Back when she was married to Gulfstream Aerospace founder Allen Paulson, she focused his considerable energies on the world of thoroughbred and show jumping horses. Paulson died in 2000, and she married Texas oil baron T. Boone Pickens. Today, she owns the Del Mar Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., and enjoys a high-flying and privileged lifestyle most folks can only imagine.
So what, you may wonder, is she doing in Nevada?
Madeleine Pickens is out to save the state’s beleaguered and harassed wild horses. That, as you can imagine, will be no mean feat. The state’s history is littered with the carcasses of previous attempts.
Where some past champions of the state’s mustangs have focused on intervention in controversial Bureau of Land Management roundups, and others have worked the treacherous Washington corral — watch where you step! — to improve federal laws to protect the animals, Pickens is planning to do precisely what you might expect from a woman of substantial means.
She’s buying the wild horses a ranch big enough for their wandering hooves and roaming, restless souls. In October, Pickens purchased the 14,000-acre Spruce Ranch 70 miles east of Elko. Her initial plan includes relocating 1,000 horses to the ranch.
That sounds pretty ambitious, but that’s only the start. She’s also applying with the BLM to fence another 500,000 acres with hopes of creating a wild horse sanctuary with room for thousands of Nevada’s mustangs. Plans for a tourist dude ranch and wild horse safaris are also on the drawing board.
That sounds idyllic, but nothing is ever simple where the state’s wild horses are concerned. First, there’s the BLM permitting process. The bureau has never released that many wild horses to one entity.
Then there’s the bigger issue — that proposed fence line. Nevada’s ranchers, with roots reaching back generations and firmly planted at the state Legislature and inside the BLM, aren’t interested in the range being blocked. Area hunters and off-roaders aren’t keen on it, either.
Pickens’ plan isn’t just optimistic. It’s colossal. If she eventually has her way, she wants to make room for the 34,000 wild horses currently under federal stewardship in a natural habitat free from BLM roundups and dog food factory poaching.
Following the announcement of the Spruce Ranch purchase, Pickens enthused to The Associated Press, “It’s such a huge beginning. I plant to buy more property out there. There’s such an overload of horses in government holding.”
Yes, but there’s no shortage of critics riding hard against her. Unlike “Wild Horse Annie” and other mustang advocates of generations past, Pickens brings to the table unprecedented clout. In addition to an essentially inexhaustible bankroll, she also has access to the highest reaches of the federal government and bureaucracy.
She isn’t just another pretty face.
And now the national press has caught onto the story. Just last week The Wall Street Journal featured Pickens, the plight of the wild horses, and the arguments of the state’s ranching leaders. The difference is simple: Those ranchers are used to holding most of the cards in any story about the wild horses. The press can gnash its teeth and wring its hands over the fate of the majestic creatures, but the ranchers have almost always had the most influence when it came time to writing and passing legislation.
While BLM Deputy Director Mike Pool has been publicly supportive of Pickens’ bold plan, and the bureau has received a written proposal from her, the agency rejected her initial proposal because it violated the 1971 Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
Critics who try to write off Pickens as simply a wealthy animal welfare activist do so at their own risk. She’s tough, talented and tenacious.
You’ll be hearing a lot more about her in 2011.
John L. Smith writes a weekly column on rural Nevada. He also writes four columns a week for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/ blogs/smith.