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Ranching: An Old Way of Life in the New West
PAUL F. STARRS
For decades proposals have been floated to arrest grazing on federal lands. And today, in our interesting times, arguments are actively being made—consider one published quotation—to "remove livestock from public lands to conserve native biodiversity." Although this statement invokes an epic ecological simple-mindedness that only a law professor could muster, the spirit is as undeniably and quixotically valiant as the conservation biology is primitive. In fact there is a distinguished tradition of ganging up on the livestock industry (as a structural entity), on cattle and sheep (as agents of change), on grazing (as a practice), and on livestock ranchers (as convenient and visible foils). All bear examining.
The theme isn't close to new. The bumper sticker campaigns of the 1990s exhorted "Cattle Free by '93," "Out the Door by '94," "Boycott Public Lands Beef." An entire catalog would take up column-feet of text. Still easily available are volumes with titles as carefully charged with inflammatory power as habanero chile bins at a Tucson farmer's market: Sacred Cows at the Public Trough, Waste of the West, Beyond Beef. None of them (surprise!) is by an ecologist. In Elko, Nevada, a couple of years ago—a stronghold of ranching and wildlife and diverse federal lands if ever there was one—a billboard was installed at the southern end of town where it loomed, unsubtly, over every citizen's entry and exit. "Our public lands, ground into hamburger," it read. Studiously (and uncharacteristically), the Shovel Brigade and the Wise Users ignored it. There is nonetheless a great deal of heat generated on the theme of public lands grazing—an anger and skepticism that extends to ranching generally in the American West, whether it involves public lands or not. Vast eddies of hot rhetoric swirl about this topic, which insists on the removal of livestock, and so, tacitly, livestock ranchers, from the use of western public lands. Opening up on the subject can get you into at least a shouting match in any bar in the New West. Certainly it merits discussion.
Even more insidious today is the percolation of that benevolent pro-wilderness, antihuman sensibility steeped into those of us who grew up in the 1970s, started college in the 1980s, and graduated to become observers and students of the public domain in the 1990s. We watched, agape and eventually aghast, as the sides spread wide apart, ever intransigent, often absurd in their militancy (or militant in their absurdity?). To use or not to use: This was the polarization betwixt proponents and opponents of grazing. There are voices in between, but few. The debate, Manichean in philosophical terms, is polarized black versus white and lodged against the detents of reason. The splits are extreme: full use or none, wild or domestic, city slickers or rural rubes, federal or private, small or big, endangered species or livestock. In these terms, the hand dealt is typically all-cows or no-cows. But this doesn't need to be so—as a number of entirely reasonable conservation and biodiversity groups have made clear by meeting ranchers and other western interest groups more than halfway. Innovations are happening in support of not just biodiversity but also working landscapes and a central terrain of shared use and purpose. The question is: How are these innovations being recorded, acknowledged, tested for results, and, if good, passed forward?
There are intriguing programs designed to use the stewardship practices of ranchers—and the actions of grazing animals, and the habitat they use, for part or all of the year—for larger aims. These aims may be personal goals, open-space goals, ecological goals, watershed goals, fuel-hazard-reduction goals, economic goals, community goals, government goals. But they flow in an atmosphere that still includes a proportion of cow haters. And change is occurring with sufficient speed on the ground—let a thousand ranchettes blossom from one historic ranch property—that this is no time to dither.
Ranching's very practice, formation, and history make for an extraordinarily multicultural and diverse way of life that is rife with harsh compromises and yields sometimes opulent, sometimes disappointing, results. In moving away, we break clear to a suitable viewpoint; fog lifts. Gaining a sight line is, in no small degree, what this essay is about.
