Betting the Ranch

With a high-tech fortune and Sierra Club ideals, Roger and Cindy Lang work to sustain the wild West.

November/December 2004

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Betting the Ranch

Photo: William Campbell

It is already late afternoon, with a slight chill in the air, as Roger Lang drives his GMC Yukon truck slowly up the rocky switchbacks of southwestern Montana’s scenic Madison Range. Thirty miles from the town of Ennis, bumping along at near 8,000 feet elevation where green pastures give way to subalpine forests of Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce, he stops and points west. The Idaho border looms in the distance, with the Bitterroot Mountains extending skyward like great, dark shadows.

“Look at that!” he says, reaching for binoculars. “That’s the Continental Divide, right there along the ridge.”

Lewis and Clark passed near here 200 years ago. In his journal Lewis praised the “beautiful plains and meadows which appear to be surrounded in every direction with distant and lofty mountains.”

These days Lang and his wife, Cindy, are doing everything they can to ensure that this corner of paradise remains unspoiled for at least another 200 years. Embarking on an audacious experiment that is part anthropology, part economics, part Gunsmoke and part Greenpeace, the California couple six years ago took their proceeds from a technology IPO and, with no ranching experience, purchased Sun Ranch, a 20,000-acre spread 40 miles north of Yellowstone National Park in Montana’s rustic Madison Valley. Since then, Roger, ’83, MA ’85, and Cindy, ’83, have immersed themselves in rangeland science and wildlife biology. Their goal: to demonstrate that environmentalism and cattle ranching not only can coexist, but also can save each other, here and across the West.

Environmentalists often decry ranching, especially on public lands where it is subsidized by taxpayers. Overgrazing by herds of cattle and sheep can wreck streams and sensitive meadows. Cowboys, meanwhile, often think of environmentalists as uptight vegetarians out of touch with the land. The Langs have a foot in each camp. They believe in enhancing wildlife, leaving water in the streams for trout, embracing tourism and hunting, and selling grass-fed beef. Such eco-ventures, they feel, will keep ranching economically viable while protecting the land from developers who are carving up the West’s majestic landscapes with golf courses, subdivisions and trophy homes at a relentless pace.

“I came up here with the Sierra Club ethos, thinking ‘Cows are bad,’” says Roger, 45, whose close-cropped gray hair and wireless glasses make him look slightly like Richard Gere. “I was a classic, detached-from-the-land suburbanite. But if you manage for wildlife, there’s a win-win. For the next 20 to 30 years, cows are what will preserve open spaces.”

By any measure, the Langs are no ordinary ranchers. In a community of Mormon cowpunchers who drive Ford F350 pickup trucks, Roger wears Hawaiian shirts and drives a green Audi convertible. He speaks five languages. He works in Bozeman as chairman and co-founder of TransAria, a company that provides high-speed Internet access to rural businesses and homes. He rarely rides horses. “You know that scene in The Wizard of Oz where they meet the tin man, and he’s stiff? That’s how I feel every time I get off a horse,” he says, not entirely joking.

Cindy, 42, grew up in Los Angeles and worked as a fund-raiser in Stanford’s development office from 1984 to 1994. A woman whose interests include ballet and piano as well as horseback riding, she runs the ranch’s Papoose Creek Lodge, a high-end outpost where up to 16 guests can enjoy gourmet food, spa services, horseback riding and fly-fishing. The couple divide their time between Montana and Woodside, Calif.

Most locals in Madison Valley know the Langs and, even if some occasionally raise their eyebrows at the couple’s Left Coast ways, they seem to genuinely like them—which often isn’t the case when deep-pocketed Californians buy ranches in the rural West. “Roger doesn’t try to put on the fake air of trying to be a cowboy,’’ says John Crumley, a third-generation rancher who runs black Angus cattle in nearby McAllister. “When he says he is going to do something, he does it.’’

When Ennis High School needed new lights for its football field, for example, Roger and Cindy bought them. When the local Madison Valley Ranchlands Group struggled to reduce the spread of noxious weeds, the Langs hosted a community auction at their house and raised $15,000 to buy machinery shared now by 50 families.

“I have a lot of respect for what they are trying to do,” adds Crumley. “It’s awful easy just to buy a piece of land and lock it up. But they have become part of the community.”

The Langs’ philosophy is direct: keeping ranches profitable reduces the chance that ranch families will sell out to land speculators. And the best way to keep ranches profitable is to diversify. How? Make money from the wildlife—through tourism, hunting, and the sale of development rights to environmental groups, not subdividers. In other words, the greener your ranch, the greener your wallet.

They never set out to be cowboys. Cindy was born in Omaha. Her parents moved to Los Angeles when she was 2 years old. As a child, she went with her father, a pediatrician, and her mother, a nurse, when they took tent camping trips to Yosemite Valley, Joshua Tree National Park and Big Bear Lake. “We weren’t going on 30-mile backpacking trips or anything, but I loved the outdoors, even then,’’ she says.

