For the week of October 14 thru October 20, 1998  

Trailing the Sheep keeps Americana alive

Commentary By PAT MURPHY

Sheep ranchers are a persistent and patient lot. Their fortunes constantly are at risk– from weather, predators, price fluctuations, changing consumer tastes.

So, third generation sheep rancher John Peavey’s stubbornness comes from a long line of hardy stock that has weathered the worst of times since the last century.

Persistence and patience were at the heart of Peavey’s refusal to abandon an idea that was slow to catch on with others – transforming the 100-year-old tradition of sheep drives through the Wood River Valley into a civic event.

Peavey was rewarded in grand fashion when a variety of events in the valley this week celebrates the importance of sheep, with chambers of commerce of others joining hands to support Peavey’s idea.

Mind you, most of us can benefit from Peavey’s doggedness.

Peavey is concerned that urban expatriates moving into the Wood River Valley don’t understand the economic and cultural contributions of sheep ranching.

And such ignorance in Peavey’s view could lead to political attacks on sheep ranching as environmentally out of step with the urbanization of the Wood River Valley and the interests of newcomers.

The antidote for ignorance is education.

Hence, the panoply of events– lectures, lamb menu in area restaurants, a mockup of a shepherd’s camp, wool spinning– topped off with Peavey’s finale, driving a band of hundreds of sheep through downtown Ketchum on Main Street.

"Trailing the Sheep" – a chance for citified folks to get out and walk with Peavey, his shepherds, the dogs and the sheep as they course through downtown– was as close as most anyone ever gets to sheep herds, unless they spend a night in the hills among grazing herds.

Those of us who’re occasionally stopped in our tracks when a band of sheep move through town still marvel at the sight– shepherds and their dogs keeping the milling herd moving and in relative formation, and minimizing interruption of the town’s life.

Now the nation’s eight largest sheep ranching state, Idaho once counted 250,000 sheep in its pastures. That’s down to about 25,000, with most pastured in this area, where they graze on public lands with permits between May and October, then head south to warmer climes, returning again in May.

So, twice a year, ranchers herd their sheep through the valley.

"Trailing the Sheep" won’t replace skiing on. Bald Mountain as an attraction, although surely it’ll be unique among all U.S. communities as an unforgettable sight and photo-op.

Not to be forgotten is the serious objective: to educate the uninformed about sheep ranching and its place in our economy and culture. (Doing her part, Peavey’s wife, Diane, broadcasts a weekly commentary on the world of sheep ranching on regional PBS radio stations.)

So much Americana has been lost in the rush to urbanize once tranquil areas. The Wood River Valley faces the same peril, as developers gobble up vacant land to make way for homes for big city families seeking escape – and who’re helping create some of the same sort of mess they’re fleeing.

The way to prevent the Wood River Valley from succumbing to the worst of growth is to preserve as much of the old ways and traditions that give the area character and make it an irresistible refuge from madness of the metropolis.

"Trailing the Sheep" is not only a proper tribute to those wooly creatures on which so many depend for clothing and food, but also a tradition that helps preserve the idyllic and picturesque ways of the Wood River Valley.

Pat Murphy is a past publisher of the Arizona Republic and a former radio commentator. 


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