Cliven Bundy rides his horse waving the American flag. He’s a Fox News hero who refused to pay fees and fines for illegally grazing his cows on federal lands for 20 years and then participated in an armed standoff with law enforcement, a frightening and fraught encounter for which he’s never been charged. He’s a cowboy hero, an icon of the rugged individualist, a living piece of the American Dream. Though he fell off his pedestal by blathering racism in the media’s glare, he still commands a lot of sympathy either consciously with right-wing rurals or, worse, unconsciously in the minds of everybody who wants to be, or at least preserve, the American cowboy.
And who doesn’t love the dashing vision of a cowboy, tall in the saddle on his handsome horse, splashes through a sunlit stream as he herds those little dogies along? Methinks, perhaps, the 80 percent of wildlife species that depend on riparian areas, a mere two percent of the land in the intermountain states. Cow-trampled, muddied streams with no overhanging grasses leave these once lush areas with a fraction of the biodiversity they evolved with. The livestock impacts of upland aspen and sagebrush steppes decimate the complexity of the delicate interplay between life and precious water in these drier, more prevalent ecosystems, leaving bare ground that blows away causing even more problems with snowmelt at high elevations. Meanwhile, public lands grazing has cost taxpayers over $1 billion in the last decade, and, as Christopher Ketcham reports in the New Republic this week, livestock are draining the arid West as the historic drought deepens.
There’s nothing wrong with a myth. It’s only harmful if it supersedes reason in decision-making. And there’s the rub. Though public lands ranchers raise only 3% of the nation’s beef and though they represent only a small fraction of the economies in their states, the livestock industry holds outsized power in the West. In Utah, county commissioners influence elections of party convention delegates, the folks who determine who makes it to the ballot. Or not. Like, for instance, the popular incumbents Sen. Bob Bennett and Gov. Olene Walker, who both enjoyed big approval ratings even as the party faithful refused to nominate them to the ballot. Ranchers disgruntled by Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service regulators can call Sen. Orrin Hatch to complain–and he’ll respond! By telling the agencies to stifle the enforcing officers or dismiss them. States cut education budgets but lavishly fund departments of agriculture that serve less to protect the public’s food supply than to support agriculture interests, economic and cultural. One of my favorite campaigns in Utah is a series of posters and PSAs that say “If their way of life goes away, what will happen to ours?” (Where’s the save-the-publishers campaign??)
The myth of the rugged, handsome cowboy is not serving us well. Not economically or ecologically. But we need myth. We crave it. We could replace it with a new romance, a new myth that captures the spirit of freedom and space. How about we trade the cowboy for his horse? The BLM
estimates that there are fewer than 50,000 feral horses on public lands, a trifle compared to the millions of cows grazing at public expense. Of course, ranchers complain that the wild horses are taking the forage from livestock and damaging the landscape–and on that last point the environmental community agrees. On the other hand, tens of thousands of horse lovers advocate passionately for the horses to run free on our landscapes. In 2013, the Utah BLM office received nearly 20,000 letters in support of the nonnative equines. And they are lovely. People love them, and the damage they do is minimal compared to that of livestock on public lands. How about we scrap the cowboy and replace him with the horse?
Which of these things is not like the other?
1) “The ultimate objective…is to liquidate all public ownership of grazing land and forest land in the United States…The immediate objectives make this attempt one of the biggest land grabs in American history…The plan is to get rid of public lands altogether, turning them over to the states, which can be coerced as the federal government cannot be, and eventually to private ownership. This is your land we are talking about.”
2) “The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land.”
3) “Since its inception in 2012, the [American Lands Council] has been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative front group backed by the oil and gas industry and billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, to pass state-level legislation demanding that the federal government turn over federally owned national forests and public lands to Western states.”
Answer: though they all sound ripped from today’s headlines, only the last one is from this century.
The first quote appeared in Harper’s nearly 70 years ago. For twenty years, writer, historian, critic, activist Bernard DeVoto wrote a column, The Easy Chair, for the venerable magazine, and by the time this passage from “The West Against Itself” was published in 1947, DeVoto had already played an instrumental role in converting a land-grab fever into the 1946 formation of the Bureau of Land Management, thus preventing a potential sell-off of the West. It wasn’t the first time ranchers, energy interests, and developers had demanded private ownership of public lands, and it wouldn’t be the last.
