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PSA: Most American Ranchers Aren't Racist Pieces of Shit

Clive Bundy is just a Fox News-generated exception.
April 27, 2014, 1:00pm
Image: The Grace and Robert Miller Ranch/Wiki

For some pretty huge chunks of my life I've lived among ranchers. There's some open ranges around me here in southwest Washington state, but I'm more talking about the "intermountain" west: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana. My last place in Colorado, on a small family horse ranch in the San Juan National Forest, was for twice a year a boulevard for cattle being driven to and from higher elevation National Forest rangeland. Notably, that's rangeland leased from the US Forest Service, the agency tasked with administering public forestlands for "the greatest good." The arrangement is similar to that administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that handles flatter, typically desert-leaning public land in the lower elevations, and the agency tasked with repo'ing 500 cows formerly owned by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, this week's right-wing clown.

Mountain life, or life in the cowboy-west in general, has its share of real pieces of shit. Consider characters like the guy back in Colorado that would roll into the local diner for breakfast with a gun strapped to his hip or the troll two tables over talking superloud about "negroes" and "welfare mothers" clearly for the benefit of the restaurant at large. Then there's the high school kid with the Confederate flag painted on his tailgate and "NOBAMA" spraypainted on his would-be monster truck's door. And there's the high school kid's mother explaining with a straight face at a school board meeting that her boy ain't racist, just "grew up watching Dukes of Hazard." (Also note that to tie Colorado to any side during the American Civil War, let alone to anything related to Southern "heritage" is entirely delusional.)

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There's not much to do for work in this part of the west (figure from Montana south to Mexico and from California's Central Valley to the Colorado Front Range) outside of the cities. A lot of people retire here, so there's health care, and there's tourists in-season, but a lot of that work is taken up by non-local seasonal workers. Farming's been on tough times since the start of the perma-drought, and people that would normally be baling hay on dryland farms are left to waste time in town, scraping by maybe or maybe sleeping in the park. Ranching tends to be a family thing now, and you won't find cowboys anymore without some shared blood in them. But there are cowboys doing cool cowboy stuff even still.

Right now the face of western ranching is Cliven Bundy, who from pretty much any angle appears to be a real piece of shit. We've got him right now snared in the grand hypocrisy of decrying "government subsidy" for urban families (African-American families, more speficically) while making himself a hero for refusing to pay the federal government for using federal land. So, as much as he just loathes the thought of subsidizing urban deadbeats (or however the right wants to put it), the rest of us in America have Bundy dead to rights demanding that we the public subsidize his ranch. It's funny how that works out, how Americans wind up funding the creeps that hate funding things.

I haven't met every rancher and cowboy running cows on public land in the West, but I've met a few, and they aren't anything like Bundy. They've all been concerned more than anything about the land they use going to developers for condos or being trashed by mines or wells. You'll likely find ranchers as the number one advocates for public open space and often joining forces with environmental groups to protect that space through public or pseudo-public land trusts (the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy, for example). If you follow Bundy's grand stand to its logical conclusion you won't find cows on his BLM lease so much as vacation homes and private retreats with locked gates or open pit mines. That's where good ol' unfettered capitalism would prefer public land go: to whoever can pay the most amount of money for it. Bundy isn't that. No rancher is.

Image: National Archives

The picture above is of Bud Redding, taken in 1973 as part of the Environmental Protection Agency's Documerica project. The Redding family homesteaded on a plot of land in southeast Montana in the very early 1900s, surviving there through a brutal first winter in a tent. Dan Rottenberg's history In the Kingdom of Coal: An American Family and the Rock That Changed the World recalls that the family (and other homestead families like it) ate porcupines to survive and fed thistle to their cows. For decades after, the family and its ranch grew and thrived, being the sort of land steward that running a ranch requires: keeping it green and tall.

Several generations later, in the 1970s, the Crow Tribe of Indians sold off the mineral rights underneath the Redding ranch (and, again, other ranches like it). The Reddings, however, owned the surface land and when survey crews from the Westmoreland Coal Company arrived ready to map out the company's future strip mine operations, John Redding Jr., Bud Redding's grandon, was ready with his Winchester rifle. The story goes the bullet hit just four inches from the Westmoreland man's feet. "They left," John Jr. recounted.

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It wasn't guns that kept the coal company away in the end. It was an alliance, among the first of its kind, between the growing environmental movement and western ranchers. They both had a shared interest in fighting against a coal concern that was about to "strip mine the Northern Great Plains into a desert." Rottenberg continues, "the farmers had their guns, but the environmentalists had a more potent weapon: their rhetoric." Eventually, Westmoreland got its machines into some of those plains via surface land leased from the Crow, but the ranches persisted, as did a brand new land preservation model.

Image: The Redding Ranch/National Archives

I used to work for a woman in Crested Butte, Colorado who had a ranch in the valley. Her and her husband were moderate republicans and arguments with her were of a now-extinct sort, where both parties had the same general goal in mind (a world that treated its wild spaces better, in this case) but had different ideas of how to get there. Maybe that's overly optimistic, but the shared goal of protected land hasn't changed much at all. Our Fox News rancher friend might find himself less popular among his public land-user peers than he thinks. Public land is after all ideally suited to rangeland, which requires vast open spaces for certain portions of the year (which might be shared among ranchers, for one thing) and those spaces need to be protected against overuse. Otherwise, the grass goes away, and when the grass goes away, the cows starve.

When the cows starve, Bundy starves. Or he would anyway, except we have programs like food stamps and other forms of public assistance to keep people upright in hard times. It's even there to help loathsome dudes like Bundy.