of their childhood whittled away. But he is also possessed of a singular focus. One winter, he told me as we meandered back toward his barn, he went 30 straight days without ever driving away from his ranch. He just holed up, cooked frozen beef, and kept notes on the black-tailed deer that fed on the hay outside his window. Many other winters, he’s conducted backcountry poetry hikes. "If the windchill drops below zero," he said, "I try to cancel, but otherwise we go out a few miles and find shelter and there, beneath a juniper tree or in the lee of a sandstone ledge, we read for maybe half an hour: Gary Snyder, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver. Poetry fits the badlands. It’s life distilled to its bare essentials."

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