Mac, Sam and John ride out to check cattle and country. 


By Betty Barr


     The Empire Ranch in the high desert country of southeastern Arizona is home to many endangered species of flora and fauna. It has been home to cattle for more than 100 years. It is also a wildlife corridor connecting Mexico to the Catalina Mountains near Tucson and one of the main aquifers recharging that city's well system. 

     The 75,000-acre ranch was acquired in 1988 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is mandated by Congress to provide for what they call "multiple use."” The BLM has to "meet the needs of a broad spectrum of the population" and the question arose as to where grazing could continue to fit into the picture and share the 110 square miles with hikers, hunters, horsemen and bicyclists. 

     The Donaldson family has leased the Empire's rangelands since the late 1970s when the property was owned by Anamax Mining Company. Anamax needed a good supply of water for their mining operations so it also needed to keep the range in optimum condition to ensure a good supply. The mining company&39;s leaders asked conservation-oriented rancher John Donaldson, the family's 82-year-old patriarch, to help manage the resource properly. 

"I saw something unique here," Donaldson says. "It took about two days to figure out what I wanted to do with the resource, the topography, availability of water, the seasons." 

     Donaldson developed a rest/rotation plan to better utilize the different ecosystems and soil types, and eventually entered into a beneficial grazing lease agreement with Anamax. When the BLM took over in 1988, the Donaldsons had four years left on their lease, but the future of grazing on the Empire was in question. After many years of meetings and input from various factions, a Record of Decision was filed in the Federal Register officially recognizing grazing as a multiple use application. Donaldson, along with his son Mac and grandson Sam, now has a conventional Taylor Grazing Lease to continue the family's cattle ranching operation on the property. 

     The ranch sees a lot of recreational activity at all times of the year by nature enthusiasts and other outdoorsmen. Permits for quail, dove,, deer, javelina and a reintroduced species of antelope bring a limited number of hunters into the area. This activity, coupled with the ongoing traffic of illegal border crossers whose camp and cooking fires can get out of control,, necessitates constant adaptation on the part of the cattlemen. The Donaldsons have planned their management routine to allow for frequent checking of gates, fences and water tanks during periods of heavy use. 

     The natural riparian area provides habitat for a number of proposed or endangered species including the Gila topminnow, willow flycatcher, Gila chub and the Chiricahua leopard frog. The Donaldsons fence the cattle out of the creek to protect these creatures and to sustain the numerous nonendangered species that also thrive there. During the nongrowing season, the livestock still have access to a portion of the river and are actually fenced in on the adjacent sacaton-grass flats. Grazing prevents the grass from becoming decadent so this is to force-graze the woody stalks of full-grown sacaton which are unpalatable to cattle. 

     According to BLM wildlife biologist and land-use planner Karen Simms, Donaldson's management is the reason for a dramatic improvement in the riparian area. The fencing program has been especially beneficial to the willow flycatcher and has allowed the fish population to be maintained at healthy levels. 

     Authentic restoration of the original ranch buildings is another important program at the Empire Ranch. Walter Vail and his partner Herbert Hislop purchased the first 160 acres in 1876 for $2,000 in U.S. gold coin. This was the start of a long and colorful history. Hislop eventually returned to his native England while Vail continued to add to the holdings. By 1881 it was truly on the way to becoming an empire with more than 5,000 head of cattle. The ranch included the Total Wreck Silver Mine, a town of 300 residents, and a toll road that controlled the cattle trail to the Southern Pacific loading chutes. After Vail’s untimely death in 1906, his 17-year-old son Banning was sent to Arizona to learn at the Empire Ranch. Seven years later he became the manager. Banning Vail and his wife Laura were renowned for their gracious hospitality. When there were guests for dinner, the men would repair to the master bathroom after dessert to smoke their cigars and talk cattle. They referred to it as the "Gentlemen's Room."

Eighty-two-year-old John Donaldson, above, runs the 

Empire Ranch with as much care and concern as if it 

were his own. This 75,000-acre outfit in southeastern 

Arizona has been running cows for more than a century. 


The ranch was the site of a continual stream of friends, relatives and business associates, but what made the Empire really special was the large cast of characters who lived and worked there. There was Apache Joe, the stoic Indian, whose job was to keep a continual supply of mesquite firewood on hand; he stacked it in huge piles and brought it up to the house as needed in an old wheelbarrow. Ranch hand Bartolo was the envy of the other cowboys because his wife rolled his cigarettes and put them in a metal box for him to take out on the range. Mr. Helmann, the prim and proper bookkeeper who kept track of all the cattle transactions and managed the ranch store, still made time every morning to clean all the canned goods with a feather duster. Then there was the nursemaid who came from across the border and asked the family to give her an Anglo name so her abusive husband couldn't find her; she was known as Sally. In the mid-1920s a terrible drought forced the Vails to ship their starving livestock to ranches in Mexico. Soon afterward they sold the ranch. The Boice family's Chiricahua Cattle Company, dubbed the Cherry Cows, purchased the Empire in 1928. The headquarters, a rock adobe building still standing today, had a long breezeway in the center with hooks to hang meat, and screen nets so the wind could blow through. They had an old pensioner named Dee who had cowboyed for the family in his younger days; he was in charge of the storeroom. The cowboys helped make the jerky. They cut the meat in long pieces, spread it out on tables and peppered it thickly, then hung it over a wire to dry. The crisp strips were packed into flour sacks and sent out to camp. The camp cooks would take a hatchet, break them up and add water to make stew or fix it in a skillet with gravy and biscuits.


