With a close-cropped thatch of silver hair, glasses and an engaging grin, John V. Stechman could easily be mistaken for a family doctor or the friendly pharmacist you’ve known all your life.
In reality, those are a couple of professions that he hasn’t been known for in his 77 years on Earth. Some of the handles he has held include professor, author, 45-year environmental consultant, historian, range-management maven, legal expert (he was one of a handful of range experts who could testify in court as to why and how livestock ended up in one-on-one encounters with vehicles on public roads) and artist.
So, not so oddly, he carries himself with the manner and mien of all those appellations. A tall man with ramrod-straight posture, he takes long strides when moving from point A to B. It’s not difficult to imagine him taking broad, brisk steps across a pasture or meadow, perhaps checking for plants that might be poisonous to livestock, or kneeling down and crumbling a dirt clod in well-weathered, calloused hands to determine moisture content or soil nutrient levels.
In short, he’s Alan Ladd’s latter-day “Shane,” only a foot taller — and the real deal.
And now he’s got another handle: recipient of the Sustained Lifetime Achievement Award from the international Society for Range Management. It’s a distinction that recognizes nearly 50 years of management guidance on nearly 800,000 acres of California rangeland, as well as his teaching and mentorship of Cal Poly students for 32 years, his cow-calf ranching, his dozens of grants, awards and honors, and his numerous manuals, books and articles published over the years.
Born in Peoria, Ill., Stechman headed to the West for his higher education, which took him to Occidental, UC Berkeley and UC Davis. That, in turn, led in 1960 to his 32-year career in the Cal Poly School of Agriculture’s range-management program.
Marc R. Horney, a professor in Rangeland Resource Management in Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences, was a student of Stechman’s “toward the end of his tenure at Cal Poly, graduating just two years before he retired. In the two decades since, I have lost count of the many people across the state with whom conversations that in any way turned to grassland management, always seemed to draw mention of him.
“I well remember John’s field labs as a student, always just being amazed at his intimate knowledge of a wide range of plant species, soils and animals. While his attention to detail could be intimidating as a student, his genuine curiosity and interest in those details was infectious. John could always be seen on any field day or tour, off on the periphery, collecting and examining plants, and (presumably) forming in his mind an image of the land around him.”
Stechman’s tenure at Cal Poly not only enriched his students, it also led to his meeting the locally legendary Harold Miossi.
A little history: Miossi’s family roots burrowed into this county between 1864 and 1870 as Swiss-Italian dairy farmers, roots that eventually led to La Cuesta Ranch, 860 acres on the south side of the Cuesta Grade, just north of Cuesta Park.
La Cuesta Ranch was a catalyst for Miossi’s fight against the powerful State Highway Department — now Caltrans — which proposed in the mid-1960s that 160 feet of the top of the Grade be shaved off and some 50 million cubic yards of that dirt then be dumped into Cuesta Canyon, filling the canyon, “a land of lavender hills and shadowed oaks, maples and sycamores, meadows and old barns,” Miossi said at the time. The state’s aim was construction of a six-lane freeway and 120-foot-wide median to be built on the fill. Goodbye canyon, goodbye a huge portion of San Luis Creek, goodbye Cuesta Park, goodbye lavender-and-oak-covered hills.
Initially facing down the state alone — although the project would have opened his ranch to lucrative development possibilities — Miossi, who died in 2006, eventually enlisted a huge bipartisan, multi-interest base — including the avid support of then-Telegram Tribune Editor George Brand, who could wield a wicked editorial pen — and the proverbial David slew the proverbial Giant. The plan died.
John Stechman met Miossi; their interests jibed, especially after they both worked on the Montaña de Oro Park Advisory Committee that set the guidelines for park use before it was opened to the public. Chief among those concerns was keeping the park in the most natural state possible, fighting a bitter battle to ban off-road uses in the park’s master plan, which is still in effect today.
With Miossi involved with the local Sierra Club, Farm Bureau, Knights of Columbus and Democratic Central Committee, as well as being appointed a California Probate Referee — an inheritance tax appraiser, if you will — he leased La Cuesta Ranch to Stechman in 1971. For the next 20 years, in addition to teaching at Cal Poly, he ran a cow-calf operation, shoeing his own horses and improving the annual calf weaning weights 90 pounds over those two decades, no doubt through wise range management practices.
As Arroyo Grande resident Bill Weitkamp, a nationally respected agriculturist who led the county’s UC Cooperative Extension for 35 years, says simply of his friend and colleague: “John is the most dedicated and knowledgeable of range professionals.” High praise indeed.
Nowadays, Stechman and wife Dottie live in Avila Beach, where he undoubtedly still consults, writes, paints landscapes and drinks deeply with all of his senses the open spaces and rangeland of the Central Coast and beyond.
Bill Morem can be reached at email@example.com or at 781-7852.