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Know the West

HCN is a sop to the cowboys

  I just read "Riding the middle path" (HCN, 12/8/03: Riding the middle path). As a writer and photographer, I am acutely aware of how word and photo choice influences perception. And once again HCN proves that it is incapable of writing about the livestock industry without being a sop to the industry.

When I read articles in the paper about coalbed methane, oil and gas, logging or sprawl, there is a vastly different tone — with these industries and those associated with it described in either neutral or often negative terms. But the author of this story notes that Owyhee Country has been in the "care" of ranchers for "generations." These "caring" ranchers created a situation where it is noted that nearly all of the rangeland was deemed to be in poor or fair condition and all the streams were in unsatisfactory condition. Given the above information, it would be more accurate to say that rancher Black and his family have been "vandalizing" public lands for multiple generations.

The photo choice also demonstrates this bias. We are treated to rancher Chris Black riding a horse (always on a horse) with his daughter instead of an image of Black’s cows trashing a riparian area. This is a not-so-subtle way of saying ranchers are "family" people. Using a personal portrait to humanize a story is a good hook and journalistic style. However, HCN does not use the same techniques with other natural resource exploiters. We don’t see a family portrait of the roughneck playing with his kids by the rigs or the logger out showing his son how to sharpen a chainsaw or run a bulldozer.

Furthermore, HCN gives legitimacy to the ranchers by suggesting the Owyhee proposal is a great compromise — i.e. "riding the middle path" where equal interest groups are coming together to forge a compromise. Yet ranchers are given four votes in the group among 10 at the table. Four votes by industry representatives is considered OK when it’s ranchers, but I suspect that if this were some kind of meeting between environmentalists and, say, oil and gas companies, we would read a different story in HCN — about how the public process was stacked in favor of industry representatives.

George Wuerthner
Richmond, Vermont