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It was like being in a dark room with a pack of predatory vegetarians who can smell your fear. Silly almost, but not funny.

The nightmare for ranchers and farmers in the West is unfolding just as it did for the logging industry, and with even some of the same monsters under the bed. Ignoring it or taking it too lightly could mean their demise.

In Boise, at the third annual meeting of the RangeNet coalition of anti-grazing agitators, victory was already declared over some 22,000 ranchers with permits on “public” land. Their options for surrender or defeat were laid out in a campaign of litigation, political and public agitation, and lucrative buy-out offers. Like the overconfidence presented for war with Iraq, the outcome was not in doubt among the 100 or so at the October meeting.

“The livestock industry in the West is already dead,” said high-school teacher and self-proclaimed expert George Wuerthner, who cited the advanced age of ranchers with no children willing to carry on the business; low prices made worse by continued drought; and the public surge against livestock production and consumption as the obvious weakness among them. “Their best choice will be to take what we are offering them and use it to build a new life.”

Andy Kerr, the college dropout who casually accepts the description of himself as “the man who killed logging in the Northwest” during his association with the Sierra Club, suggested that, “As tempting as it may be,

The options for ranchers’ surrender or defeat were laid out in a campaign of litigation, political and public agitation, and lucrative buy-out offers. The agitators, clockwise from above, George Wuerthner, high-school teacher and self-proclaimed expert on federal lands grazing poses with the anti-cow activists’ bible; Andy Kerr, known as “the man who killed logging in the Northwest”; Jon Marvel, whose mean spirit and pocketbook is forever aimed against cattle ranchers; and lawyer Mark Salvo, who enjoys fleeting fame.

we should not demonize the ranchers, but perhaps ‘demythologize’” those wise enough to know it’s useless to fight. He offered “the consequences,” for those who can’t see it that way.

And Idaho architect Jon Marvel, his intense pale eyes aglow at the thought, cheered loudest when his functionary and former Bureau of Land Management bureaucrat Larry Walker said, “Our last RangeNet meeting will be in Reno on Thanksgiving Day 2010, when we will all feast to the end forever of livestock grazing in the West.”

They didn’t even bother as much as they had in their first two meetings with quasi-scientific presentations of papers on new findings in the environment. This wasn’t a meeting to spread knowledge or swap ideas of nature or the range. It was a council of war assembled among bullying activists and egocentric academicians whose bigotry toward western ranching culture and values was not even thinly disguised.

“It’s not the cows we hate,” admitted Marvel, “it’s the cowboys who put them there.… Who cares what generation they are? Third, fourth—why does the media even mention this? What difference does it make?”

Wuerthner, who was presented with the group’s first Edward Abbey award for outstanding achievement, generously distributed free copies of his predictably illustrated $75 coffee table-sized volume on “Welfare Ranching, The Subsidized Destruction of the American West,” which Marvel and others have quickly adopted as their veritable bible preaching not only an end to “public” grazing, but to associated farming of feed grains such as alfalfa and corn.

“I didn’t choose the title or the cover picture [showing a fat rancher on an off-road vehicle],” said the self-effacing Wuerthner. “I’m not an elitist. I’m not trying to manage anyone else’s life.”

Wuerthner’s impressive book assembles contributions from 35 other equally ope-minded thinkers with such views as these:

“Livestock grazing in the West is as outmoded as whaling in today’s oceans. It is a thing of the past, a ‘tradition’ whose practitioners are still immersed in a livelihood in which ecological reality has yet to sink in.”—Douglas Tompkins in the Foreword

“Financially, rural towns would survive without ranchers, but most ranchers would be hard-pressed to survive without the towns.”—Drawn from views of Wuerthner’s mentor Dr. Thomas Power at the University of Montana, Missoula

“Attempts to eliminate or merely reform livestock production will not be successful until the symbolism of ‘meat’ and ‘cowboy’ is carefully deconstructed.”—George Wuerthner

“A cowboy is a hired hand on the middle of = horse contemplating the hind end of a cow.”ÑEdward Abbey

