I've had a bellyful of Ed Marston's sappy romanticizing about the Western rancher (HCN, 12/26/94). I'm from a ranching family - my great-grandmother came out West in a covered wagon in 1846, and my grandfather homesteaded a ranch in Arizona in 1913 - and the way you Easterners buy into this "rugged individual" cowboy nonsense really tees me off. The West will continue to grow until we achieve zero population growth. There's no stopping the influx of newcomers. It is only a matter of whether newcomers and old-time residents alike live in a healthy ecosystem that can sustain life, or in a dry, barren, cow-beaten wasteland. If you'll check historical accounts of how this land looked 150 years ago, you'll find that we're a long way down the road toward desertification, and for the most part, ranching has taken us there.
Our public lands, on which by far most grazing occurs, will never be developed by yuppies for condos. But our public lands, our national forests and our wilderness will be developed by public-lands ranchers, if we don't stop them, because the only way they can make a buck is by dipping deeper and deeper into federal subsidies for range projects to prop up their cattle numbers as the ecosystem they're beating to death becomes less and less productive. And who pays the exorbitant cost of the developments? The workers in the tent and trailer cities you bemoan. It's the ranchers, not the newcomers, who comprise the West's elite.
The truth is, Western ranching today excludes sustainable growth, as it robs our water, ruins our streams and makes the land less productive. Framing the issue as ranching vs. ski resorts is inane - the two are totally unrelated. (Just how many newcomers do you think ranching would employ?) We need sustainable development throughout the West, but ranching isn't sustainable. Unfortunately, there's nothing else to do in many of these rural communities because ranchers, sitting pretty on a sweet deal - courtesy of the hard-working American taxpayer - have had no incentive to diversify. They need to get off their duffs and find sustainable ways to live along with the rest of us.
Today's ranchers, and yesterday's ranchers, were just businessmen. It is their "custom and culture" to buy out their fellow ranchers as they go bust, and to expand their spreads, not because they're bad, but because that's business. Face the facts: The first ranchers were just a bunch of Eastern speculators out to make a quick buck on free land, and Eastern greenhorns who had worn out their farms, heading out West to repeat their mistakes in a fragile, arid ecosystem they knew nothing about, with an exotic, water-dependent bovine that had no business being there. To establish themselves, they squashed the "custom and culture" of the former inhabitants without a second thought - theirs was a custom and culture of forcible takeover and change, of exploitation for profit.
Finally, a word about environmentalists: We aren't all cappuccino-sipping yuppies. Most of us are working-class people who just want a fair shake for our kids. If you want to renew your spirit, get out of the espresso shops of the "culture and the leisure colony," get down on the ground and "connect" with grass-roots environmentalists - those of us who live and work in the small communities of the West. We are fair-minded people trying to keep elitist welfare cowboys from grazing our public-lands to dust and sucking them dry. We want the West to be a place fit for people to live. A few months ago, HCN ran a pictorial featuring beat-up old ranchers under the banner, "The quiet pride of the West." How about a spread titled, "The struggling hope of the West," featuring all the grass-roots environmentalists (not yuppie-career enviros) who have sacrificed income and careers to save the land we love?
Silver City, New Mexico
Susan Schock is executive director of Gila Watch.