Sunday, May 11, 2014

Did Roy Rogers Work for the BLM?

 People all over the world have exciting images of the American West. It all began in the fifteenth century with the arrival of the Spanish vaqueros in the southwestern portion of what is now the United States. The vaquero gradually evolved into the American cowboy. The word cowboy conjures up visions of the open range, cattle towns, trail drives, and a way of life that has been rich in tradition but constantly challenged from the time of its beginning through the present day. Ranching is a way of life that has been threatened by Indians, westward expansion, droughts, and more recently by environmental groups funded by well intentioned citizens who live in urban areas. The leaders of groups such as The Nature Conservancy think that the federal government revoke the grazing rights granted to ranchers on land previously seized for public domain to form our national parks and wilderness areas. If successful, these groups could effect more change in the long heritage of ranching than did the advent of barbed wire fences. The ranchers and the environmentalists have equally good intentions for use of the remaining unpopulated areas in our country. Unfortunately the two groups are so culturally different that there is an apprehension on both sides that prevents meaningful communication.

  Keeping with the spirit of Manifest Destiny easterners began moving out west shortly after the Mexican American War. Investors from foreign countries, especially the British Isles, recognized the investment potential of open range ranching. All that was needed to become a “cattle baron” was enough capitol to buy some cattle, build some primitive structures, and hire a few hungry cow hands. It wasn’t even necessary to buy large tracts of land as long as water rights could be procured. There were no fences so the cattle wandered the range and grazed the plains in the warm months then went up to the high country in the winter. When spring time arrived the cattle were brought down to gaze the flat lands before being shipped to market.
  Montague Stevens, one of several Englishman who moved to southwestern New Mexico after graduating from Cambridge, wrote in his memoir, “The tall gamma grass swayed in the wind like waves on the sea”. In a ten year period, 1883 to 1893, the ratio of cattle per acre declined from one head per acre to one head per ten acres. The disappearance of that much plant life also made the land more susceptible to erosion and arroyos started to appear where once there were wagon trails.
 Another major challenge that had to be dealt with was sporadic Indian raids. Not all tribes were hostile but the ones that were cast a cloud of uneasiness over pioneers of the western range. The raiding parties were sometimes after more than cattle. Women and children were also taken. The US Army established forts on the frontier in an attempt to suppress the Indians who were eventually taken to reservations.
 After the Civil War new laws were imposed upon western ranchers by the U.S. Government. Farmers were beginning to use barbed wire fences to keep cattle off their crops. New regulations were put into place which subdivided land into “sections”, 640 acre tracts, and quarter sections. Ranchers were no longer able to use land by acquisition of the water rights alone. They were required to start homesteading in order to have legal rights to the land. The principles of land ownership came into being as deeds were issued and records began to be kept. Trail drives, which had been the accepted way of moving cattle from Mexico and Texas to ranges in western states, became impossible. The days of the open range ended and ranches took on the form of businesses dedicated to the enterprise of  raising beef cattle to feed help feed a nation of meat lovers.
 An important part of a cow hand or sheep herder’s job was to protect their animals from predators. Coyotes, wolves and bears were shot and trapped to near extinction. The opinion held by the stock men was that varmints and livestock could not coexist. The buffalo were gone and now native carnivores were threatened by the same fate. Concerned citizens started to realize that something had to change before more wild animals were wiped out for the sake of what some called progress.
 In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt, a bold environmentalist of the Industrial Age, established the first national park at Crater Lake, Oregon. Another early environmentalist and former hunter was Aldo Leopold whose nature book, A Sand County Almanac written in 1949, received national attention. More and more land was set aside by the government to preserve forests and wildlife. Ranchers, however, were permitted to lease grazing rights within the boundaries of the federally owned and managed property.
After WWII the US Army began taking land from individuals and establishing large military bases and missile testing areas. One of the ranchers, John Prather, who owned 108 sections on the Otero Mesa of New Mexico, refused to leave his home despite the Army’s orders to do so. Another pioneer of the environmentalist movement, Edward Abbey, fashioned his novel Fire on the Mountain after the story of Prather’s stand off with the military. In 1975 Abbey wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang, which is soon to be a motion picture. This was the first popular novel that dealt with rebellion against “techno-industrial” society. The book depicts four people who band together to form an Eco-terrorist gang. The gang attempts to stop construction of dams, roads and bridges by sabotaging the projects and the heavy equipment being used by the construction crews. Abbey inspired some with his bold anarchist attitude and spoke at environmentalist rallies
