An old friend of mine once said, "Sometimes Wyoming people would rather fight than win." He's right, of course. Even though there are only about 500,000 of us and our state does feel more like a small town with long streets, and even if I don't know you -- though there's a good chance that I know someone who does know you -- we still feel compelled to argue among ourselves pretty regularly.
Maybe it's part of who we are. Maybe it's the wind. Maybe we're like kids who've been cooped up in the back seat without a movie for too long.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the conflict between Wyoming folks who love to hunt and fish and Wyoming folks who love ranching and farming. Here it is in a nutshell: Sometimes ranchers won't let people hunt or fish on their land. Hunters and anglers don't like that. Sometimes people behave like morons when they hunt or fish on private land. Ranchers don't like that. Sometimes there are too many cows or sheep out there, eating all the grass and pooping in the creek. Hunters and anglers don't like that. Sometimes there are too many elk/deer/antelope/other critters out there eating all the alfalfa and tearing up the haystacks. Ranchers don't like that. When either side says something about one of these issues, we all choose up sides and vilify one another until we feel better.
To be honest, I've done my share of it. I've joined up with my camo-clad compadres and gone off to battle with the Evil Empire of Rancherdom plenty of times. But I've been wondering lately if I haven't been wasting my time. Like most two-bit arguments, sometimes you just have to rise above it.
If you fly over Wyoming at 30,000 feet, you can see the big picture. You can't see how many cows are down there. For that matter, you can't see how many elk are down there, either.
What you do see are vast expanses of dry, arid country. Winding their way through those broad plains and deserts are thin ribbons of green -- rivers. And feeding into those rivers are dozens of smaller ribbons of green -- creeks. By late summer, these networks of green in a vast brown landscape look like the exposed arteries of some giant animal. They should; those rivers and creeks are ribbons of life. Without them, we wouldn't have to argue about cows and elk because neither of them could live here. But more importantly, we probably need to remember that the land along all those ribbons of green belongs to someone.
You see, all those green places in the Upper Green and the Wind and the Platte are privately owned. They belong to someone -- most likely a family -- who cares deeply about them.
The best and most productive lands in Wyoming are in private ownership and have been for well over a century. These private lands support much of the wildlife we cherish so dearly. So before we go too far out of our way to cuss a rancher, let's be honest about the contribution his or her ranch makes to our hunting and fishing.
Likewise, let's be honest about the alternative. As I look along the Colorado Front Range, I see hundreds of thousands of acres of land that were devoted to agriculture 20 years ago. Now, all of this land is covered up with houses. But that's not just a Colorado thing. Take a look at Star Valley not far from the Jackson Hole area, or the outskirts of Cheyenne or Gillette. If you care about wildlife, from moose to meadowlarks, ranches are better than subdivisions.
I've come to the conclusion that ranchers aren't the only ones who have a stake in keeping ranchers in business in Wyoming. As a hunter and an angler, I've got a stake in that game, too. As open spaces in the West grow smaller and smaller, and as the average age of ranchers grows older and older, who's going to be the steward of all those private lands? I'd rather see a young family able to stay on the land and keep ranching than see that ranch become another subdivision, and that goes for whether I get to hunt on that place or not.
I still reserve the right to argue with my friends, and I don't mind fighting, but I prefer winning – especially when everyone benefits.
Walt Gasson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation in Cheyenne.