Sprawl Spurs Tucson Search For Urban Cowboy
By Mark Muro, Special to Stateline
Wanted: An accomplished cowpoke.
Salary is $9.95 per hour. Duties include the feeding, herding, castrating, branding and transporting of large, rambunctious animals.
Excellent benefits. Wimps needn't apply.
Call it a sign of the times in the New West that Tucson, Ariz., recently placed a "ranch worker" ad on the city's employment Web page.
This Sun Belt metropolis is going back to the future because it's gotten into the ranching business. That's because demand for open space in growing Western cities is prompting places like Tucson to take ever bolder steps to protect quality of life.
Tucson's need for a ranch hands stems from 1998, when it responded to citizens' pleas to save open space by spending $2.5 million for 41,000 acres of spectacular grazing land east of the city. The objective was to slow the city's sprawl by preserving a beautiful swath of nearby hills and crags.
The plan was to eventually sell the giant ranch to a more traditional conservation organization, such as the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy or the Bureau of Land Management.
However, that option hasn't materialized. So a booming metropolis better known for its retirement communities, astronomical observatories and cutting edge optics industry must also run a massive ranch 10 miles beyond the city limits.
"We got into this as a conservation real estate deal, but until it's wrapped up we're holding a ranch," explains John Updike, a city project manager.
And that doesn't mean an empty ranch, but one filled with bovine beasts. State law requires lessees of state trust land to run cattle on such tracts, which obliges the city to plunge into the day-to-day practicalities of running a cattle operation.
Hence the city's recent search for a cowpoke.
With fence lines to mend, crops to plant and the city's official herd of 84 cows in need of tending, the city needs a cowboy to help the two other wranglers on the ranch, which is why the city posted its unusual job opening late last month.
Fortunately for Tucson, plenty of would-be cowboys have answered its ad. What might seem a dead-end job in a new service economy has been a hot item, especially since the city puts ads in local feed stores as well as on the Web.
It hasn't hurt that the city has thrown in benefits such as the city's regular 401(k) plan and full medical and dental benefits. Even so, city officials have been flabbergasted at the interest Tucsonans have shown in their $9.95 an hour opportunity, especially after the local newspaper, The Arizona Daily Star , ran an article on the opening.
"We're flooded with responses, which really surprises us because this is a college student/senior citizen kind of town in the middle of a high tech boom," says Curry Hale, the human resources technician overseeing the cowboy search.
"It's been pretty funny, too," Hale adds. "One guy asked if he could bring his horse, so I told him he could bring that up in the interview. One woman was asking if we do traditional heat branding or chemical branding. I guess she was worried about the animals. Other guys have these real cowboy names when you read their applications: Buffalo This' or whatnot."
At any rate, the city will soon make its selection of a ranch hand from among some 100 applicants, and when it does it will become one of the few municipalities around with a genuine cowboy on its payroll, along with the more traditional auditors, inspectors and solid waste district supervisors.
Surely that's a sign of something, as the wide open spaces of the Old West get smaller and smaller.