Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Perspective About the Open Range

I’ve waited until the illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was behind us before responding to friends who have wondered what I thought about it because of my background.

I was born and spent my early years on ranchland that my great grandparents and grandparents had homesteaded as well as assembled, along the Henry’s Fork River in view of the Tetons.

But as the only son of an only son, I was also the end of 5 generations of Idaho ranchers in that line stretching back to the early 1860s when it was yet to emerge from what remained of Oregon Territory.

My dad and grandfather were true ranchers.  In rhetoric, they would have probably shared a few of the rational sentiments expressed during the occupation in Oregon.

But they would not have sympathized with the militants.

There have always been a few ranchers and “rancher-wanna-bees” in the West, who not only didn’t respect public property but didn’t respect any property that wasn’t their own, as illustrated by the way militants desecrated the property they occupied.

We often forget that the roots of private property have always been conditional.

My grandfather was famous even before I was of school age because he had fired a warning shot from a Winchester Model 1894 .32 WS Saddle-Ring Carbine that I still have hanging on my wall as an heirloom.

It was a Sunday morning and he had caught another rancher stealing water while others were in town attending Sunday School.  “Ne’er-do-wells, moochers and thieves” he would have called these recent militants.01624_s_aaeuyfyqe0025

He also had a respect for public lands and land managers that at least philosophically, had waned somewhat in my dad when he took over the ranch.

It probably didn’t help that in the early 1950s dad was once forced to admit to poaching a moose out of season, when his best friend, a rural mail carrier, had left his wallet behind.

Dad knew the two WWII were guilty but he had rationalized it by dismissing the importance of the regulations to sustainable wildlife and most of all he resented having to take the fall to preserve his friend’s federal government job.

But I remember dad suddenly slamming on the brakes to our Jeep one day as we crossed the Vernon Bridge on our way back from the courthouse in Saint Anthony and then sprinting down an embankment.

It was common to see my dad angry.  He was one of those people who seemed to express several different emotions that way, including fear, but I had never seen him about to come to blows until that day.

He had caught a neighboring rancher dumping trash in the river and came close to kicking this particular ne’er-do-well’s butt all the way up the embankment because of it.

But ironically, he would have probably complained if a government official had been doing the same thing he had done. 

To understand some of the controversy between ranchers and public lands’ managers, you have to understand a new breed of rancher that came along after 1936, four decades before termination of homesteading led to the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion.

But before I touch on what occured eight years ago, it may help to understand that up until the 1880s, even in states such as North Carolina where I’ve lived for nearly 40% of my life, laws about property were very different than they are today.

Up until that time, it was legal for other people to run their livestock on your land unless you fenced it in.  Everything was fair game unless it was fenced, pretty much the opposite of what it is today.

That began to change in North Carolina when in 1873 five counties, including one from which Durham, where I live, was carved eight years later, petitioned the General Assembly to pass legislation enabling local “no-fence” laws.

It was a movement that was not implemented statewide until 1958.

No-fence laws meant that instead of putting the onus on property owners to fence their land or be overrun by livestock, instead the owners of livestock were required to fence them in. 

But as this movement took hold in North Carolina, out West range wars were raging in states such as Wyoming.

Only instead of intimidating public land agencies, cattlemen bent on running their livestock anywhere they damn pleased were hiring gunmen back then to run off settlers, usually immigrants.

Just as Harney County, Oregon does, Idaho still has open range laws today which include areas west/northwest of our ranch that we occasionally used, including some forested summer range, where at age 6 I participated in my first roundup.

However, we kept areas fenced where we didn’t want other livestock to range including meadows and areas where we raised winter feed crops such as hay, oats and barley.

Pivot irrigation has meant that farmers have increasingly pushed into that area now and parts have been set aside as herd districts, which is a designation by counties set aside from open range.

But long before the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act provided for grazing rights on public lands, smart livestock growers, including sheepmen, were careful not to overgraze these area.

They leased state lands and set up an allotment/share system governed by a board of directors, similar to the way they handled water rights, that kept the range healthy by limiting the number of animals.

This allowed the rangeland recover, a form of stewardship that apparently these militant ranchers today don’t grasp or practice.

But like today, there were always some ranchers who weren’t smart in this way.

That’s why I have no sympathy for ranchers who overgraze public lands out West, let alone renege on fees for that privilege and then threaten bodily harm to folks just doing their jobs.

That goes, too, for those who do sympathize with that behavior.

You get a sense of this corrupted logic when you read reports where some of militants in Oregon were actually interviewed.

My earliest Idaho ancestors, dating back 155 years ago had an appreciation for public lands because, well, it was almost entirely publically owned back then.

They understood that their ability to thrive was due to policies that leveraged some of these lands so railroads were built and to provide for homesteading, water reclamation, wildlife management, timber products for shelter and fuel, as well as roads and schools, even electricity.

But between 1870 and 1900, the number of beef cattle in the 17 western states increased from 4.1 million to nearly 20 million while sheep increased from 5 million to more than 25 million, overtaxing very fragile rangeland.

The federal government did what they could to legislate some sort of control on public lands but little was done until the Great Depression resulting in the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act.

This established what were thought to be sustainable livestock numbers as well the number of ranchers permitted to graze on public lands, as well as the fees to be paid for that privilege, part of which went into range restoration.

But almost immediately, a few ranchers began to abuse the system by buying tiny amounts of land around a water source adjacent to public lands and then expecting the public to shoulder the burden of providing their rangeland while relentlessly bullying land managers to let them overgraze.

By the 1970s, when I was in college, public sentiment turned in favor of other legitimate but competing uses of public rangelands including recreation such as hunting and fishing and protection of wildlife habitat, endangered species and cultural assets, not to mention water quality.

Small towns near public lands today are much more likely to petition for a change to a higher status of public land designation than they are sympathetic to the agenda of militants such as those who took over the Oregon bird sanctuary recently.

In addition, economists have noted that rural communities adjacent to public lands are thriving economically far more than those that aren’t.

I also have no doubt that some regulations as well as regulators have grown too thick and cumbersome, ironically in an effort to stem the very behavior the militants exhibit.

Unfortunately, news coverage of this far more prevalent side of the story is meager let alone coverage of ranchers seeking reasonable solutions compared to the overly simplistic “hate government” narrative.

Like I’ve said before, my parents and ancestors were very conservative philosophically but they had no patience for ne’er-do-wells especially if veiled as armed militants.

They appreciated the role of the commons and were suspect of anyone with a sense of entitlement.

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