From the Archive — From the February 2015 issue

Cowburnt

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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.

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