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Battle Cry!

They numbered fewer than 100–some dreamers, some lawyers
or scientists, and some full-time political activists with flinty
glints of power in their eyes. Their attitudes were thickly
self-righteous, shaved with elitist contempt for
the cowboy figures they repeatedly mocked as booted,
broad-brimmed oafs with oversized belt buckles.

Story and photo by Tim Findley


"In most
cases, it
doesn’t take
a smart

Jon Marvel by Tim Findley

to fignure out
how stupid

Jon Marvel,

The modest numbers who assembled in Reno, Nev., at the end of November at the RangeNet 2000 Symposium amounted to a congregation of preachers in a far-flung faith. The event was worth a single day’s local story in the announcement of their new encyclical commanding moral superiority to end all livestock grazing on U.S. public lands west of the Rocky Mountains.

Even among themselves, several admitted that the cause would have seemed unthinkable only a decade or so earlier, but these so seemingly few had more than supposedly "new" science to bolster their confidence. Many of them were already veterans of another blitz on public land use that within those 10 years, beginning from a similar meeting, succeeded in crippling the U.S. timber industry by reducing tree harvest on public lands from 200 million board feet to less than 20 million now.

Aware of the military analogies purposely used in their speeches, some of them gloated of their "victory" over timber and generously offered their forces in the new campaign against cattle and the livestock industry.

From a similar 100 or so gathered in Portland, Ore., in 1989 to declare the spotted owl as their banner symbol, their forces had expanded in remarkable increments into the media, the courts, and political lobbying. Propaganda or not, those 100 self-proclaimed against old-growth logging grew to thousands and then even to minions convinced, and suprisingly convincing, of their moral superiority.

This was Reno, only 11 years later, when the "unthinkable" was now the next objective, and openly spoken of in the very heart of the heathen. The figurehead of the cause, like the spotted owl in the forests, will be the sage grouse, a species according to the speakers once so ubiquitous in the West that "kids could go out and bash one with a stick for dinner." In scientific terms, the sage grouse, known to experience periodic surges in natural population, may prove less charming than the little owl that Sierra Club leader Andy Stahl compared to "Bambi" at the '89 meeting, but this is meant to be a crusade as much as a campaign, aimed, as one of the lawyers put it, "to put the fear into public lands ranching."

* * *

"We fear the right-wing Republicans," admitted Master of Ceremonies Jim Britell in his opening remarks, given even as the legal wrangling in Florida was still unresolved. "We dread their return to power, and moves back to local decision making are terrifying... but we won’t be home free if Gore wins either."

Britell, who advertises himself as a "retired federal manager," is actually a full-time Oregon activist who made it his specialty to organize political campaigns by ideologues like himself in counties and small communities where power had long been held by representatives of traditional economies in timber and agriculture. Britell’s "grass roots" success included even the election of his wife to local office.

But the middle-aged activist clad in consciousness-baring work shirt and salmon fisher’s hat left no doubt that the performance wasn’t, and won’t be really, for locals in the West. "Your representatives don’t live in the West," he told the participants. "They’re from Vermont, or New York, or Indiana. We need to lobby them and to cultivate relationships with other people like them in the East."

Despite the popular vote, Al Gore didn’t win in the West. George W. Bush won virtually every non-urban county in America. The key to defeating grazing, the Reno group was repeatedly assured, will be similar to that which defeated the loggers–a well-fed national campaign that all but demonizes the motives and choices of traditional rural America.

Andy Kerr, whose personal public relations campaign made him known as among the brassiest and most radical of logging opponents once bragged early in that effort that, "The West is going to be selling a lot less barbed wire and a lot more espresso."

Kerr stood to applause before the Reno symposium in his light tan utility outfit reminiscent of a uniform and his barrel-chested presence seeming to imitate a George C. Scott imitation of Patton.

"Generals have to be careful not to prepare to fight the next war like they did the last one," he warned. And while it’s true there are some similarities–"Sage grouse need old-growth grass"–this time, there will be new tactics in bringing to public attention in the national media "hundreds of millions of acres of public land the people don’t even know they own."