“Ranching on public lands is a social ailment, not a cultural crisis. The West is neither Bosnia nor Northern Ireland. The ruin of its resources and the social tragedy in its wake have more in common with the modern Republic of the Congo or the colonization of Cuba.”—Bill Marlett, Oregon Natural Desert Association

Those meeting at Boise State University were not, in general, young people fired with passion over claims of destruction to the environment. For the most part among the balding heads and graying countenances, it was a crowd who took their credentials from the ’70s and ’80s, claiming wisdom from the passage of their long-held views. Nothing would change their minds and it was pointless to present anything of the “other side.”

Ed Marston, former publisher of High Country News was there in his frequent phony posture as a champion of rural rights, but he did little more than whine about his own lack of acceptance when he forced himself into a small Colorado community in the 1970s. One of his former interns in the crowd observed that “Ed is enamored of rural culture, but he actually knows better.”

&Mac253;KerrKerr, as always the “General” unabashedly speaking in military terms for his political ambitions, claimed that his and Mark Salvo’s National Public Lands Grazing Campaign to buy out permits on federal land had already established “lodgments” among the “forces” of the ranchers. By that he meant that some ranchers have already expressed willingness to accept payment of $175 per AUM (animal unit monthly) to give up their permits.

For most family-sized ranches with grazing permits, that’s an offer at least three times higher than the actual value of the AUM, and for many it would be the offer of an easy small fortune in return for getting out of grazing and probably out of ranching altogether.

It would require hundreds of millions in federal appropriations. “The government can easily afford this,” Kerr said. “In fact, in the long run it’s a good deal for taxpayer funds.”

Kerr and his small Larch Company of compatible adherents has been at it for over two years now, expanding with lobbying offices in Washington, D.C., where, he said, “a [Congressional] sponsor has been found to introduce the legislation in January.” It will also include what Kerr called a “demonstration project” in one state to rapidly eliminate as much “public grazing” as possible.

He would not name the promised sponsor “but he’s from west of the Mississippi”; nor would he identify the demonstration project except that “it’s west of the 100th meridian.”

For those who want to take the money, Kerr swaggered in confidence, it will soon be made available with the stipulation that the grazing permits be permanently retired. For those unwilling to sell, the beer-bellied general of forest and now range wars promised “litigation and pressure” to drive them out. “The old carrot and stick,” Kerr chuckled.

Sheltered to some extent with the media-catchy theme of “the Sagebrush Sea,” another group allied with Kerr and Salvo is at work producing new challenges under the Endangered Species Act and other federal statutes establishing evidence of habitat destruction and threatened extinction of species, especially the once-ubiquitous sage grouse, which Salvo happily calls the “spotted owl of the desert.” As happened to the timber industry, surrogates are being readied for the assaults.

In an evening’s break from the conference at the cocktail lounge of its hotel headquarters, Kerr huddled closely across the table from a wide-eyed senior “environmental reporter” from The Los Angeles Times, the only “mainstream” press to attend the conference.

The rest of the general media doesn’t usually cover nightmares and probably won’t believe in them. Not, at least, until the Times, just as it did in the case of “Forest Wars,” plays its part in making this one come true.

Thousands of letters from Kerr’s National Public Lands Grazing Campaign have already been sent to western ranchers. The group has begun developing associations with western banks, questioning their liability on loans secured with grazing permits. Fieldwork is being done among ranchers, looking especially for those without evidently willing heirs to carry on the business. Once Kerr or Marvel has succeeded in securing the support of even a few ranchers, the defections will be used to pressure those who resist.

“We want to make the ranchers the messengers,” said Kerr. “This could be the recapitalization of the American West with a golden parachute for every one of them.”

If the outcome of such a nightmare proves to be a western wilderness separated by communities and cultures no more unique than Wal-Mart or Starbucks, don’t blame George Wuerthner at his rural home in Vermont. All he did was write the bible.

Winter 2003 Contents | Git Home!

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