Conversation with a cowboy conservationist

  • Wally McRae


Kick a sagebrush and you'll find one jackrabbit and two cowboy poets, or so the saying goes nowadays. In the last 20 years, the rhymes that were once shared around a campfire under a lonesome moon have attracted a national spotlight. There are anthologies of cowboy poetry, coffeehouse performances, and an annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev.

One of the mainstays of the cowboy poetry circuit is Wally McRae - a third-generation Montana rancher and founding member of the Northern Plains Resource Council. Wally McRae, in his own words:

On the romance of the range

"I think that maybe we're trying to keep a myth alive that never really did exist. But I think also that where we live, who we are, what we do is important. And I think the American public kind of shares that enthusiasm. A lot of it is the myth that we have this wonderful free life out here, and nobody tells us what to do. There's no time clock to punch, and the wages are low but the living's good. So, we are kind of venerated. I mean, Madison Avenue has certainly discovered us. They all seem to want to live our lifestyle, and they can. You know, buy a hat: 'I see by your outfit that you're a cowboy.' "

On coal development in Montana

"Someday, I'm tempted to get a coal scuttle - a lot of people don't know what a coal scuttle is (it's a bucket) - fill it up with chunks of coal, and start walking. And when I finally get to an area where people say, 'What's that you got in the bucket there, old guy?' I'm going to set the bucket down and I'm going to move there and live there. Because I'm so sick of being pushed around by different aspects of coal development. I'm a charter member and a past chairman of a rancher/environmentalist organization that's been trying to plug the holes that coal development has caused in our communities and in our industry for years. And I want to quit. But there's always one more issue that comes up. It's like the long-distance runner. You've got to get your second breath, and keep on going."

A Radio High Country News interview with Wally McRae is available on CD. Contact [email protected], or call 800/905-1155. Radio High Country News runs weekly on 28 public radio stations around the West, from Billings, Mont., to Santa Fe, N.M. For more info on stations and airtimes, go to

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