Notes from a fence-sitter

Though extremists on either side would never admit it, ranchers and greens care about the same things

  • Cartoon: Table and chairs

    Malcolm Wells
  • Mark Dowie

    Photo courtesy Mark Dowie

Note: this essay is part of a package of articles in this print edition speculating about the future of the West as a cultural region.

When I moved to California from Wyoming in 1963, at 24 years of age, the most recent item on my résumé was "cowhand." My last employer was the Double Spearhead Bar Ranch, a good-sized cow-calf operation about four hours' north of Cody in Sunlight Basin. I was a Goldwater Republican and I could barely spell "environment."

One of the first books I read in California was Silent Spring. Rachael Carson introduced me to a world I had been living right next to, utterly blind to its molecular biology, and unaware of the threat I had been to its vitality - mostly by overgrazing cattle and spraying hayfields with chemicals I couldn't pronounce. I became a penitent though reluctant environmentalist.

"Reluctant" because I knew that Carson's message would not be well received by my hay-farming neighbors on Heart Mountain. Even a mention of "that bitch," or, worse, the Sierra Club, which I had secretly joined, would convince them that I had fallen in with the wrong kind.

In the years that followed, I became increasingly active in the environmental movement, mostly at the grassroots level, although in the early 1970s I joined the board of Greenpeace, which soon thereafter became the largest environmental organization in the world.

Later, as a journalist, I found myself publishing articles in national magazines about endangered species, toxic chemicals and lost wilderness, articles that I was sure would prompt the few literate cowboys I'd ridden with to put a bullet through my head.

When the inevitable backlash against greens began to germinate in the West, I took a natural interest in the "Sagebrush Rebels." They sounded like my people - folks who were tired of working public land, fed up with the feds, and calling for the privatization of every acre west of the Mississippi. That didn't seem like such a bad idea until I realized that the people behind the rebellion had no interest in family ranches.

It was timbermen, developers and miners in their $200 Stetsons, exploiting cowboy mythology to win range romantics like Ronald Reagan to their cause. Of course Reagan fell for it. His first day in office he declared himself a Sagebrush Rebel, and appointed their main lawyer, James Watt, to be his first and our most embarrassing secretary of Interior.

The Sagebrush Rebellion has since evolved into something called the wise-use movement. This disturbed me even more than Watt's perfidy, not only because it seemed like an abuse of terminology, but because I knew that its road show would take conniving wise-use charlatans like Ron Arnold and Chuck Cushman past Heart Mountain, over Dead Indian Peak and straight into Sunlight Basin.

There, people I loved and respected would listen intently while the agents of extraction told them wild tales about environmentalists, bankers and bureaucrats out to steal their land. And they would believe. Arnold and Cushman are good performers, and they have enough sense to make a personal call to present their case. Kitchens are their venue.

Sure enough, on a trip back to my part of Wyoming in 1993, I visited a few old friends and discovered that Ron Arnold and a host of conspiracy-mongers had been right where I was sitting, in my former neighbors' kitchens, telling them that "preservationists' in Washington were conspiring with the federal government and the United Nations to expand Yellowstone Park into Sunlight Basin and reintroduce wolves to their pastures.

There was enough truth in their story (particularly the part about stuffed shirts in Washington) that I began to sympathize. Three days into the visit I realized that had I stayed right there in Sunlight Basin, I would be a committed warrior in a movement whose concept of land stewardship was neither wise nor useful.

Three years later, I spent time in New Mexico covering the so-called "county movement," a wise-use initiative that began in Catron County and was attempting to claim county sovereignty over federal land, nationwide. The week before I arrived, Chuck Cushman had been through, inciting the citizens with conspiracy theories, most of which intensified the anti-Semitic rants of Aryan evangelists who'd been by a few days earlier.

