Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call “cowburnt.” Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunchgrasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cactus. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheatgrass. Weeds.
Even when the cattle are not physically present, you’ll see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle. Along every flowing stream, around every seep and spring and water hole and well, you’ll find acres and acres of what range-management specialists call “sacrifice areas.” These are places denuded of forage, except for some cactus or a little tumbleweed or maybe a few mutilated trees like mesquite, juniper, or hackberry.
Anyone who goes beyond the city limits of almost any Western town can see for himself that the land is overgrazed. There are too many cows and horses and sheep out there. Of course, cattlemen would never publicly confess to overgrazing, any more than Dracula would publicly confess to a fondness for blood. Cattlemen are interested parties. Many of them will not give reliable testimony. Some have too much at stake: their Cadillacs and their airplanes, their ranch resale profits and their capital gains. (I’m talking about the corporation ranchers, the land-and-cattle companies, the investment syndicates.) Others, those ranchers who have only a small base property, flood the public lands with their cows. About 8 percent of the federal-land permittees have cattle that consume approximately 45 percent of the forage on the government rangelands.
Our public lands have been overgrazed for a century. The Government Accounting Office knows it. And overgrazing means eventual ruin, just like strip mining or clear-cutting or the damming of rivers. Much of the Southwest already looks like Mexico or southern Italy or North Africa: a cowburnt wasteland.
The beef industry’s abuse of our Western lands is based on the old mythology of the cowboy as natural nobleman, the most cherished and fanciful of American fairy tales. In truth, the cowboy is only a hired hand. A farm boy in leather britches and a comical hat. A herdsman who gets on a horse to do part of his work. Some ranchers are also cowboys, but many are not. There is a difference. There are many ranchers out there who are big-time farmers of the public lands — our property. As such, they do not merit any special consideration or special privileges. There are only about 31,000 ranchers in the whole American West who use the public lands. That’s less than the population of Missoula, Montana.
The rancher (with a few honorable exceptions) is a man who strings barbed wire all over the range; drills wells and bulldozes stock ponds; drives off elk and antelope and bighorn sheep; poisons coyotes and prairie dogs; shoots eagles, bears, and cougars on sight; supplants the native grasses with tumbleweed, snakeweed, povertyweed, cowshit, anthills, mud, dust, and flies. And then leans back and grins at the TV cameras and talks about how much he loves the American West. Cowboys are also greatly overrated. Consider the nature of their work. Suppose you had to spend most of your working hours sitting on a horse, contemplating the hind end of a cow. How would that affect your imagination? Think what it does to the relatively simple mind of the average peasant boy, raised amid the bawling of calves and cows in the splatter of mud and the stink of shit.
Do cowboys work hard? Sometimes. But most ranchers don’t work very hard. They have a lot of leisure time for politics and bellyaching. Anytime you go into a small Western town you’ll find them at the nearest drugstore, sitting around all morning drinking coffee, talking about their tax breaks. Is a cowboy’s work socially useful? No. As I’ve already pointed out, subsidized Western range beef is a trivial item in the national beef economy. If all of our 31,000 Western public-land ranchers quit tomorrow, we’d never miss them. Any public school teacher does harder work, more difficult work, more dangerous work, and far more valuable work than any cowboy or rancher. The same thing applies to registered nurses and nurses’ aides, garbage collectors, and traffic cops. Harder work, tougher work, more necessary work. We need those people in our complicated society. We do not need cowboys or ranchers. We’ve carried them on our backs long enough.
From “Even the Bad Guys Wear White Hats,” which appeared in the January 1986 issue of Harper’s Magazine. (See Christopher Ketcham’s “The Great Republican Land Heist.”) The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 164-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.