RANCH FITS AND STARTS
Ranching in the United States is a singular mix of the resolutely practical and time-honored as well as features that are dreamlike and elusive, feats of imagery and the fantastic and the romantic. The product is a distinctive landscape, extensive in its territory, yet often subtle, or at least remote, in its humanized features. The ranching landscape is a subject of almost infinite complexity about which much has already been written. But the essence of twenty-first-century ranching—and the cowboy, and the ranch economy, and the landscape of the ranch—is complicated adaptation. And that is nothing new. It's been so for a century and a half, maybe even five hundred years, since cattle and the elements of ranching practice were brought to the New World in Columbus' second expedition in 1493. That's a long tradition, in which change is about the only expected and standard rule, with challenge a close second to change as agent and force. It's odd that a lifeway whose supporters are so given to espousing tradition is, in fact, completely dependent on tacking before countervailing political, ecological, and economic winds. Ranchers tend, pretty much of necessity, to be ultimate pragmatists. It is their supporters who wear the big hats, never having choused a cow, and it is often rancher-wannabes who prove notoriously inflexible, hidebound, and doctrinaire. Because ranching requires access to so much land and because its incomes are at best small, ranching has rarely had a strong built-in economic constituency in places of power. Instead ranchers have through the years had to make cultural converts. And they continue having to do so, with surprising and ongoing success.
The roots of ranching in the American West are stunningly ancient, extending back to practice in the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, and the Mediterranean realm. But ranching is also the most swiftly adapting and changing land use in the West—largely because it has to be (Figure 1.1). There is little alternative. Ranch land and public lands are under unceasing pressure—in the past from farmers and homesteaders and distant elected representatives, today from environmentalists, real estate developers, politicians and planners, and sundry others. And ranchers respond to these challenges, continuing a practice of improvisation and circumstantial change that keeps ranching, in all its variations, very much among the contending forces of the New West.
It does not hurt that almost everyone is in some way enchanted by the lifestyle (though there are violent contrarians). Ranching has forever involved people of varied ethnicity, race, income, and gender. To each one's own: The newly rich flock to trophy ranches in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and slap down conservation easements and land trusts and buffalo herds that are profoundly of the present, much akin to what the nineteenth-century "remittance men" did when they carved out their part of the frontier and put it to use. And for the middle class there remains the image of the ranch house, the ranchette, and all the colorful histories and nostalgias that time and place can build. The ranch, then, is intrinsic to the western past but intimately part of the New West's future. Ranching embodies, still, American ambitions: dreams of community, dreams of avarice, dreams of control or compromise, dreams of family, dreams of authority, dreams of dominance, dreams of paternalistic arrogance. Not all are pleased—but that too is part of the story.
The ranch, in its varied parts and people, remains interesting to many Americans because the cowhand, the ranch, the federal grazing permit, are telling features of our time. This notion is echoed in Kinky Friedman's timeless line—a bit of prose graven not in High Country News, not in some local penny-saver magazine, but in the op-ed pages of the venerable New York Times—which holds that "cowboys are America's gift to the children of the world." The ranch gets written off episodically, of course, just like the cowhand. The ranch merits attention precisely because it is controversial and aggressively lacking in diffidence. The ranch grows more interesting because it impinges on aspirations and clashes with visions of what we might want the world to become. Because the ranch and ranch land (and the land that ranchers borrow from the American people) are under pressure, they have always a currency and vigor that less brazen places and landscapes lack.
Ranching is our figurative scarlet "A," a badge variously of courage and shame and fortitude. If we cannot make the ranch work in the twenty-first century, then I would say we will have proved we cannot have a rural future in the urban West. Across this western terrain, Gertrude Stein's words resound: "In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is, that is what makes America what it is." Through the classic images that reveal the American West as a place of lights, ranch country dwells in the bower of darkness (Figure 1.2). The large metropolises in this image are strikingly evident: here Denver, there Phoenix, Vegas, Albuquerque, Salt Lake. But they are fireflies, clots of photoluminescence, compared to the great darkness that is ranch land and wild land, which share one fundamental attribute: a paucity of people.