In high school, Cindy Hunter was a top student inspired by French class. Accepted at Stanford, she majored in French and English literature. At Stanford’s French House, she met Roger at a dorm party in 1981. Before long, the two were inseparable. His father was a doctor, too: an anesthesiologist. Born in Van Nuys, Roger grew up in Concord, Calif. His parents took him on vacations in Montana, where he learned to fly-fish in the state’s blue ribbon trout streams.

His academic love at Stanford was anthropology—in particular, the ways different cultures adapt to and alter their environments, from Tibet to Africa. He was energetic and among the best students, recalls Bill Durham, chair of anthropological sciences at Stanford. “Roger clearly loved the material, and comparing the ways that different human populations existed in different environments—mountaintops, deserts, rain forests.... He was very intellectually engaging and curious.”

After graduation, Cindy and Roger married in Los Angeles and moved to Sao Paolo, Brazil, where Roger studied rain forest tribes of the Amazon as part of Stanford’s Latin American studies graduate program. Fascinated by threats to primitive peoples and wildlife, he researched ways to alleviate them, such as debt-for-nature swaps, an arrangement in which banks forgive debts to developing nations in exchange for preserving fragile land from logging, mining or development.

Roger got his master’s degree in 1985. Then he hit a brick wall. He applied to dozens of places for work—the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Organization of American States—with no luck. More than 25 rejection letters piled up. “Nobody wanted me. I was even turned down for an $11,000-a-year job as a wildlife guide in the Galapagos,” he recalls.

The Langs returned to the Bay Area. Putting aside rain forests, Roger found work at Menlo Park-based Strategic Economic Decisions, a three-person financial advisory firm, where he sold software. The next year he and a friend who had more business experience co-founded C-ATS Software, a company that wrote programs to help banks manage debts and assets. In 1989, everything changed dramatically when Lang launched a new company. Infinity Financial Technology, in Mountain View, grew to become a leading world supplier of software for derivatives trading and risk management.

He couldn’t write code himself, and had no MBA or legal training. “The important thing is to have the idea,” he says. “You can always hire programmers and lawyers.” In 1996, as CEO, he took Infinity public, becoming a multi-millionaire. The following year, SunGard, a Pennsylvania company, agreed to pay $313 million in stock to purchase Infinity. Lang stayed on as chairman until 1999, when he retired at the age of 40.

Suddenly, this formerly middle class couple had resources they never could have imagined in the dorms at Stanford.

Why buy a ranch? Lang says he started looking around the time of the IPO, knowing his life was about to change. “You can’t take it with you,” he says. “And I’m not into jet planes or Ferraris. We thought, let’s do something meaningful that will last. I can’t think of a better way to spend the money.”

To ensure that it would remain open space forever, the Langs have donated development rights to more than 6,800 acres of their property to the Montana Nature Conservancy. They plan to preserve the rest the same way over the next decade. The couple also has removed more than 70 miles of barbed wire, replacing it with thin strands of electric wire that are easily lowered when elk herds come through every winter. (Each year, they allow hunters to shoot several dozen elk on the ranch. Hunters pay upward of $3,500 each for food, accommodations and guide services.) The latest Sun Ranch experiment is a fish hatchery to raise west slope cutthroat trout, a struggling species Roger hopes to return to local streams.

“The interesting thing to me about Roger and Cindy is that they really have a vision that conservation pays,’’ says Jamie Williams, director of the Montana Nature Conservancy, based in Helena. “They are not just trying to do a bunch of do-good projects. They really believe that by managing the ranch the way they do, it’s an operation that will work economically and will work for wildlife. Having healthy wildlife populations on your property increases the property value.”

Rather than removing cattle from the landscape, for example, they rotate in the 1,300 black and red Angus to new pastures twice a week to reduce overgrazing. A traditional ranch might have twice as many cattle. The animals are raised without growth-inducing hormones or antibiotics. Such grass-fed beef commands a higher price at elite markets and restaurants; Yellowstone National Park sells meat from the Langs’ steers in its restaurants, describing it as “conservation beef.”

Their ranch manager, 33-year-old Todd Graham of Big Piney, Wyo., at times even sleeps among the cattle herds to chase wolves away—rather than shooting them as other ranchers might. It’s a technique he learned four years ago from a Masai warrior, whose tribe wards off lions from its herds in Kenya.

The result? The Langs’ herd has a mortality rate one-fifth the industry average, Graham says. By riding more often with the animals than most operations do, the Langs’ cowboys spot illness quickly, and end up with fewer injured, sick or lost animals. Their diet is more nutritious than on most ranches, Graham says, because the land isn’t overgrazed. The livestock is healthier, the land is healthier, and the Langs are making money in the cattle business.

