It was Saturday, the day before Earth Day in the Golden Spur Bar in Magdalena, and one of our always-informal meetings of DUCA and DUWA was in progress. That is, three cowboys (Drunken Underemployed Cowboys’ Association) and I (substitute “Writers'” for “Cowboys'”) were drinking tequila shots and Coors, and doing what, other than rewarding but underpaid work, we do so well and often: complaining. We had all had it with the week’s flood of sentimental pieties, culminating with a TV report of how a “Native American”—a Navajo from the big reservation—was going to give the “invocation” for the ceremonies in Albuquerque tomorrow.
“You want to see overgrazed land?” asked Wade Dixon. It was a rhetorical question, and we all shook our heads and downed shots. “Steve, you’re a writer. You write about nature. You know some of these sons-of-bitches. What do they want?”
I couldn’t answer, really. The recent years—say, since the first Earth Day—have so polarized what was once a much broader conservation consensus than the nouveau eco-radicals will ever admit, that there seems to the casual observer to be no common ground at all. And I would submit that this split, consciously engineered by the greenie left, is going to provide both the greatest danger and perhaps the greatest opportunity for the traditional (or if you prefer, the “conservative”) conservationist through the next decade and beyond.
I live in southwestern New Mexico, one of the two least populated quarters of the state, far from the characterless sprawl of Albuquerque and the godawful L.A. yuppie New Age glitch of Santa Fe. It’s mostly grazing land, small “deeded”—privately owned—ranch bases surrounded by vast tracks of national forest and Bureau of Land Management holdings, much of which is leased for grazing. The ranchers, a mix of Spanish, “Texan” Anglo, Basque, and Italian families, came in the 1870’s, 80’s, and 90’s, when Apaches and grizzlies and Mexican wolves still roamed. Most of the families who hold land here now can trace their ancestry to this time. It’s no land for absentee ownership by rich Texans—it’s far too dry and cold and inhospitable for tax-shelter types and weekend ranchers to pay it much attention.
A lot of the first settlers did hit the land hard. The grizzlies and wolves passed away about the time that Aldo Leopold was working here in the 1920’s, and few at the time mourned their passing. (Though one who did was the pioneer rancher and great hunter Montague Stevens, a one-armed English expatriate who wrote in 1943, at the end of a long life: “feeling that I had already had my full share of them, from that time on, I became a zealous convert to their preservation, to protect a noble animal from becoming extinct.”)
But the ones that stayed had to learn how to treat the land well, to limit their cows, to care for the grass. Although the Earth-Firsters complain that they treat the land “as though they owned it,” this may be the exact reason why that, in general, they do treat it well. There is no “tragedy of the commons” effect here, unlike on the communally grazed moonscape of so many Indian reservations. The ranchers knew that if they abused the land they’d starve, or have to sell out and leave it behind. Attitudes toward predators were not originally so “enlightened.” But the ranchers under 40 years of age, raised in a time when guiding sport hunters and the influence of real—that is, wise-use rather than hands-off—conservation education have had their effect, take a different stance. Or did. And this is just the split that worries me.
Consider a few stories.
Sissy Olney is in her 30’s, and was the first woman in America to become a brand inspector. She holds, in her own name, the third oldest brand in New Mexico. She is no modern feminist, despite the fact that she’s one of the best cowboys I know. She’s a happily married mother of two, a devout Catholic, and the direct descendant of the founder of the Pound Ranch, a Swiss-Italian named Joe Ginera who came here in the I890’s. Her family has lived in the same spot for four generations, and managed the land wisely. She can show you where the bobcats den and the peregrines nest, and can tell the difference between a diamondback and a Mojave rattler by counting the scales between their eyes and their lips. A few weeks ago she heard that one of her stock tanks—above-the-ground metal structures that provide water for wildlife as well as for cows—was leaking. Apparently shooting holes in tanks is an activity advocated by Earth First. She found a sign nearby that said “Welfare Ranchers Go Home.”
She sits in the bar and says “Go home where?”
Wade Dixon is an ironic and welleducated cowboy, of a family that’s been in the area about as long as Sissy’s. He is not shy about expressing his opinions. This Saturday the subject of spotted owls comes up. “What do you figure owl tastes like?” he says. “Let’s have us an owl hunt.” Recently somebody brought up the subject of wolf reintroduction. I braced for an argument, since I do believe that a reasonable number of the old carnivores brings life to the range. To my surprise, so did he. “Hell, bring ’em on in. Long as we can shoot the ones that cause problems, they belong here too.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service came up with a plan to introduce the Mexican subspecies in the vast White Sands missile range just to the southwest. The ranchers didn’t object, as long as they were assured that problem animals could be eliminated.
But the Mexican wolf is an endangered subspecies, and there is no provision in the Endangered Species Act for doing away with stock killers. I don’t know if this hurdle could have been overcome or not, but in fact the project never got off the ground. A group of local greenies testified that if the wolves were introduced they would go to court to stop all testing on the range, on the grounds that it might affect the wolves. They also indicated that they might enter the range to protest. The commander of the range, quite understandably, withdrew his support for the wolves.
There are problems inherent in public grazing. Right now, the costs of leasing are held below market value by-the government. But then, they were set there a long time ago, and none of the ranchers I know are doing any better than just getting by. Unless you are an absolute economic determinist—and, although I like them better as people, purist libertarians sometimes make me as nervous as Marxists do—you have to see some conservative value in conserving people, and a way of life. I’d hate to see the right become as selectively reverent for life as the greenies have.
And the best solutions to conserving the western lands and this quality of life that some of us prefer to that on the coasts are coming from innovative freemarket and conservative thinkers. Such ideas and programs will always be opposed by urban environmentalists who think all humans and all traditional human activities such as ranching and hunting are evil. I once took issue in print with the late Edward Abbey—a writer who before fame and alcohol and Earth First college readings got between him and his old sympathies with the people of the backcountry, wrote some of the finest books about the West ever done—over this issue of ranching. He wrote that he wanted “real animals, real game, real protein: elk, buffalo, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, moose.” But he also opposed “sport” hunting.
I replied in part: ” . . . how, Ed? How do we get there from here? Throw the ranchers off the range? Kill the cowboys? . . . Surely no old anarcho-liberal like yourself would advocate uprooting people who have been here for three generations and forcing them to live in Phoenix or Billings or Albuquerque. . . . Maybe we could encourage them to set aside some land for wildlife, instead of filling it with cows . . . Maybe we would let them charge for letting parties onto their land. To—I’m trying to talk some sense here, Ed—to charge for hunting. . . . These folks were here before me. And by the way, didn’t you come from Pennsylvania?”
Abbey was in his last days then, and never replied, but I think he would have had some idea of what I meant. His cult doesn’t.
We’re back in the Spur, having discussed all this, brooding. Wade gets the bartender’s eye. “Get this Yankee book-writing son-of-a-bitch another Jose. I want to make a toast.” We get our lime, clink our glasses, and Wade says “To the Earth. But not to Earth Day, and never to Earth First.”
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