Birkenstocks and Stetsons


I have spent all of my adult life in Maine, where there are only two kinds of people: Mainers and people from “away.” If you weren’t born in Maine, you’ll never be a Mainer, and I’ve even heard purists say that your parents have to be from the state to gain insider status. “Just because the cat has kittens in the oven don’t make em’ biscuits,” as the saying goes.

Now that I live in western Colorado, where I continue to be conscious of my outsider status, I've begun to notice the stereotypes Easterners have about the West. A recent cover story in the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor, “The Green Cowboys,” caught my attention because it tries to disprove a certain Eastern stereotype of ranchers as rough, uneducated, gun-toting dudes who don’t care much for environmentalism.

But by spending so much time detailing how a new generation of “green cowboys” differs from the old-timers, the reporter only perpetuates the stereotype. And in focusing only on newer sustainable cattle ranches, the magazine misses an opportunity to place new guys in their historical context, as members in a decades-long succession of progressive rangers.

The article begins by contrasting Zachary Jones, one of the new “green cowboys,” with the “stereotype of the Stetson-wearing cowboy.” Jones, we are told, does not wear denim, boots or a bandana. Nor does he ride around with a gun in the back of his pick-up truck.

Instead, he reads Wallace Stegner, wears “cargo pants, a stylish shirt with a Patagonia logo on the front and, most tellingly, Birkenstock sandals. You’d almost think he were heading to the monthly meeting of the men’s book club in Bozeman.”

This comparison, which is supposed to make readers think differently about ranchers, actually sets up the expectation that cowboys who like their Stetsons and rifles don’t care about the environment. But High Country News readers know that for decades, ranchers—and not just those with Birkenstocks—have been experimenting with environmentally-sound practices like rotational grazing and stream restoration.

In the late 1950s, a ten gallon hat-wearing Texan named Sid Goodloe bought an eroded, abused ranch in south-central New Mexico and embarked on a multi-decade quest to restore the ecosystem—and make a living. He was following the vision of Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean game warden whose holistic approach to cattle ranching inspired many western ranchers to ditch the open range in favor of regimented rotational grazing. Over the course of 40 years, Goodloe slowly brought native grasses back to the land, restored the watershed and creek on his property and increased the number of cattle the land could support.

Others have followed suit, including Oregon ranchers Doc and Connie Hatfield. Using similar techniques, the couple helped found the Country Natural Beef co-op, and began marketing their largely grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free beef in the mid 1980s. And in the late 1990s, environmentalists and ranchers in New Mexico teamed up to form the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes environmentally-friendly grazing techniques, ecosystem restoration and collaboration.

Courtney White, who co-founded Quivira, said he was pleased to see “green cowboys” in the mainstream media—although no one out West calls them that—because many people are unfamiliar with the practice. For him and his colleagues, however, the story was old news.

What is new, he says, is “the extension of this kind of ranching into grass-fed beef, into local food production.” More ranchers are raising their cattle entirely on grass, unlike some early adopters of rotational grazing, including the Hatfields, who finished their cattle at feedlots. But now, White is seeing more ranchers looking at grass-fed as a way of diversifying their income.

And they don’t all wear Patagonia. White says he works with sustainability-minded ranchers who “run the gamut from very traditional-looking to pony tails and ball caps.” The diversity, he says, is evidence that this style of ranching isn’t going away soon. “It’s a wide spectrum now, which is why it’s not a fad.”

“Out here, appearance has little to do with authenticity,” the Christian Science Monitor piece notes. If that’s the case, then let’s keep the focus on the work ranchers do, not what they wear.

Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.

Green cowboy boot illustration courtesy Flickr user Marissa Huber. Photo of Sid Goodloe courtesy of the New Mexico Land Conservancy.

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