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Cowboy: An Icon of the American West, or a marketing myth?

In spite of its harms to both economy and ecology, grazing on public lands in the U.S. continues unabated throughout  the last century and right up to the present day. Its persistence can in large part be attributed to the myth of the cowboy.


All the way back in December 1946 in Harper’s magazine, Bernard DeVoto presciently wrote,


. . . the West has chosen to base its myth on the business that was of all Western businesses, most unregardful of public rights and decencies, most exploitive, and most destructive. The Cattle Kingdom did more damage to the West than anything else in all its economy of liquidation. As a mythology, it will do even worse damage hereafter.

“It’s cultural capture,” says Debra Donahue, a professor of law at the University of Wyoming and author of The Western Range Revisited. “The ranching industry has captured the American imagination. And they have been given a special deal at great cost to the American public.”


As Andy Kerr points out in his public lands blog, excruciating proof that the myth carries on is in the “American the Beautiful” report to President Biden regarding his executive order on January 27, 2021, that committed his administration “to achieve the goal of conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.”  According to Kerr, “The report is replete with assertions, unsupported by evidence, that ranching is good for conservation. The most egregious is this one:


This commitment includes a clear recognition that maintaining ranching in the West—on both public lands and private lands—is essential to maintaining the health of wildlife, the prosperity of local economies, and an important and proud way of life.”


“In so many ways,” Kerr goes on, “this statement is untrue. Any forage that is eaten by domestic livestock is not available to native wildlife, be it elk, deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, or butterflies. Bovine bulldozers are twice the extinction-drivers that clear-cutting and strip-mining are. As a peer-reviewed article in BioScience notes, ‘Among extractive land uses, logging, mining, and grazing have contributed to the demise of 12%, 11%, and 22%, respectively, of the endangered species we analyzed.’ Not only is public lands ranching subsidized by the taxpayer (so that it costs more to feed a house cat at home than a cow on public lands), but also ranchers pay lower property taxes than other residents of a county and are thereby a suck on local economies. I could go on.”

The myth was born along with America’s founding by the values of Europe, particularly the British Isles, where cattle were a symbol of power and wealth. George Weurthner supposes that, “If the American West had been colonized by the Japanese or some other non-beef-eating group, it is doubtful that cattle would now be grazing in Nevada or Wyoming.”


As Weurthner tells it, “The cowboy is a romantic figure unlike any other in the parade of frontier characters. This romanticism can be seen in everything from art to politics. Even little kids play “cowboys,” not miners, loggers, mercantilists, or railroad coolies. America has “cowboy poets” and “cowboy art,” but no “miner poets” or “miner art.” We have “cowboy music” and “cowboy movies,” but no tradition of “logger songs” or a genre of “logger movies.” And when a real man lights up a Marlboro cigarette, he doesn’t tend to sick people, teach children, or even cut trees or dig rocks from the ground; he rides a horse and chases cows across a vast and open land.”


In 1999 Donahue wrote that,


The courageous, quiet cowboy version of life on the range has been embellished and perpetuated by artists and writers down through the years--by Western painters and photographers, songwriters and novelists, filmmakers and actors. John Wayne's role in dozens of Westerns personified the cowboy in the minds of millions of Americans. Other notable myth-makers include Charles M. Russell, Frederick Remington, Owen Wister, Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and John Ford. Even Ansel Adams has contributed to the myth. A new generation which includes transplanted Wyomingite Gretel Ehrlich are doing their part to perpetuate the mythical Old West.


There is a religious dimension of the Western myth, traceable to the view of Jefferson that farmers were “the chosen people of God.” Today many of the chief proponents of the Sagebrush Rebellion are Mormon, as are many of the livestock operators and their political representatives in the Intermountain West. The Bundys are Mormon.


Republicans and the GOP have also openly embraced the mythology of the Old West. Westerners like to think of themselves as rugged individuals taking control of their own destinies--a persona that the GOP has taken up as their basic ideology where, as writer Donald Worster puts it, “The cowboy-rancher somehow has come to stand for the ideal of free enterprise and for the institution of private property.”


Modern supporters of public land grazing often tout the self-reliance of ranchers in arguing that this way of life should be preserved. But the argument is baseless. Again from Donahue, “Public land livestock operations yield only tiny fractions of the nation's livestock products, public land ranching is marginally profitable, ranching families depend heavily on nonranch sources of income, and a high percentage of western ranches own all the land they work.”  She points out that most public land base ranches are "hobby" ranches, given that most are too small to support a ranch family. Some ranch owners are millionaires who made a fortune in other business and now imagine themselves as modern-day cattle barons.


Donahue also underlines a key point that no single culture or way of life, such as that of ranching, deserves to be dignified by arranging a Federal policy for its sole benefit. Ranchers have no monopoly on hard work, clean living, or family values. The social well-being of the majority of Americans would improve with limitations on private livestock grazing on public lands, and resulting improved riparian and wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities. But for now, the “way of life” of a small number of ranchers takes precedence over the interests of the majority.


A primary reason for the unjustifiable and unsustainable practice of private livestock grazing on public land in the West is the cowboy myth. The myth is used to justify the insistence that public land grazing is necessary to sustain rural economies in the West, and to protect the so-called rancher “way of life.” Neither assertion is true, as is demonstrated here and throughout this website. As Ryan Cooper said in The Week, “Until the West can get over its childish insistence that it can too become self-reliant, or that the federal government which supports it is somehow illegitimate, it will continue to struggle with patchy development and inept governance.”

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