“Hey Sundance, Who Are Those Guys?”
Each day that Ammon Bundy and his band of armed militiamen stay holed up at the Malheur Refuge, they make us wonder, in the words of Butch Cassidy, “Who are those guys?” They’re adamant that they will not leave until the federal government gives them back their land so they can graze livestock wherever they want. Yet in actual truth, they do graze their cattle and sheep pretty much wherever they want.
Approximately 230 million acres of federal land out west is allocated for livestock grazing, with the grazing fees less than 10% of what ranchers pay to graze on private lands. Yet even then, most western ranching operations are not economically profitable. And cattle grazed on public land represent less than 3% of the national beef supply. So who are the Bundys and the others who would threaten federal officials with assault rifles to “protect” a nonviable and probably difficult way of life? What do they really want?
I think the answer lies in George Wuerthner’s astute observation that the western ranchers’ identity is tied into entrenched American attitudes about beef, cowboys and the western frontier. Wuerthner is an activist and Projects Director of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, publisher of an eye-opening book called Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West. He points out that many of the early colonists were from northern Europe where meat was primarily available only to the aristocracy. Meat was a symbol of wealth and prosperity – as it now is many underdeveloped nations. And this view was brought to America where cattle grazing land was cheap or free, and land barons amassed huge herds.
Moreover, in this wild west, ranching became the first step in domesticating the landscape and taming the wilderness. Wuerthner writes, “At an even deeper level, the cattle culture is based on a world view that sees nature as requiring control, and those who do the controlling as powerful people.” This notion gave birth to the rodeo – a symbol of the taming of wild animals. The cowboy, with his strength and toughness, rides the wild, bucking bronco and captures the fleeing bull with his lasso. Thus, the idea of preserving wildlands and biodiversity runs entirely counter to the self-image of “real” cowboys like Ammon Bundy.
The image of the cowboy is at the epicenter of the frontier. He is rugged and tough, loyal and ethical. Americans have romanticized the cowboy in movies, music, and art. He is the Marlboro man – a man who won’t back down from a fight.
I dare say, too, he won’t back down from his outrage that the world is changing and the frontier-for-the-taking days are over. In a 2005 study conducted by the Western Economics Forum, both large and small ranchers said that the primary reason for owning a ranch was for the preservation of land ownership, family tradition, culture and values. But along comes the federal government responding to public pressure to preserve a refuge for birds, and on an even broader scale, a world that is opening up to diversity, gender equality, animal rights, veganism. Pull back even farther and we are confronted with a world that must cope with climate change.
Who are those guys? George Wuerthner knows. They are the modern day John Waynes who see themselves as personifying American values of individualism, strength and male competency. They are waging a battle for a lifestyle that must come to an end if we are to forestall environmental destruction and species extinction. Thus attempts to fight the government that is slowly reforming livestock production “will not be successful until the symbolism of ‘meat’ and ‘cowboy’ is carefully deconstructed, and the premise of controlling nature – inherent in the livestock industry – is challenged.” (Wuerthner, Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West)