Magazine

A new threat to the American cowboy?

Cowboy silhouette Image copyright Judy Wilkinson

They can cope with the harsh climate and tough job but America's cowboys say there is a new threat that could end their way of life. Ranchers in Oregon are worried that plans to create a conservation area will stop them using the land to graze their cattle.

If you've never heard of the Owyhee Canyonlands of eastern Oregon, think high desert - deep canyons, sandstone columns, and mountains that seem to dissolve into the sky. It's a place where the deer and the antelope play. And elk, and bighorn sheep, and mustangs even. Many creatures here are home on the range.

To complete this iconic American scene, dot the giant landscape with cowboys on horseback. They are there, if you look closely. I have to go halfway up a mountain to find one, a middle-aged man called Nick.

He points to his peeling face, then to the sky. "Cancer," he says. "That sun's close. We run cattle up to 8,500ft (2,600m). I've seen it freeze here and crack the trunk of a tree - in June!"

As a Canadian raised in deep cold, I am impressed. "Extreme climate," I commiserate.

He agrees. "Look around. Nobody lives here because of it."

Indeed. Settlers coming west in the 19th Century hit the Owyhee and turned right - hoping for, and finding, an easier route to the Pacific. A few flinty families like Nick's stayed through the generations and made ranching the Owyhee's main industry. But the coming of the tractor reduced the need for horses and people. The decline is told in a glance at the shuttered shops of the Owyhee's main town, Jordan Valley.

Today, it is this splendid isolation that environmentalists hope to lock into law. Campaigners call the Owyhee "the best conservation opportunity in the lower 48" - which is to say the entire country minus Alaska and Hawaii.

The charge is being led by Oregon's outdoor industry - the guides and outfitters who enable a growing number of city folk to hunt, fish, hike, climb or just camp under the stars in America's vast wilds.

The company at the forefront of the Owyhee campaign is called Keen Footware. It makes hiking boots that it says will take you from the city to the trail and back again. Its headquarters are in a converted warehouse in the hippest district of America's capital of eco-cool, Portland. The smell of freshly-brewed coffee lingers on every floor. A big TV sits in the basement for staff who need to chill out.

And just outside the president's office sits a whole team dedicated to preserving the wilderness. The woman in charge of it, Linda Balfour, is articulate on the need for solitude in modern life and for preserving special places for future generations.

"It's about protecting the places where we play," she says. When I suggest it may also be about protecting Keen's ability to sell hiking boots, she doesn't miss a beat: "If you're in business for the right reason with the right product," she says, "the money will come."


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America's Angry Cowboys was first broadcast on Assignment, on the BBC World Service on 3 March 2016. Catch up on iPlayer.


Linda wants President Obama to designate about two million acres of public land in the Owyhee - an area half the size of Wales - a park. Or, in the obscure American conservation vernacular, a monument.

Whatever you call it, it would restrict how the land is used. That matters to Nick and every other cowboy I meet in a week's travel through the Owyhee because they all graze their cattle on public land. Almost no-one has enough private land to keep a cow alive 12 months a year. The ground is so dry and the grass so sparse that the animals need to be able to roam far and wide.

If they can't because of the monument, "generations of ranchers will be wiped out," says Nick, with a crisp snap of the fingers.

It's estimated that Nick and the rest of Oregon's ranchers contribute about $1bn a year to the economy. The state's outdoor industry is estimated to contribute $12bn. So no prizes for guessing who has a bigger megaphone to make its case to the president.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption Ranchers across Oregon are estimated to contribute about $1bn a year to the economy

Linda and other conservationists swear they have no beef with ranchers or how they use the land. They're just worried about mining and people ripping up the desert with trucks.

But ranchers smell a rat. To a man and woman they do not believe the promises of urban conservationists. They say environmental regulation and lawsuits are killing family ranches.

These issues have flared across the West. There have been two armed stand-offs between ranchers and federal officials in as many years. A man was killed in one near the Owyhee in January. One cowboy I meet doesn't discount it happening again if the Owyhee monument goes ahead. "This is our way of life," he says. "Sometimes you've got to make a stand."


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