Meanwhile Sun Ranch looks like a Sierra Club calendar brought to life. Nine miles long and 6 miles wide, it is three-quarters the size of the city of San Francisco. In the summer, its meadows sparkle with purple lupine, bright red Indian paintbrush and yellow native sunflowers. Rainbow and brown trout swim in clear streams. There are aspen groves, sand hill cranes, magpies on wooden rail fences, and red foxes darting to catch field mice. All around is lush, waist-high grass.

“We could run a hell of a lot more cattle, but we would be depleting the resource and we’d get fewer elk,’’ says manager Graham, one of 25 ranch employees. “And we make money off the elk from hunting and wildlife viewing. We’re trying to keep everything in balance.”

The Langs purchased the ranch in 1998 from actor Steven Seagal. Hollywood crews filmed Seagal’s movie The Patriot here; the thriller dealt with a militia terrorist who releases a virus in a small town, only to be thwarted by a holistic country doctor played by Seagal. It went straight to video. Seagal didn’t hit it off with local residents after he closed the ranch to public hunting and let spotted knapweed and other noxious plants grow out of control, townspeople around Ennis say.

Because of its closeness to Yellowstone, biologists cite Sun Ranch as one of the most important wildlife corridors in the Rocky Mountains. Every winter, a herd of more than 4,000 elk moves to the property, often tracked by wolves. Moose feed in willow-lined creeks, and with the ranch’s rugged terrain—a 10,000-foot mountain lies within its boundaries— pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, lynx and bald eagles call the ranch home year-round.

Shortly after moving in, the Langs learned they weren’t in Silicon Valley anymore when they poured a small concrete slab and put up a basketball hoop near the main ranch house for their sons Chris, now 15, and Roger, 18. A few mornings later, they found grizzly bear tracks in the wet cement.

In the six years since, the bears have kept their distance, and the Langs’ appreciation of their own private Yellowstone has deepened. “When the ranch came on the market it was love at first sight,” Cindy says. “And it has been so rewarding. I’m learning so much you can’t learn in books. From our kitchen window you can see migrating elk.”

Su Ranch has had its setbacks. Only months after the Langs opened Papoose Creek Lodge, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks crippled the tourism industry. Early on, they also experimented with a different kind of livestock: 1,500 cashmere goats. “We realized that unless they were monitored very carefully, they’d just run away,” says Cindy. Roger, rolling his eyes, adds, “They’re like cats. You can’t herd them.”

Unlike most other western ranchers, the Langs can afford to experiment—and fail—again and again. Other ranchers might not have the money to risk building a tourist lodge, to replace all their barbed wire, or to hire extra cowboys to rotate cattle more often. Many ranches are cash-poor and could not absorb years of losses. The Langs realize they have to prove which of their green methods can work so that more typical ranching families can duplicate them.

Then, too, ranchers can be a hidebound lot, reluctant to embrace new schemes. “The traditional rancher is against change because that’s the way his dad did it, and his dad did it,’’ says Roger Young, a native Montanan who lives on the ranch and manages Papoose Creek Lodge. “But unfortunately, we’re to a point where economically that doesn’t work any more. You’ve got to be able to diversify and be creative, because subdivisions are the alternative.”

So while some local ranchers grumble that the Langs’ elk herd eats too much forage that should be left for cows, others take a growing interest in their techniques. Madison Valley ranchers talk to each other, and word spreads about what works and what doesn’t. Some local ranchers have begun to run grass-fed, hormone-free beef. Others have copied the Langs’ style of hazing—rather than shooting at—wolves, asking Graham for advice.

The Langs hope their successful experiments will be replicated, and their failures learned from, on other ranches across the West. A growing number of ranches, for example, already are running hunting trips, weekend chuck wagon rides, and other tourism ventures in which city slickers pay to bed down under the stars, herd cattle and play cowboy for a few days.

The West is desperate for options to suburban development. The average age of a cattle rancher in most states is between 55 and 60. When ranchers die, their survivors often have to sell the family property to pay inheritance taxes. Estimates vary, but many experts predict half or more of the West’s cattle ranches will change hands in the next 10 years. The consequences are huge. Farmers and ranchers own two-thirds of all the private property in America, and about 70 percent of the nation’s endangered species are found on private land, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Turning ranches into 20-acre home sites with mini-mansions, fences, dogs and swimming pools breaks up corridors for deer, elk, bears and other wildlife. It eliminates the natural spread of fire, and forever changes the character of rural areas.

Can green cowboys make enough money to keep ranches viable and slow the development pressures? Six years into his experiment, Roger Lang predicts Sun Ranch will be profitable in one or two years. “The jury is still out,” he says. “If I can’t get it to turn over on a cash-positive basis, then it won’t be repeatable by other ranchers. But I do know that grass-fed beef is a sustainable operation, because people want a healthy product. And I believe in the ecotourism. Overall, I feel pretty good that we’ll succeed.”

PAUL ROGERS is the natural resources and environmental writer for the San Jose Mercury News.

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