Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West


Cultural and Historical Roots: The Grasp of the Cowboy on Contemporary Consciousness

The cultural lineage of the modern-day rodeo can be traced back to the bull-worshipping ceremonies of Mesopotamia and other ancient Western civilizations.

Today, "myth" is commonly understood as something opposed to reality-a fallacy. Such a definition applies to the use of the term in the preceding section of this book. However, a myth is also something much grander: a story, ostensibly tied to historic events but functionally an explanation or expression of a people's worldview. A myth reveals what a society believes about itself, its origins, its proper relationship to nature, and the manner in which individuals should behave. In the United States, there is probably no greater myth than that of the cowboy.

Myths can be pervasive and inescapable, and their powerful influence may not even be recognized by most people. To challenge them can be dangerous and, at the very least, may draw a great deal of skepticism. Thus, to take up the matter of the damage done to public lands by the cowboy's cow is no simple project of laying out facts and statistics. Nor is it enough to employ the direct, nonverbal power of photographs, though we do so abundantly throughout this book.

Before there can be an honest discussion of what has happened to the native species and ecological systems of the West because of the influence of livestock production, we need to confront the cowboy myth. In this section, Christopher Manes and George Wuerthner dissect the roots of the cowboy myth, including its relationship to cultural beliefs about meat, manhood, leadership, and nature. Thomas Fleischner relates the manner in which cattle came to dominate the landscapes of the American West, and how stockmen-in no small part because of the high degree of societal deference paid them-have wielded enormous control over western land use policy during the last century and a half. T. H. Watkins takes a closer look at the laws and policies regarding public lands ranching that developed during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era. Relief provided to ranchers during that dark, desperate time was rapidly institutionalized into a system of subsidies that stands today. "Welfare rancher" is a term at least as valid as "welfare mother," if not vastly more so, yet public lands livestock producers enjoy much greater success at opposing welfare reform. The resilience of the American myth of the cowboy has much to do with this success. As Andy Kerr and Mark Salvo explain, even in national parks and designated wilderness areas-set aside for their aesthetic and conservation values-ranchers' economic interests have prevailed over the public interest. Livestock grazing continues in some of America's most treasured natural landscapes.

Finally, Edward Abbey offers his own sort of antimyth. His barbed humor and outrageous rhetoric may offend-"sacred cows" of any sort were always the target of Abbey's sharp mind. What lies at the center of his raucous and unmannerly language, however, are his own fiercely felt loyalties: to wildness, to beauty, to truth. In the long run, the Marlboro Man hasn't got a chance.