Is the West "an immense landscape ... going from one set of uses to another set of uses, from one way of life to another, in an astoundingly short time?" This is the way Ed Marston, publisher of High Country News, put the matter in a recent essay. Or, restating the case, is the ranch about to disappear? Or is the ranch, instead, an essential landscape feature, the physical expression of long-standing human values, and an ever-developing fact? Ranching will not disappear. But it risks retreat from the city edge into distant redoubts where it might grow all but forgotten. Obviously the ranch has survived so far by redefining itself, and to some degree this is happening now. A ranch is more than a couple of cows; it is more than a ranch house; it is other than a 15-acre ranchette. And though there certainly can be llama farms or bison outfits or subdivisions or bordellos that dub themselves "ranches," it should probably be agreed that the ranch is more than something owned by a gal or a guy sporting a big hat and a belt buckle nearly as large. A ranch is in its essentials extensive—a use of sizable acreage to produce something from forage grown on the ranch itself. That something can include wildlife, of course, or beef or cabrito or wool, or watershed protection or biodiversity banking. The essence of the ranch is absolute acreage, never easily obtained. And this acreage requirement is precisely what separates the western ranch from its eastern private-pasture-based forebears. It is also what connects the ranch to its traditional Hispanic roots: Hispanic ranchers had to have acreage too, although the Hispanic (or Canadian) world has fewer overt concerns about the private use of large acreages than the founding fathers of the United States.
The subdivision of sizable properties into small parcels is happening everywhere across the West, a doleful expression of our millennial pathology. Many a recently platted subdivision adopts the moniker "ranch"—a slew of them, for instance, exist in a dozen-mile radius of downtown Reno, Nevada, mostly named for this or that historic family ranch recently sliced and diced at high per-unit profit into coveted ranchettes. Once a subdivision arrives the size, the forage, the vistas, and the abstract quality of open range are gone: Lights loom. Yet ranching in its diverse nomenclatural modes is the litmus of the New West, a most interesting realm. For some of its fans, the ranch is a state of mind. They love the chance to own a piece of the old, the wild, West. It would be foolhardy to grow grim-countenanced about this. Let's instead rejoice in the evolving possibilities.
What would happen if those who object to western ranchers making use of public lands for grazing domesticated animals were actually to get their way? Remove western ranchers as land stewards, and what have you got? Although there's no immediate risk that the use of 330 million acres of western lands will be withdrawn from ranchers, horns are being raised by latter-day Gabriels to trumpet just that possibility.
Of course, there are those who say the cat's been watching the canary for too long already, since the late nineteenth century, with ranchers granted a large role in public land management by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. A hundred years ago there were massive abuses of unclaimed public lands by grazing animals—enough to cause real ecological damage from which recovery is slow, but ongoing. With the days of catastrophic abuse past, who is the appropriate steward of public lands? And if public lands ranching were actually to stop, who would gain dominion over these lands? In the last couple of decades, things have been getting better. And new dialogues have begun that make the early twenty-first century especially exciting for land managers.
Consider the alternatives. The military is the solution that the early preservationist John Muir offered. In a wonderfully overt letter contributed to The Century Magazine, he explained that "one soldier in the woods, armed with authority and a gun, would be more effective in forest preservation than millions of forbidding notices. I believe that the good time of the suffering forests can be hastened through the War Department." And: "Let the forests on all the head waters of all the rivers in the country be reserved and put under the charge of the War Department, the most reliable, permanent, unpolitical, and effective department in our Government,—and then forest affairs will definitely be settled, and all our living trees will clap their hands and wave in joy." But in Nevada, where branches of the armed services in the year 2000 directly control almost 30 percent of the public land (and overfly far more acreage), there is sparse—and waning—confidence in military management. Nevadans live year-to-year with the likelihood, a specter, of a military/civilian entente that will load fifty years of nuclear waste into the fractured tunnels underlying Yucca Mountain—already home to a couple of generations of atomic and nuclear testing. Yet it should be noted that often the best-preserved and best-managed wildlands near many an American city are on military reserves. But the military's mandate is specific. And the techniques of military usurpation have, in general, been applied through the years to other kinds of projects as well: building dams, policing parks, sanctifying wildlife reserves, suppressing fires.
Excerpted from Ranching West of the 100th Meridian by Richard L. Knight, Wendell C. Gilgert, Ed Marston. Copyright © 2002 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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