RUGGED independence. Hard work. Love of the land. Kinship with animals. The history of the American West has always been about an even mix of fact and fancy, especially when it comes to cattle ranching. Pa Cartwright and the boys feedin' the folks back East from their spread on the Ponderosa. Head 'em up! Move 'em out! All the way north to Belle Fourche. And why not? In a desk-bound age of crowded freeways, urban jungles, and look-alike suburbs, what's wrong with a little myth to lighten reality?
But the truth is, today's home on the range isn't entirely a place where the skies are not cloudy all day. Ranchers in the West are facing a showdown with conservationists over the traditional use of publicly owned wide-open spaces for grazing, and it centers on two fundamentals: treatment of the land and the government's role in regulating that treatment.
For years, the right to graze cattle on federal lands for a modest fee was seen as inalienable. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service together administer 318 million acres in 11 Western states (42 percent of the total and as much as 87 percent in some states), and most of that land - so the argument went - was good for little else but grazing.
Cows, however, are not native to the region, and they can do a lot of damage. Each of these meat factories needs about a half ton of forage each month to keep it growing (``hooved locusts,'' John Muir called them), and like any reasonable being, they head for the tastiest feed. In the process, they chew off the grasses nature wanted to be there, which opens the way for nonnative species of vegetation, and they turn stream sides into muddy, cloudy holes. Not to mention leaving beh ind methane gas and tons of solid waste.
This is bad news for other animal species, like fish in Arizona, where five of 32 native species are extinct and 21 others are headed in that direction. Or like the tens of thousands of foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, and coyotes shot and poisoned every year to protect cattle. Or the deer and the antelope no longer able to play where cows dominate. (There are more cattle than antelope on the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge of eastern Oregon.)
According to several government reports, most federal grazing land in the West is in unsatisfactory shape. The good news is that the BLM and Forest Service are moving toward better range management, taking a tougher stand about where and when cattle can roam. It must be said, too, that many cattle ranchers acknowledge the problem and want to do something about it. They rightly consider themselves true conservationists and animal lovers. Although from the steer's point of view, of course, the rancher is still the person who comes at him with a hot iron, a knife, and a big needle.
There's also the question of economic costs versus benefits. Ranchers pay $1.97 per cow per month to graze on public land - less than it costs to feed your pet hamster. Most of that money goes back into repairing the land, which means that overall it's a money-losing operation for Uncle Sam. Keep in mind, also, that many permit holders are absentee cowboys who also own big oil companies and ski resorts. Their Tony Lama lizard-skin boots have never seen a stirrup or a cow pie.
Would restricting Western range-grazing mean much for the United States economy or diet? Not really. Hold on to your Stetson, but public range cattle in the West account for less than 3 percent of all US beef.
The No. 1 beef-producing state is not Nevada (which is 37th - right up there with Vermont) but Florida. That's because it takes about 18 acres on average to maintain a cow in the US nationwide, but 78 acres in the high, dry, fragile BLM land out West.
But ranching is the lifeblood of many rural Western communities, and it can be an admirable way of life worth preserving as the rest of us saddle up our computers and ride off into the information age. All the more reason to make sure it's done right, so that reality, to the extent possible, can match the myth.