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Mike Hanley, ©Pam White


My study found
subdivisions to be 97.8 per-
cent less attractive than
sagebrush, and 51 percent
less useful than ranches.
I also found environmen-
talists were 86 percent less
charming than ranchers.

By Stephen J. Lyons

Rancher Mike Hanley has charm. Photo by Pam White.

Hard to dislike a man who wears a flat-brimmed vaquero hat, a kerchief and holds a tabby cat in his calloused hands like it’s a newborn baby. But if I were to follow the lead of most environmentalists, I would distrust Mike Hanley, a Jordan Valley, Ore., rancher who grazes 1,000 head of cattle, in part, over in Owyhee County on the public lands of southwest Idaho.

I’m sitting on the ground in Hanley’s ranch yard with a group of agricultural economists from the University of Idaho, some of whom have written an exhaustive study for the BLM that details Owyhee County’s inventory of businesses and other revenue sources. The economists have also calculated “social cohesion,” a measurement of community strength that adds a human dimension to public policy decisions. In other words, we can now factor in people along with endangered species and Animal Unit Months (AUMs). Jordan Valley, technically in Oregon but very much part of this “ION” culture where Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada join borders, had the highest measure of social cohesion of the six communities researchers surveyed.

Hanley is a historian, author, and one of the more outspoken opponents of those who would call for an end to public lands grazing. Proposed cuts of 35 percent in the number of AUMs of grazing on public lands by the BLM would make profitable ranching just about impossible, Hanley says. The county is more than twice the size of Connecticut with 4.9 million acres and only 1.3 persons per square mile. But that’s still around 10,000 people.

Life is even tougher here since the Canadian-owned DeLamar Mine closed its $27 million-a-year silver and gold mine near Silver City, Idaho, and laid off 150 employees, many of them ranch spouses whose paychecks provided a necessary margin the families needed.

But Hanley is learning to adjust. Every summer, area families dress in pioneer period costume, hitch up stagecoaches and Conestogas, and pose for Japanese and German tourists who travel to the United States for a chance, as Hanley says with a laugh, to “take photos of an endangered species.” Realizing that nostalgia is a growth industry in the area, Hanley and his neighbors are building additions onto their houses to wine and dine the tourists next summer. “We’re becoming relics,” he says.

Hanley’s two cow dogs–coats full of cockleburs and pieces of who knows what–surround me and sniff my uncalloused hands. Perhaps they sense a doubter in their midst, but I am completely taken in by Hanley’s humor and charm. When he says he has it on good authority that after George W. Bush is elected president he will appoint Idaho Sen. Larry Craig as Secretary of Interior, I don’t even break a sweat. Instead, I’m thinking, “Man, I wish I had a dog, too.”

Charm counts. Environmentalists, bless their dedicated souls, have many outstanding qualities, but charm is not one of them. In fact, my own thorough survey found environmentalists were 86 percent less charming than ranchers. Earth First! led the way with 93 percent less charm; however, the group’s charm factor does improve considerably with alcohol consumption. My exhaustive study also found that Jon Marvel, head of the Idaho Watershed Project and an opponent of all public lands grazing, had a negative charm factor. When I ran the numbers, Marvel’s charm was somewhere between that of a cornered Gila monster with rabies and Texas Congressman Tom DeLay without rabies.

Owyhee County rancher Paul Nettleton is charming, too, in his cowboy boots, blue jeans, and hand-tooled leather belt. A cowboy hat will always be more charming than one of those pointy knit hats with effeminate drawstring ties and stolen ethnic designs. Bull hide boots win out over Nike cross trainers, and good, old tight American jeans will always top relaxed-fit Gap khakis (67 percent of the time). We’re gathered around his American pick-up truck that is full of tools (47 percent more useful than an Izusu Trooper stuffed with spoiled Montessori-schooled children eating potato chips and cow and cheese sandwiches on creamy white bread). A roast beef sandwich, by the way, is 97 percent more delicious than one of those salty soy hotdogs.

Nettleton, whose family has lived here since 1864, runs 800 cattle on 11,000 deeded acres and also on public lands. Economists found that Owyhee County ranchers depend on public lands for 40 to 60 percent of their forage base. Nettleton says if the grazing leases are cut he will begin subdividing his land into charming ranchettes and subdivisions, like treeless “Eagle View Estates,” rising from the desert just outside the county seat of Murphy: population 100, for now.

Boise residents, who have been priced out of the housing market in the capital city, are willing to pay $6,000 an acre for sagebrush land that Owyhee County Assessor Ernie Bahem says is worth $65 an acre as dry grazing land. An hour commute to Boise on Interstate 84 is no longer unusual or undesirable.

My study found subdivisions to be 97.8 percent less attractive than sagebrush, and 51 percent less useful than ranches. Between 1990 and 1998, more than 1,000 people relocated to the county, a 13.1 percent population increase, according to the Idaho Department of Commerce.

When I first came West from Illinois 27 years ago I also imagined myself living in a rustic place like Jordan Valley or Murphy. Now I know you just don’t arrive with your U-Haul and blend right in. Yet, all over the West, my Boomer generation continues to attempt exactly that. Armed with our impending inheritances and preventive health care plans, our Mission furniture and modems, we drop from the skies like NATO paratroopers in search of authentic town life and bargain basement mortgages. And before long, like Chicken Littles, we soon complain about the logging, the grazing, the hunting, the lack of a good Internet connection, the bad coffee and the non-dairy creamer served at the local cafe. The locals are too conservative, too rough, and they don’t even read Barry Lopez. On and on we whine, worry, and fret. Sixties aside, we are not a happy-go-lucky generation. No wonder no one likes us. Hell, I don’t even like us anymore.

I hope Hanley and Nettleton’s communities can stay cohesive despite proposed cuts in AUMs, an expanding urban population, and a rumored national monument designation (the Owyhee Canyonlands) created with the stroke of a pen by President Clinton on his way out of office. The disruptions will test everyone’s charm, but the brunt of the policy decisions will be shouldered by the locals, not by out-of-area activists. Is this the best way to manage public lands?

“We’re being squeezed in all directions,” Nettleton says, with sadness this time, not a trace of charm. “We kind of see the handwriting on the wall.”

Stephen J. Lyons writes from Washington state. His last contribution to RANGE was “Enough with Nature Already” in Spring 1999.


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