Old West authenticity is close to seeing another of its last vestiges fade away in the north East Valley, say local ranchers and equestrians.
The days of truly wide open spaces where horses and cattle roam free are long over in Scottsdale and will officially come to an end next year in neighboring Rio Verde Foothills, a 20-square-mile unincorporated area of Maricopa County.
On Jan. 1, the county’s "high-density grazing" policy goes into effect in the still relatively rural county area. It will require that all ranch animals be fenced in on the owners’ properties. Open-range grazing allows grazing in a designated area on any land that is not fenced off.
Mostly, the change will affect George Williams, who has run the 160-acre Pinnacle Peak Ranch near Rio Verde Drive and 132nd Street in Scottsdale for the past 23 years. He’s the last rancher to make use of open-range grazing rights still in effect in the county area, which is close to his ranch.
He and other ranchers and horse owners said urban development makes the
end of open grazing inevitable, but they lament it.
"We want to keep our area as rural and equestrian as possible," said Margaret Daleo, president of the 500-member Rio Verde Horseman’s Association.
The county’s decision to end open grazing, due in large part to increasing development in north Scottsdale, is just one more instance of "those people dictating to us how we should live," Daleo said.
Everett Raines said his family will soon be moving out of its horse, cattle and bison ranch from Rio Verde Foothills to go almost 100 miles west to Tonopah because of encroaching development.
Raines figures it will be only several years before ranching operations everywhere in the county area will feel squeezed by new suburban surroundings.
The clash of urban and rural environments has been dramatized recently by two incidences in the area in which horses were hit by automobiles.
Kathleen Hines, 29, of Fountain Hills, died when the car she was driving struck two horses on Rio Verde Drive one late night in November.
Last month, a horse was struck and killed near the Troon County Club in north Scottsdale by a car driven by Scottsdale resident Rodney Chew.
Motorists have the right-ofway over livestock in Scottsdale, but not in Rio Verde Foothills as long as open-range rights remain in effect.
The horses involved in both cases belonged to Williams.
He and horse owners in the county area say illegal fence cutting by unknown culprits is often the reason why his horses or cattle are getting to main roads and Scottsdale neighborhoods.
"Right now the (opengrazing) law is on my side," Williams said. "But I know I’ve got to straighten things out. I will get it under control."
Williams, 73, said he’s not thinking of retiring from ranching, even though he’s suffered illnesses and injuries in recent years that have made the work harder.
He’s trying to acquire a large pasture north of the Valley near New River for some of his 200 horses and larger number of cattle, though he intends to still keep many at his Scottsdale ranch.
"I’m going to bust my rear to get things so that people won’t even know I’m there," he said.
But county officials say Williams will be fighting against the tide of growth.
The county decided to end open grazing after a several meetings about open-range issues this year with Rio Verde Foothills residents, said Roy Braman of the county assessor’s office.
Open-range status has been eliminated in most places in the Valley as development neared outlying areas, and it’s past time for it to come to an end in the growing north East Valley, Braman said.
Eliminating it in Rio Verde Foothills "will protect both the people and the animals," he said.
Scottsdale resident Tony Nelssen has for years urged officials to take stronger steps to preserve the rural lifestyle in the city. He recently floated an idea before the City Council he said could retain at least a semblance of Old West ambience.
Nelssen suggested Scottsdale consider adopting a "small, manageable herd" of horses and keeping them in a more remote part of the city’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
"I think it could be a good fit for ‘The West’s Most Western Town,’ " he said, quoting the city’s official slogan.
"It could signal a turning point for Scottsdale, that it won’t completely turn its back on its equestrian heritage."