Hard to dislike a man who wears a flat-brimmed vaquero hat, a kerchief
and holds a tabby cat in his calloused hands like its a newborn
baby. But if I were to follow the lead of most environmentalists,
I would distrust Mike Hanley, a Jordan Valley, Ore., rancher who
grazes 1,000 head of cattle, in part, over in Owyhee County on
the public lands of southwest Idaho.
Im sitting on the ground in Hanleys ranch yard with a group
of agricultural economists from the University of Idaho, some
of whom have written an exhaustive study for the BLM that details
Owyhee Countys inventory of businesses and other revenue sources.
The economists have also calculated social cohesion, a measurement
of community strength that adds a human dimension to public policy
decisions. In other words, we can now factor in people along with
endangered species and Animal Unit Months (AUMs). Jordan Valley,
technically in Oregon but very much part of this ION culture
where Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada join borders, had the highest
measure of social cohesion of the six communities researchers
Hanley is a historian, author, and one of the more outspoken opponents
of those who would call for an end to public lands grazing. Proposed
cuts of 35 percent in the number of AUMs of grazing on public
lands by the BLM would make profitable ranching just about impossible,
Hanley says. The county is more than twice the size of Connecticut
with 4.9 million acres and only 1.3 persons per square mile. But
thats still around 10,000 people.
Life is even tougher here since the Canadian-owned DeLamar Mine
closed its $27 million-a-year silver and gold mine near Silver
City, Idaho, and laid off 150 employees, many of them ranch spouses
whose paychecks provided a necessary margin the families needed.
But Hanley is learning to adjust. Every summer, area families
dress in pioneer period costume, hitch up stagecoaches and Conestogas,
and pose for Japanese and German tourists who travel to the United
States for a chance, as Hanley says with a laugh, to take photos
of an endangered species. Realizing that nostalgia is a growth
industry in the area, Hanley and his neighbors are building additions
onto their houses to wine and dine the tourists next summer. Were
becoming relics, he says.
Hanleys two cow dogscoats full of cockleburs and pieces of who
knows whatsurround me and sniff my uncalloused hands. Perhaps
they sense a doubter in their midst, but I am completely taken
in by Hanleys humor and charm. When he says he has it on good
authority that after George W. Bush is elected president he will
appoint Idaho Sen. Larry Craig as Secretary of Interior, I dont
even break a sweat. Instead, Im thinking, Man, I wish I had
a dog, too.
Charm counts. Environmentalists, bless their dedicated souls,
have many outstanding qualities, but charm is not one of them.
In fact, my own thorough survey found environmentalists were 86
percent less charming than ranchers. Earth First! led the way
with 93 percent less charm; however, the groups charm factor
does improve considerably with alcohol consumption. My exhaustive
study also found that Jon Marvel, head of the Idaho Watershed
Project and an opponent of all public lands grazing, had a negative
charm factor. When I ran the numbers, Marvels charm was somewhere
between that of a cornered Gila monster with rabies and Texas
Congressman Tom DeLay without rabies.
Owyhee County rancher Paul Nettleton is charming, too, in his
cowboy boots, blue jeans, and hand-tooled leather belt. A cowboy
hat will always be more charming than one of those pointy knit
hats with effeminate drawstring ties and stolen ethnic designs.
Bull hide boots win out over Nike cross trainers, and good, old
tight American jeans will always top relaxed-fit Gap khakis (67
percent of the time). Were gathered around his American pick-up
truck that is full of tools (47 percent more useful than an Izusu
Trooper stuffed with spoiled Montessori-schooled children eating
potato chips and cow and cheese sandwiches on creamy white bread).
A roast beef sandwich, by the way, is 97 percent more delicious
than one of those salty soy hotdogs.
Nettleton, whose family has lived here since 1864, runs 800 cattle
on 11,000 deeded acres and also on public lands. Economists found
that Owyhee County ranchers depend on public lands for 40 to 60
percent of their forage base. Nettleton says if the grazing leases
are cut he will begin subdividing his land into charming ranchettes
and subdivisions, like treeless Eagle View Estates, rising from
the desert just outside the county seat of Murphy: population
100, for now.
Boise residents, who have been priced out of the housing market
in the capital city, are willing to pay $6,000 an acre for sagebrush
land that Owyhee County Assessor Ernie Bahem says is worth $65
an acre as dry grazing land. An hour commute to Boise on Interstate
84 is no longer unusual or undesirable.
My study found subdivisions to be 97.8 percent less attractive
than sagebrush, and 51 percent less useful than ranches. Between
1990 and 1998, more than 1,000 people relocated to the county,
a 13.1 percent population increase, according to the Idaho Department
When I first came West from Illinois 27 years ago I also imagined
myself living in a rustic place like Jordan Valley or Murphy.
Now I know you just dont arrive with your U-Haul and blend right
in. Yet, all over the West, my Boomer generation continues to
attempt exactly that. Armed with our impending inheritances and
preventive health care plans, our Mission furniture and modems,
we drop from the skies like NATO paratroopers in search of authentic
town life and bargain basement mortgages. And before long, like
Chicken Littles, we soon complain about the logging, the grazing,
the hunting, the lack of a good Internet connection, the bad coffee
and the non-dairy creamer served at the local cafe. The locals
are too conservative, too rough, and they dont even read Barry
Lopez. On and on we whine, worry, and fret. Sixties aside, we
are not a happy-go-lucky generation. No wonder no one likes us.
Hell, I dont even like us anymore.
I hope Hanley and Nettletons communities can stay cohesive despite
proposed cuts in AUMs, an expanding urban population, and a rumored
national monument designation (the Owyhee Canyonlands) created
with the stroke of a pen by President Clinton on his way out of
office. The disruptions will test everyones charm, but the brunt
of the policy decisions will be shouldered by the locals, not
by out-of-area activists. Is this the best way to manage public
Were being squeezed in all directions, Nettleton says, with
sadness this time, not a trace of charm. We kind of see the handwriting
on the wall.
Stephen J. Lyons writes from Washington state. His last contribution
to RANGE was Enough with Nature Already in Spring 1999.