Howard Blair has outlived two wives, endured years of searing drought and survived sudden freak storms that tossed massive boulders down the Providence Mountains toward his homestead. He lost his favorite horse to a bite from the deadly Mojave green rattlesnake.
Now, he must decide whether to sell the ranch that has been in his family for generations or to stay and run the risk of financial ruin.
At 76, with white hair and a slight hitch in his gait from a hip replacement, Blair is old enough to recall the last gunfight in the Mojave and the days when every little Southern Pacific Railroad town here had a weekly square dance. He watched the two-room Essex Elementary School, 23 miles away on famed old Route 66, shrink from more than 30 pupils to four, two of whom are his own grandchildren.
Arriving in the 1880s, the Blairs were among the first ranching families here. Now, they are the last. When the sale of a neighbor's federal grazing rights became final last month, Blair and his son Rob, 45, co-owners of the Blair 7IL Ranch, will be the only working cattlemen in the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve, a 60-mile-by-40-mile landscape of mountains, sand dunes and lava beds stretching west from the Nevada line between Interstate 40 and Interstate 15.
Where 20,000 cattle once roamed a range the size of Delaware, there are now only the Blairs' 400 cows, 25 bulls and perhaps 350 calves.
The Blairs hang are vulnerable to the same pressures that prompted their neighbors to sell. Like many Western ranchers, the Blairs own grazing rights to the land most of their cattle use. But the land itself belongs to the federal government.
A federal court decision to protect the desert tortoise, an endangered species that lives only in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, threatens the Blairs' future in a way drought or natural calamity never has.
The court ruling, handed down in the summer of 2001, sharply curtailed grazing on federal land just outside the preserve. Now, the environmental groups that filed the first suit have announced their intent to challenge grazing within the preserve. If the groups prevail again, the Blairs could be ordered to remove their cattle.
The family can offer the ranch for sale now to a conservation group that would remove the cows and manage it in the best interests of desert wildlife. Or, they can hope that a judge will rule in their favor.
Difficult questions loom over the Blair household.
Will the April roundup be the ranch's last? Will this be the last trip for the horses to the sweet grasses in the high pasture? Will there be another family reunion in the shade of Howard Blair's fruit trees?
"We've been praying about it a lot lately," said Kate Blair, Rob's wife and mother of their three children. "Frankly, there's a lot of things that are way beyond our control."
Kate, 41, is a University of California at Santa Barbara graduate with a geology degree who works on a National Park Service maintenance crew, cleaning outhouses and campgrounds, so the family can have health insurance.
"With these people holding the Endangered Species Act over our heads, we know we are going to have to go," Howard Blair said, sitting in the dim light of his living room as a cowboy movie flickered on the television. "We just don't know when. Whether it is 10 years or next year, we don't know."
The Blairs are among the last holdouts in a disappearing breed of high-desert cowboys scattered across the American West. Their way of ranching is more difficult than in many other places, because there is less rainfall and less grass. In the central Texas hill country, for example, a cow and her calf can survive on two acres of grassland; in the cattle-raising areas of Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, they require only one acre.
In the Mojave, it takes at least 300 acres to support a cow and calf. Where the sparse grass is thinnest, it requires as many as 3,000 acres. Riding herd demands long hours, skilled horsemanship and a wealth of natural savvy. "Sometimes we go two to three years without finding some of them," Howard Blair said.
All-terrain vehicles, which have replaced horses on many ranches, don't work here -- the land is too rough and uneven, the cattle too skittish.
The complexity of ranching here is evident from the list of ranch assets Rob Blair keeps on a blackboard in his workshop. Spread over the ranch's 210,000 acres are 45 water tanks, 24 corrals, 23 windmills, 37 natural springs, 96 miles of fence and 62 miles of plastic water pipeline. All require regular maintenance. If a windmill breaks down or a water line ruptures, a tank that supplies a hundred head of cattle can go dry. Even in his seventies, Howard Blair still regularly climbs 20 feet to the top of ranch windmills, dodging spinning blades as he wrestles with bent and broken iron pump rods.
Despite the unceasing work and marginal profits, there is a loyalty to the land that sometimes defies reason. By any sane measure of land use, biologists argue, this should not be cattle country. It is too arid.