Mac with a working friend. 

     Gulf American, a large development company, bought the property from the Boices in 1960 and sank a number of wells before reselling it to Anamax, when even more wells were drilled. Southern Arizona is always subject to drought and an adequate water supply is vital to both livestock and wildlife. Those wells turned out to be the key factor in John Donaldson's management plan. 

     "We don't depend on windmills, we don't depend on floods to fill water tanks,' son Mac explains. 'We pump the water using a submersible pump with a generator. When we rotate the cows to another pasture we don't have to worry about the water." 

     The Donaldsons try to keep 12 to 18 months supply of feed ahead. Rather than grazing down to the ground they keep some reserves, so when drought comes they don't have to buy feed for their cattle. 

     The Empire Ranch has a magical quality that seems to exert a lifelong influence on those who have lived and worked there. Today members of the Vail, Boice and Donaldson families sit on the board of the Empire Ranch Foundation, dedicated to the historic restoration of the original buildings and the creation of a western heritage learning center. 

     In 2002, The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum presented John Donaldson with the Chester A. Reynolds Memorial Award. In January 2004, the Quivira Coalition honored the Donaldson family, along with the Sonoita Valley Planning Partnership, with the third annual Clarence Burch Award. The award recognizes innovative ideas in ranch management that build bridges between ranchers, environmentalists and others to restore western rangelands. The award includes a grant of $15,000 to the Las Cienegas Conservation area, which will be used to enhance the resources on the Empire. 

     "If you can't economically ranch within the environment's ability to be productive without using artificial means," John Donaldson states passionately, "you better get into another line of endeavor."


Betty Barr of Sonoita, Ariz., retired as marketing director of Safari Club International and writes historical features for The Bulletin and Nogales International newspapers. 

Tucsonian Louise Serpa was the first woman to receive a Rodeo Cowboy of America press card and has been inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. 

THE EMPIRE: Looking Back 


     1876-Walter Vail and Herbert Hislop purchased first 160 acres for $2,000 in gold coin. 

     1906-Walter Vail was killed in San Francisco, "crushed between two streetcars going in opposite directions." His 17-year-old son Banning started learning the ropes at the Empire and became manager seven years later.   

     1920s-"Cold-blooded" (wild) horses so overran the range that they were eating grass needed for cattle. Vail rounded up the horses and gave away as many as his neighbors would take. He spent the next two days shooting the remainder, stacking them in a wash so that a cowboy could walk across it on the corpses. Vail's daughter Dusty remembered the time as "harrowing."

     Mid 1920s-A terrible drought forced cattle owners to ship their starving livestock to Mexico. Banning Vail trailed over 7,000 head of cattle south of the border in what was to be the last major Arizona cattle drive. 

     1928-Vail sold Empire to the Boice family's Chiricahua Cattle Company, dubbed the Cherry Cows.

     1930s and '40s-Frank and Mary Boice ran the Empire. Mary had a reputation as a first-class hand. She participated in all facets of ranch life, including roundups, sorting and shipping. An account of the day says: "She did everything but doctor for screw-worms."

     Early 1970s-Anamax Mining Company bought the ranch. 1975-Anamax brought in John Donaldson as range management consultant.

    1976-Donaldson and Anamax entered into a beneficial grazing lease agreement. 1988-BLM acquired the property from Anamax by trading several noncontiguous parcels in northern Arizona for this one large parcel more suitable to their needs.    

Mercantile chaps were too big and stiff for 

Dusty Vail so her father talked the foreman, Blas Lopes, 

into giving her his broken-in chaps. 

Photo Courtesy Susan Hughes and the Vail Family 

Margaret Vail, sidesaddle, watches cowboys work. 

(Photo Courtesy Susan Hughes and the Vail Family)

This photo of cow ponies stretching out a bull was used on Vail Ranch letterhead. 

(Photo Courtesy Susan Hughes and the Vail Family 1960-Gulf American, 

a large development company purchased the Empire Ranch.)

Dusty Vail on Coltee. Her father said, "I can tell you a lot 

of things about working cattle but your best teacher is this horse." He told her to watch Coltee's ears and the horse would show her what to do. 

(Photo Courtesy Susan Hughes and the Vail Family)

Dusty Vail and her favorite playmate Brother Brown, 

son of the family cook, Lena, in 1918. 

Lena's culinary talent was the talk of the ranch. 

(Photo Courtesy Susan Hughes and the Vail Family)

Official Empire Land and Cattle Co. letterhead incorporated several ranch photos. 

(Photo Courtesy Susan Hughes and the Vail Family)


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