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Tom Bell: The rancher's dominance is over

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Letter - From the March 13, 2000 issue by Tom Bell
Dear HCN,


Wyoming's illustrious Senate president, Mr. Twiford of Douglas (HCN, 2/28/00: A prof takes on the sacred cow), needs to creep out of his cave, somewhere in the wilds of Converse County, and smell the roses. This is the 21st century, not the 1890s, and the times they are a-changin'.


I flew with the 15th Air Force on bombing missions all across Eastern Europe in World War II. We would return to base and discuss how we would rejoice when all of those countries would one day be set free. But we were disgusted, dismayed and saddened when a tired, old, sick U.S. president handed those countries over to another dictator. I never thought I would live to see the day the Iron Curtain lifted and the Berlin Wall came down.


I returned home from the service to take up my studies at the University of Wyoming in the professional course, Wildlife Conservation and Game Management. I received Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science degrees. I particularly wanted to become a big-game biologist. Therefore, I took as many courses as I could to broadly prepare for what I wanted - geology, soils, botany, poisonous range plants, range management, and ecology, among others. But it was in the regular game-management courses and the ecology classes that I learned something was terribly wrong out there on the public lands.


I was raised on a small farm-ranch near Lander in the Great Depression, great drought days of the 1930s. I had seen firsthand how ranchers who adjoined the public lands used them - including my father and some of the neighbors. They didn't know any better.


That experience and my training led me to take the path that I did in trying to make some difference in correcting some of the wrongs being perpetrated on the land. Without having yet read Debra Donahue's book, The Western Range Revisited, I would bet I could tell you what she related, with all of the science now updated and recent. I commend her great effort and scholarship. Thirty years ago, I was touching on the subject in High Country News.


I have lightly skimmed her book, but I paid particular attention to her bibliography, some 31 pages of citations. All of those trained professionals she cites to back up her work can't be wrong. Now, with the science in hand, it may be possible to open the dialogue on how to eventually accomplish what she is suggesting. I look forward to reading and studying her groundbreaking work.


It may appear to be impossible at this point, but just read the various letters to the editor and listen to the sad laments from so many of the old guard. The old Republican-rancher establishment is fearful.


I never thought I would live to see the day when the stranglehold of the livestock industry on the public grazing lands, and on Wyoming politics would be so challenged as it is today. But I detect slight creakings of movement and hear the gnashing of teeth as the moment of truth draws closer.


There are many fine ranchers, most of whom have realized the merits of good stewardship. It should be obvious to all. But there are plenty more, too many, who have a be-damned attitude and who resist any change. That tone was set by the early big ranchers and it was passed down through the generations. It became the "custom and culture," the Wyoming cowboy tradition. Sadly, the good ranchers never speak out against the bad eggs. It could be a philosophy of, if we don't hang together, we'll all hang separately.


Wyoming's public lands were claimed early on by those big stockmen who were on the ground first as their turf. The stockmen of today still like to try to make the same claim. Ella Watson, "Cattle Kate," and her husband, James Averill, were not taken away and lynched because they were such adept cattle rustlers. (The big cattlemen's own cowboys were much better at it.) The ranchers wanted to send a message, to make a point: "Don't mess with us on our turf."


Just so, Twiford had no intention of doing away with the University of Wyoming Law School. As a spokesman for the livestock industry, he was making a point. The point was to crucify Debra Donahue in the press, try to discredit her and her work, and to send a message to the university: "Don't mess with us on our turf." The threats and intimidation from the livestock industry are obvious.


Western ranchers may be unwilling to accept the inevitable - the challenge of change. But it is coming. Back in 1968, a Western Resources Conference on "Public Land Policy" was held in Fort Collins. One of the speakers, Lynton K. Caldwell, spoke on "An Ecosystems Approach to Public Land Policy." Thirty years later you heard more and more talk of the ecosystems approach to public-land management. You heard it from Bruce Babbitt and then Mike Dombeck and now, in effect, from Debra Donahue. It is a concept whose time has come.


Caldwell said in 1968: "If present demographic projections are valid, the America of the 21st century, and even before, will be politically dominated by the residents of great cities. It is they whose beliefs and wishes could reshape public policies toward land." We are seeing it.


He also said, "Modern man in the aggregate has not learned to perceive the world as a complex of dynamic interrelated systems ... To conceive an ecosystems approach to public-land policy one must have first arrived at an ecological viewpoint from which pioneers, land speculators, farmers, miners, stockmen, lawyers, bankers, or local government officials have commonly seen the land ... Man's future is inextricably involved with changes in the air, the water and the land, which are the gross elements of the ecosphere ... This environment - the ecosphere - is finite ... This is the paradigm of Spaceship Earth, whose passengers are only now beginning to realize where they are."


As I write this, the Shuttle Spacecraft Endeavor is returning to Earth. It is bringing back an incredible array of the most comprehensive and accurate maps of our planet ever taken. Undoubtedly, many of those photos will reveal to us the amount of environmental damange we have inflicted on the only planet we know which will support us and our profligate ways. Some will show the effects of grazing-overgrazing. We should not ignore the warnings.


Debra Donahue has done a credible, scholarly work. It cannot be dismissed out of hand by the powers that be, nor by the public. We are all owners of that public land and we all, including our posterity, stand to gain or lose by what happens to them. We owe Ms. Donahue a great debt of gratitude.


Tom Bell
Lander, Wyoming


Tom Bell began High Country News in 1970; he continues to work on environmental and historic preservation issues.

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