May 22, 2017

The Cowboy Way of Life

I am no fan of big government, so I find myself in an odd place writing this.

I'll give you some of my conclusions up front. First of all, the "cowboy way of life" is a fantasy and illusion. In this day and age it is simply welfare behind a sentimental smoke-screen.

A couple of buddies of mine were drving down a dirt road in a remote part of Arizona. They were heading for a trailhead on forest service land. They found themselves followed and confronted by surly and well-armed "ranchers" who let them know they were not welcome and would not be tolerated. The conversation became calm once my friends made it clear that they were going to comply with the wishes of these "ranchers" and in the subsequent discussion learned that these fellows were running 6 or 7 cows on many acres of public lands and that they were "weekend ranchers" with real jobs in a nearby town. But their lease agreement with the federal government led them to believe and get away with the idea that this land was now their private reserve.

This example is a small example of a fairly common mindset with public lands ranchers. Taken to another level we have the situation that developed with Cliven Bundy. In March 2014 the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) got fed up with Mr. Bundy grazing cattle on BLM land without paying fees and issued a closure order and began removing Mr. Bundy's cattle. This led to an armed confrontation between federal officers and Mr. Bundy's friends and self proclaimed "militia" members. The situation here goes well beyond the issue of the waste of allowing grazing on public lands. Mr. Bundy is now (as of April, 2017) in Federal prison awaiting trial (and rightly so).

Between these two extremes (if you care to call them that), we have those people who are grazing cattle on public lands, paying their fees, and behaving in a civilized manner. What of them? Should we be supporting their desire to live the "Cowboy way of Life"? I grew up at the tail end of the John Wayne era and received a steady flow of propaganda courtesy of shows like "Bonanza" and others. Happily, the market for fantasy cowboy shows seems to have lost its luster. The truth of the matter is that public lands are being trashed so a handful of people can scratch out a living raising cattle on public lands, being subsidized by your and my tax dollars. You may argue that you like to eat beef and so this cattle raising is important. It turns out that approximately 7 percent of the beef consumed in this country is raised on public lands in the west. If all public lands ranching was shut down, there would be almost no perceivable effect on the supply of beef.

It wouldn't be so bad if these welfare recipients were grateful and willing to share the public lands with the taxpayers who subsidize them. What is truly galling is that these fantasy cowboys think that these public lands are their personal domain and that their "rights" are being infringed when land management decisions or public activities interfere with what they perceive as their private preserve.


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Tom's Essays / tom@mmto.org