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Know the West

The lessons of Jon Marvel

  Dear HCN,

Jon Marvel did not adopt his attitude toward ranchers or his extraordinary tactics overnight. As you report, his attitude was formed over the course of 30 years as a neighbor of ranchers and 20-plus years as a resident of Idaho (HCN, 8/2/99).

This pattern is repeating itself time after time across the West. New residents come bearing seemingly boundless goodwill toward ranchers and the cowboy way of life. When they wake up to cows in their gardens, and the response of the rancher and local officials is to arrogantly inform them about open range and right-to-farm laws, their attitude toward ranching begins to change. Notwithstanding the efforts of a few ranchers to reform their operations, the overwhelming response of the ranching community to the concerns of their new neighbors has been to use entrenched political dominance (and the positive image of cowboys which television taught the American people) to ignore the concerns of their neighbors and stonewall change on the public range.

Ironically, it is this arrogant attitude - essentially telling folks "we're better than you' - which, by creating numerous Jon Marvels across the rural West, most threatens the future of Western ranching.

As more nonranchers move in, and conflicts multiply, it will become more and more difficult to maintain the status quo. Most Western ranchers don't realize how fragile their social and political dominance really is.

Western ranching may not survive market globalization, which is also destabilizing livestock markets. If it does, however, it will crumble internally when the newcomers overturn the arrogant dominance of I'm-better-than-you ranching elites. The only chance I see for a different result is for progressive ranchers to assert leadership, muzzle their arrogant cows-can-do-no-harm buddies, repeal open range and right-to-farm laws, get their cows out of streams on their property, and radically reform public-land grazing - including rest, retirement or cancellation of numerous allotments. This is the lesson which the Jon Marvel story should have made clear. Ranchers need to realize that the Marlboro Man is not only no longer on TV but that he died of cancer.

Felice Pace

Etna, California