 The organization, Earth First emerged in the Southwestern United States in 1975. It was the first recognized radical environmental advocacy group in the country. It wasn’t a coincidence that their logo was a drawing of a monkey wrench and a tomahawk. (See illustration).
 The idea of rebellious behavior wasn’t appealing to a lot of people who recognized the fragility of our ecosystems. There was a need for the formation of groups that would do something for millions who were concerned for the future of our planet. Today there are scores of organizations that accept donations and have programs to put volunteers to work on projects meant to help the worthy cause of conservation. Like any other organization, environmentalist groups can become more like large, bureaucratic, non-profit businesses with highly paid executives. Examination of the larger companies reveals that a disturbingly small amount of the donations collected go directly to the cause that donors want to support.
 The largest environmental group, in terms of dollars, is The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Like all non-profit organizations, TNC reports its assets yearly on IRS Form 990. Their reported assets on IRS Form 990 are $5,636,393,924.00; income; $1,398,742,000.00 and the top executive pay $349,373.00. An organization with that much money can be a powerful voice in government or in legal battles.
 The modern rancher is also concerned about the environment. Technology has improved the tools available for the large corporate cattle businesses as well as the small family owned ranches. To many ranching families, being good stewards of the land that they own and of the federal lands their cattle use for grazing, is part of a rich heritage that as been handed down for generations. However, some of the smaller ranchers fear that the large, donation based environmentalist organizations want to put them out of business.
 In the 1970’s the first notable advocacy group for the rights of western farmers and ranchers was formed.  The Sagebrush Rebellion focused on persuading the federal government to give more control of Western land back to the states. With control returned to the state level the people of the land felt that they would have a stronger voice in determining the future of the land that provided their livelihood. In 1981 Ronald Reagan joined the Sage Brush Rebellion and worked to cut spending for research on energy conservation and renewable energy resources. Conversation groups used there powers to lobby against cut backs on projects that they had worked hard to put into place.
 Many issues have been debated by the groups of conflicting interests in the West but the most emotionally charged issue is the treatment of wolves. The reintroduction of the gray wolf was so successful in Wyoming and Montana that this year these two states started issuing permits to hunt and kill wolves. In eastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf is not going well. Ranchers and concerned citizens have formed groups to justify the killing wolves that threaten livestock and children. In Catron County, New Mexico Graphic signs have been erected that depict pets and livestock that were killed or maimed by wolf attacks. At the same time the wolf supporters have offered rewards up to $50,000.00 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone who kills a wolf.
 The biggest factor that divides the factions in the wolf controversy is difference in culture. The conservationists, who don’t live near the wolves, are outraged by the fact that anyone would want to harm the beautiful lobos. The ranchers who killed them off in the first place contend that the conservationists don’t understand how destructive a few wolves can be. Suggestions have been made that the folks that sympathize with the wolves should take a few home with them. When mistrust and differences of opinion reach the point where communication ceases, minds close and hostility begins. This holds true for many important issues that divide America today.
 All of us who choose to have a voice in the controversies plaguing or county need to set our sights on compromise and unity rather than defeat of the folks on the other side of the arguments. Hopefully we will soon see through our petty differences and learn recognize the greed that motivates the leaders of the some large organizations. We need to remember that we all have good intentions and, because of cultural differences, a concerted effort needs to be made to develop common a language that is free from offensive cliches and name calling. If each side says, “Things will be alright when the other side agrees with our side” then the intellectual quagmire will deepen and thicken. We need to reassess the long accepted practice of blindly throwing money at organizations that may be deceiving us by their appeals to our emotions. It is almost as if donating money has become a penance for the guilt that has been put upon us by a handful of zealots who are more devoted to personal gain than their purported desire for morally correct solutions. If we resolve that mediators are needed then we need to become the mediators. We need to be ready to accept compromise so that peaceful solutions between agrarian and urban agendas can be reached. Such harmony is difficult and will take a concerted effort but it is necessary for the survival of our natural heritage.
 One seemingly insurmountable obstacles in ever reaching any any kind of rational agreement on the use western land is the fact  it is owned by the BLM (aka US government). Our only chance would be if somebody like Roy Rogers ran the BLM and would kick out all the villainous government goons and turn it over to the virtuous ranchers.

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