Tucked in the horseshoe-shaped Whisky Basin, the Blair 7IL is six miles from the nearest paved road and 62 miles from Needles, the nearest town of any size, on the Colorado River.
The ranch consists of two modest one-story wood-frame houses where the Blairs live, and a collection of solar panels, generators, camper trailers, a maintenance barn, tack shed and a dozen pickup trucks of assorted vintage nestled next to an abandoned silver mill.
In a good year, the ranch might gross $100,000, out of which the Blairs must pay grazing fees, buy new equipment and parts, purchase supplemental feed and veterinary supplies, and pay for fuel.
Each of the adult Blairs supplements the ranch income with other work. Howard and Rob operate road graders and backhoes for neighbors. Rob sells handmade saddles.
Until recently, the Blairs had reason to feel secure here.
Nine years ago, when the Mojave National Preserve was created under the Desert Protection Act, the Blairs thought they had won the right to ranch here "in perpetuity," thanks to a special provision in the bill written with them in mind by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
The special Blair-Feinstein connection dates from 1993, when the senator, researching the desert bill, visited the 7IL ranch by helicopter and became instantly, fiercely attached to the Blairs.
Today, Feinstein vows to protect the Blairs "as long as I am breathing or even after I'm breathing." But her efforts may not be enough to save the Blair ranch if a judge agrees with the same arguments against grazing made by environmentalists in the most recent case involving cattle and endangered species in the Mojave.
That case led to severe restrictions on livestock grazing on most of the eight ranches still operating in the desert surrounding the Mojave preserve.
The ruling followed days of testimony from biologists and desert scholars detailing the devastation wrought on desert tortoise habitat by grazing animals that stomp on tortoises, crush their burrows and destroy brush cover needed to protect their young from swooping ravens.
As the environmental pressure mounts, an ambitious program by Mojave preserve Superintendent Mary Martin has successfully retired all the working ranches in the preserve, except the 7IL. Martin has found nonprofit groups willing to pay as much as $10 million for property near the Blairs, and says she knows of buyers interested in their ranch.
Rob Blair, who sits with Martin on the Mojave preserve advisory council, is suspicious of the superintendent's motives. "Mary Martin would like us to leave," he blurted during a drive to the ranch headquarters. "It would be a feather in her cap if she drove every rancher out of the park."
The Blairs own barely 1,000 acres, a very small portion of the land their cows use.
For the privilege of running their stock on preserve land, the ranchers pay $1.35 a month for every cow-calf pair. In the Blairs' case, that amounts to about $6,000 a year for the grazing rights to 210,000 acres.
Forgotten in that equation, environmentalists contend, is that this is all public land, not the private domain of the ranchers. They say the price paid for grazing is much too little to compensate for the damage done to the desert.
A hundred miles away in her Barstow office, Martin denied putting any pressure on the Blairs to sell. "The decision to sell is theirs," she said. "If they say they want to stay they have the choice."
But Martin said that if she were in the Blairs' place, she would probably sell out and use the money to buy private land somewhere else.
"It's hard not to look around the desert and see what has happened to other folks. On the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land where the grazing was stopped," Martin said, "there was no compensation at all."
Even some of the environmentalists who have pushed for an end to livestock grazing across the Mojave have a soft spot for the Blair family.
"These are good people. There may be some middle ground," said Elden Hughes, who is chairman of the Sierra Club's California/Nevada Desert Committee.
Hughes sees a role for the Blair ranch as a kind of living museum, with the Blairs acting as resident "historian interpreters." He believes some of the herd could be kept as a kind of historical display.
As their fellow ranchers sell, the Blairs have looked on in frustration. "What kind of price are you going to put on this lifestyle?" Rob Blair asked.
Judging by the prices obtained by other ranchers, the family might be able to demand $3 million to $4 million for their holdings. Their fear is that the pending federal lawsuit, if successful, could drop the market value of the ranch to almost nothing.
Over a family dinner one recent evening, Rob Blair summarized their predicament:
"These kids are the fifth generation," he said, pointing to his three freckle-faced offspring. "This is our home, and nobody wants to leave. But we all agree that if they are going to run us out, it's better to leave with something than empty-handed."