The second statement is from an essay written for The Atlantic Monthly nearly thirty years later by DeVoto’s protege, Wallace Stegner, who spent his long and distinguished career writing about America and advocating for the protection of the West. His “Wilderness Letter” of 1960 ranks with works by John Muir and Henry David Thoreau in the conservation canon and was used to introduce the 1964 Wilderness Act in Congress. Despite his successful influence in establishing one of the most effective conservation laws in America, Stegner remained frustrated with the culture, practices, and mythos of West, and in this 1964 article, “Born a Square,” Stegner exhorted the West to “take a hard look at itself and acknowledge some things that the myths have consistently obscured”: it is politically reactionary, ruthless, and exploitative. True fifty years ago and true today.
This last frightening scenario was reported last week by Matt Lee-Ashley, a former communications director for the Department of the Interior who now follows public lands, energy, and environmental policy for the Center for American Progress. Lee-Ashley points out that the recent attention on public lands policy in the wake of Cliven Bundy’s refusal to obey court orders to remove his cattle from sensitive public lands is only the latest episode in the the West’s ongoing conflict about what wild lands are for. But the funding mechanisms behind today’s campaign to turn over federal lands to states or the highest bidders–which ultimately amount to the same thing–are staggeringly insidious, powerful, and frightening. The Koch brothers and ALEC have helped the American Lands Council extract more than $200,000 in taxpayer money from 42 mostly rural counties in nine Western states to “advance an aggressive and coordinated campaign to seize America’s public lands and national forests for drilling, mining, and logging,” Lee-Ashley asserts at ThinkProgress.org. Of course, the state of Utah is adding even more taxpayer funding to the extractor-fueled greed: the Republican legislature has already spent more than $500,000 to study a proposed takeover of federal land and has set aside an another $3 million to fight the federal government in court.
The crusade by special interests to wrest public wild lands from public ownership is as old as American statehood in the West. What’s new is that Western taxpayers are helping to pay for this effort to enrich the few at the cost of the many. Somehow, I don’t think DeVoto or Stegner would be surprised.
I’m giving my feet a chance to recover. After a week in New York visiting friends, meeting with media, and walking as much as time and rain allowed, and THEN hiking 20 miles in a day and a half at Bryce Canyon with my son, Matt, I’m putting my feet up and thinking about wild lands while looking out the windows in Torrey. These last two months have offered a lot to ponder: Cliven Bundy and his militias defending his 20 years as a law-breaker, Bundy’s son riling up a crowd to trash Recapture Canyon on off road vehicles, the Garfield County Commission passing a resolution declaring the cowboy a cultural resource. There appears no reverence for wildness among those who call themselves locals, which I think means having at least five generations living and extracting resources in the same area. Of course, it’s not a new story, this insistence on the cowboy myth, this denial of destruction by hoof and road, and neither is the effort to recognize and reverse the normalized degradation of the last open spaces in America. Decades ago, Wallace Stegner, the dean of Western letters, declared that “the West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it. The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that, too.”
It’s tremendous to live in the West, to hike spectacular mountains and deserts, drive miles on back roads without passing another car, explore the past and present cultures that have been shaped by wild lands. It’s also damn discouraging to have state legislatures handing laws and tax dollars to wolf killers and extractors of all kinds, who are unwilling to bear their own production costs. Manifest destiny is no longer a societal value, and we know that sage steppes and riparian areas cannot withstand the pressure of miners, drillers, and grazers. But policy and practice lag far, far behind society’s current understanding and values. So, at Torrey House Press, we publish books that tell the stories about land issues and the wonders of wilderness, and Mark and I serve on the board at Wild Utah Project. And to keep myself feeling I have a handle on something real, I’m on a continual quest for truth as demonstrated through science–you know: research, data, evidence. As long as successful publishing and wild lands conservation remain elusive goals, you can find me thinking about books and wilderness and doing small research projects on this and that, and writing about it all here. Happy reads & happy trails!