Fewer than a dozen dude ranches are operating in Oregon, a drop in the bucket compared with the multi-million dollar industries enjoyed by Colorado and Wyoming.

Momentum here has waned, according to the national Dude Ranchers Association.

But it was that momentum that in 1997 helped win ranchers an exemption to Oregons quarter-century old land use laws.

That exemption allows for guest services and lodging on ranches of 160 acres or more.

And it is an exemption we encourage the legislature to make permanent. The law passed in 1997 sunsets in December of this year.

Even if this exemption hasnt born bountiful fruit, it still warrants maintaining.

Developing, marketing and operating a full-blown dude ranch is no simple task. It demands an investment of time and money that some ranchers cant muster.

But these operations dont have to amount to near-resort status they dont, and probably wont, as land-use watchdogs 1000 Friends of Oregon fear.

Instead, they can be a vacant farmhouse converted for guest use, offering a modest alternate source of income for the ranch, as families like the Haweses of Burnt River have discovered.

They play host in a bed and breakfast format to touring cyclists and escapees from the city seeking a rural refuge a lot less primitive than camping.

Other dude ranches could start similarly and grow as the family has time and talent to develop marketing and programming, or as entrepreneurs skilled in tourism discover a rewarding, if not profitable, way to partner with ranches.

That is important for two reasons.

In an era when off-farm and off-ranch income is critically important, thats a chance to earn more money at home.

And in an era where citizen petitions and even the legislature often make blunders and mis-characterizations about ranching practices and rural lifeways, we need to not only play host to guests from the city, but make allies of them.

The first step is riding a mile in a ranchers saddle.

After that, they and their children will be markedly less likely to answer the question Where does meat come from? with The store.