Range War in the West

Friday, July 24, 2009
by Patrick Dorinson

There is a range war out West. And unless you live in Idaho or Nevada or any other Western state you probably have no idea what is happening or why should you care. But wherever you live in America you should care because sooner or later it will affect you.

This range war isn’t about water rights or ranchers against homesteaders or big ranchers versus small ranchers like the Johnson County War in Wyoming in 1892. It is between ranchers who have worked the land raising cattle and sheep for over a century and environmental outlaws whose stated goal is driving them off the very land they need to survive and prosper. And this time the weapon of choice is not a Colt .45 or a Winchester rifle, but something much more deadly and destructive—the lawsuit.

So what’s the issue?

There are more than a quarter of a billion acres of public lands in the West. For over century a system has been in place to allow cattle and sheep ranchers access to portions of this land so that their animals can graze during certain times of year. Chances are that steak you throw on the BBQ  spent some of its life on the range before being sold and sent to feedlots across the country to be fattened up to make sure that steak has some nice marbling.

Over the years there have been bitter disputes between ranchers and environmentalists over whether this practice should continue. For the ranchers this was not a philosophical discussion about the best use of the land or saving an endangered species. It was about their very survival and the survival of the cattle and sheep industries that contribute so much to the economies of many Western states. And this was not about keeping a few cowboys or sheepherders employed because there is an employment multiplier effect—1 ranch job creates 7 jobs to support the industry.

Recently, reasonable mainstream environmental and conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy have worked closely with the ranchers to find common ground that can address both the needs of this beautiful land while preserving a way of life that is an essential part of the West’s past, present and future. Working together, the ranchers and the conservationists listened to each other and came up with plans to ensure the survival of both.

But some environmentalist outlaws like the Western Watersheds Project had no interest in compromise and since have used and abused the legal system of this country to deny the ranchers their rights and seeks to have the U.S. Government abrogate the legal contracts that allows them to use public lands for grazing.

This band of outlaws is led by a transplanted Easterner, Jon Marvel who some 30 years ago moved to Hailey, Idaho which is near the millionaire’s playground of Sun Valley. He was an architect who designed huge homes for the rich and famous. He has designed over 200 homes near Hailey which has contributed to the sprawl now happening in that town. He says never designed a house over 7,000 square feet. Now that’s one hell of a carbon footprint for a devoted environmentalist seeking to “protect” the range from the evil of cowboys and cattle!

He and his group have been known to be verbally and physically abusive to government officials who are only trying to do their job. In short they are not just environmental outlaws who operate outside the mainstream of environmental groups they are also bullies who use the tactics of intimidation not conciliation.

Well they must want something? Not really except to drive the ranchers out of business and let the land return to its pristine state when there were no cattle. I have news for Mr. Marvel, before the cattle even came to the West, huge herds of elk and buffalo roamed the plains and valleys for centuries and I’ll bet they ate a little grass and tramped through streams.

Their tactic is to sue the federal government by challenging the rancher’s permits on technicalities and also burying officials in a flood of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. It is estimated that just to fill the current requests it would take one person 6 years working fulltime. This means that trained range managers and scientists who should be working with the ranchers and other users of public lands are instead filling out paperwork. If you are a taxpayer you should be outraged.

I said earlier that even if you didn’t live in the West this would affect you in some way. Eventually the price of beef would rise as there would be fewer cattle merging into the food supply.

But it might also put a severe crimp in the Obama administration’s desire to upgrade the electricity grid, build new pipelines to carry the West’s abundant natural gas to the rest of the nation and also take advantage of the wind corridors that dot the region by building wind farms and the arid deserts for solar farms.

It’s already happening. Interior Secretary Salazar recently came to California to talk up building solar farms on public land near the Mojave Desert. But California Senator Dianne Feinstein is dead set against it as are radical environmentalists. They’ve been complaining about lack of renewable energy for years and now that it might happen they suddenly develop a bad case of NIMBYism.


Because these hypocrites don’t want any of that on public land either and you cannot achieve the President’s energy goals unless you use the vast public lands of the West. It is just not possible.

Finally you should care because this type of bullying and intimidation is just plain wrong. And it’s hard to deal with folks who’s only stated goal is to drive you out of business and destroy a way of life that has survived for over a hundred years against all the hardships that either man or Mother Nature can inflict.

So the next time you fire up the BBQ to grill your steak or hamburger just remember where it came from and the hard work that went into putting it on your plate. But also remember that if some folks get their way, next year it might cost a lot more.