The key to victory in every battle, he suggested, may be a war chest of funds prepared to buy out and retire every vulnerable grazing allotment on public lands. "What scares the livestock industry is if the allotment next to you is retired and starts to recover." He paused, letting the idea sink in some. "Democracy," he declared, "is a contact sport." (Click here to see a full interview with Kerr.)

Green-collared lawyers, like Tom Lustig of the National Wildlife Federation in Boulder, Colo., boldly suggested probing western banks for weaknesses found in loans secured by allotments, almost classically resetting the struggle of ranchers to preserve their lands from the landlords.

Lest there be any doubt about the depths of the crusade, freelancer George Wuerthner, a self-proclaimed authority on anything he cares about, declared that urban and suburban sprawl replacing land use is not the problem. Agriculture, and the 75 percent of it in the West devoted to livestock feed, is the problem, he said. When public lands grazing goes, so will go the fields of alfalfa and corn, even on private land. "The objective," said Wuerthner, "needs to be the control and restriction of agriculture to as little of the landscape as possible."

The symposium, obviously planned months before when the likelihood of Vice President Gore’s success was less in doubt, was met with stiff skepticism by livestock industry representatives, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and Nevada grazing interests. They called it a resumption of the "Cattle Free in '93" rangeland reform efforts of environmentalists who were thwarted in Congress despite support of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

But whether they took it seriously or not, the handful of range consultants and Bureau of Land Management executives who sat silently through two days of diatribes were at least given an unusual opportunity to witness the formation of a force openly hostile to their interests and determined to wage economic war against them.

"We have had discussions with a number of industry affiliate organizations and have settled on a wait and see approach to what comes out of this conference," said a release from NCBA. "Clearly, we do not want to draw undue attention to such a meeting if the media and other interests have branded it as a radical or less than credible event."

Science should settle the matter, NCBA suggested, and current science on grazing favors continued good stewardship. For what RangeNet 2000 made no effort at disguising as anything less than war, however, science can be made to serve a number of purposes.

As a centerpiece, valuable enough to be used as a door prize for lucky participants in the symposium, was the book by University of Wyoming law professor and long-time activist Debra Donahue. Her work, "The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity," produced enough controversy in The Cowboy State for some to call for her dismissal from the university, but Donahue maintains an air of superiority over those she thinks are just trying to save their own lifestyle at the expense of the environment.

"Local communities don’t need public lands ranching," she said flatly, and then, lamely denying she was making any comparison of them to slave owners, equated ranchers in the West to plantation growers in the South at the beginning of the Civil War, each unlikely to be won over by anything short of "conquest."

Over and over, like a cadence of drums, the speakers laid out their personal, sometimes even irrational, detest for cattle and stock growers, cow "plops," and "the dark underbelly of the ranching myth."

It was propaganda in first draft against an adversary unfairly characterized as much for their way of life and style of dress as for the alleged (but not questioned here) destruction their animals have brought upon the earth tones and sandals marching against silver buckles and boots.

"It is a culture of death," resounded Idaho architect Jon Marvel, who has used his personal wealth and considerable personal venom to fight ranching in all its forms. "In most cases," he said, "it doesn’t take a smart lawyer to figure out how stupid ranchers are."

Marvel admitted he has been mad since the first time 30 years ago that a neighboring rancher let his cattle stray on to Marvel’s property. Summing up from what he had heard from the list of speakers, he vowed a "destabilization" campaign to drive down the value of grazing permits through buyouts, a swarm of litigation against the destruction of habitat, political pressure to force fee changes on public lands, and a media stampede even to hint that "Mad Cow" disease has taken hold in the United States. Marvel, almost physically flailing from the podium at ranchers he obviously regards as personal enemies, predicted "an end to public grazing within our lifetime.

"We are winning the war," he declared in his remarks as the last of scheduled speakers. "The end is near for all this cow shit."

Tim Findley is an investigative reporter who lives in Fallon, Nev. He is often on the road for RANGE. If you see him in the decrepit '78 Chevy camper called "Old Yeller," offer him help!

Related story links:

And they are really serious...RangeNet 2000 Declaration

Response to Ed Depaoli

Exploiting Controversy, Q&A with Andy Kerr

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last page update: 04.03.05