In spite of hurting both economy and ecology, private livestock grazing on public lands in the U.S. continues unabated for the last century right up to today. Much of the reason can be attributed to the myth of the cowboy.
All the way back in December 1946 in Harper’s magazine, Bernard DeVoto presciently wrote, “. . . the West has chosen to base its myth on the business that was of all Western businesses, most unregardful of public rights and decencies, most exploitive, and most destructive. The Cattle Kingdom did more damage to the West than anything else in all its economy of liquidation. As a mythology, it will do even worse damage hereafter.”
“It’s cultural capture,” says Debra Donahue, a professor of law at the University of Wyoming and author of The Western Range Revisited. “The ranching industry has captured the American imagination. And they have been given a special deal at great cost to the American public.”
Journalist and Torrey House Press author Jonathan Thompson publishes The Land Desk, a superb commentary on the West. You should subscribe. Even though I am familiar with the ongoing, nonsensical destruction of our public lands by private cow, I am still dismayed when I see the facts and the magnitude of this existential farce as Jonathan presents below.
Data Dump: Cows, cows, cows… … on the aridifying public lands
“The vast San Juan ranges, with a plentiful supply of choice feed, were not to remain such for many years. Like everything else that goes uncontrolled or without supervision these ranges were used selfishly with the present only in mind [leaving them] in an almost irreparable condition.”
—Franklin D. Day, “The Cattle Industry of San Juan County, Utah, 1875-1900”
Our recent time with you in the cow trashed wilds has me thinking. All the time. I have tied myself into a knot.
I am working on writing some short pieces on economics and on the cowboy myth for a grazing coalition’s new website. I piled up and reread many of my sources on the subjects, particularly economics, going all the way back to Bernard DeVoto in Harper’s from the 30’s. I have discovered nothing new, but I am feeling paralyzed by the absurdities. Economically, nobody directly involved wins on public lands livestock grazing. Not even the rancher. And economically public lands livestock grazing is utterly unnecessary to the nation. But reading all the material has vividly brought home that despite the absurdity, nothing has changed in 25 years, not even in 75 years. In fact, it is getting worse. The extractors have gained power.