In Reserve, the county seat, I watched a Christian Identity preacher named Reverend Pete Peters seduce a gaggle of TV cameras in the town square, where he persuaded local citizens to spit on the UN flag before he torched it. There was much talk of unmarked helicopters and an impending federal invasion - a firearms raid, most folks feared. "Ruby Ridge and Waco are also on our minds," a cabinet-maker told me.

My reporting took me to the home of a rancher and county commissioner named Hugh McKeen. McKeen had voted for resolutions to pass control of all public land in Catron County directly from federal to county government, and to give the local sheriff power to arrest Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officers, two bodacious resolutions that passed unanimously and were sure to land McKeen and his lawyers before the Supreme Court. I had been forewarned that this was one mean sonofabitch who would "shoot an environmental extremist on sight," and would kick me out his back door if he knew I was writing for Outside magazine. My advisors, environmental activists living in the country south of Catron, were off by a country mile.

I told McKeen first thing whom I was working for. "Come in," he said. "Coffee's hot." We sat in his kitchen for most of the morning, talking about the life he had chosen, and the one I had left. In the course of our conversation, he told me how he loved hiking with his kids in the Mogollon Mountains, floating the Gila River and reading Aldo Leopold (who had lived not far from his ranch). "You sound like an environmentalist, Hugh," I said.

He paused for a moment and said, "Nope, couldn't be."

"Why not?"

"Because environmentalists hate cows."

Could it really be that simple, I wondered? Are we that close? Was McKeen's passion for open space, clean water and Leopold's land ethic, separated from my environmental colleagues' love of the very same things by a differing view on cattle? I asked McKeen if an environmentalist had ever been in his kitchen. "Never," he said, "but they're welcome if they care to talk sense about cows."

When I told him I would send a copy of Outside, he handed me six back issues of Range Magazine: "I'll read Outside, if you read these." I did, and read more when I went back up to Wyoming the following spring to help with branding. I now recommend it to every environmentalist I meet who's working on land issues, not because I agree with much more than half of what the magazine says, but because it shows that ranchers and farmers in the West care as much for the health of their land, air and water as any member of the Sierra Club.

They both value healthy ecosystems, quiet open spaces and lament the decline of neotropical songbirds. And they both know that the West as they know it is today threatened with an invasion of people who know nothing about land stewardship, care less about the future of family farms and wouldn't recognize the song of a Wilson's warbler if it were sitting on their shoulder.

In one issue of Range I found a profile of Dan Dagget, a pro-wolf, former Earth First! monkey-wrencher, who at the behest of more moderate wolf advocates, sat down with half a dozen arch-conservative Arizona ranchers to seek a way to reintroduce wolves to the range. In the course of exploring that challenge and land restoration methods with those landowners, Dagget experienced an epiphany.

Land, he came to realize, could actually be revitalized with proper livestock grazing. His book, Beyond the Rangeland Conflict: Toward a West That Works, tells the stories of 10 ranchers who tried and made it work. At least once a week, I recommend that book to skeptical greens.

I still live in the country, surrounded by farms and ranches. I've never felt comfortable too far from agriculture. A few times a year, I go on roundups and help my neighbors with branding, preg-checks and inoculations. I do it to keep a hand in the work I have always loved best. And I'm still active in the environmental movement, although I'm a hybrid, a fence-sitter, observed with caution by ranchers and greens alike. In fact, I've lost a few friends on both sides of that fence. But that's OK; they were all stubborn extremists who refused to meet in a kitchen with strangers to search for common ground.

It's hard to know what's right when it comes to land stewardship. The science is still unfolding. But what I know is right is communication. And I am convinced that close and patient dialogue between ranchers and greens will produce great strides toward stewardship and peace in the land disputes that so unnecessarily plague the West.

Controversies over land and land use will be with us forever. And they will remain central to the politics of the region for at least another generation or two. But they needn't be divisive and they needn't be hostile. They can be informed by all who value the beauty and fertility of land. With the exception of a few absentee mining and timber barons, people in the West are coming to realize that they do care about the same things. And that realization seems to occur first at kitchen tables.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Mark Dowie

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