Does The West Have A Death Wish?

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There was hardly any deception about whose land was being used to feed the cattle. In 1879 a publication called the Rocky Mountain Husbandman stated that “it is admitted that every one of the 49,000,000 inhabitants of the United States owns an equal share of, or interest in, every spear of grass on the public domain, but few of them have any desire to take immediate possession. …” Obstacles such as Indians deterred them, “and they say, ‘Well, after all, I believe I shall not bother with mine just now, you may have it if you want it.’ ” But as tales of instant wealth spread and attracted more cattle outfits, an influx of speculators began to cause crowding. By law the homesteaders had first rights to the land, in parcels of 160 acres granted by the government’s General Land Office. Latecomers kept arriving, and they were left with the land that previous waves of pioneers had passed up because it lacked a dependable supply of water. The cattlemen, although better established, were the trespassers. Their requirements astounded the government and the people back East. Men would run their herds over territories the size of Massachusetts and Delaware combined, keeping a stranglehold on the creeks and rivers, controlling the land as though they owned it.

The cattle outfits grew larger and stronger and preferred to handle the encroachment of settlers in their own way rather than lobby for laws to protect their interests. They destroyed property, ran homesteaders off the land, and killed them and each other. In the late 1870’s ominous ads started appearing in the newspapers, warning newcomers to the cattle business that they would not be welcome in the area and would be ostracized at communal roundups. “The cattle kingdom,” wrote historian Walter Prescott Webb, “worked out its own means and methods of utilization; it formulated its own law, called the code of the West, and it did it largely upon extralegal grounds.” Laws were passed to ease the burden of the settler, but the lawmakers continued to misunderstand the limitations of the land and only made it easier for the stockmen to acquire illegally land intended for farming. And so their reputation as ruthless land stealers grew, confronted as they were, Webb wrote, “with a law on the one hand and with a necessity on the other.”

The newspapers of the day vented the stockman’s frustration. In 1884 the Cheyenne Daily Sun complained: “We occupy a country in which irrigation is a conceded necessity to agriculture. Ninetenths of the surface is totally unfit for the plow. The stockman utilizes it all. Displace him and his capital, and one to fifty years must pass before those plains can be made to produce the same taxable wealth in any other form.”

The ranges brimmed with animals during the boom years. Then came the catastrophic winter of 1887. Many cattle died, but the situation was only to get worse.

Years of drought followed. In 1893 from 50 to 75 per cent of the herds that had lived through cruel winters and parched summers starved or died of thirst. Carcasses were so thick on the land that a stone could be thrown from one to another, for miles. Most outfits went bankrupt. Those that survived could not depend on nature’s munificence. Ranchers started putting up hay to feed their animals through winters and through drought-ridden summers. The cattle boom was over, forever. But the mystique about the money that could be made, and the freedom the business afforded, survived. And for the big cattle outfits that recovered, the memories of the good years were always stronger than those of the bad. To be a cattleman, one rancher said recently, “You have to be a darned optimist, not a good businessman.” It was the optimists who controlled the industry and interpreted nature. If there was no rain this year, there would be the next, and the grass would be better then. And so it went.

Throughout world history, the temptation to overgraze flocks of goats, sheep, and cattle has been too great for most stockmen to ignore. Animals were fed until the grass was gone, and then they moved on. Many countries have been irreparably harmed by overgrazing practices where the climate is arid or semiarid. Central Spain, which was overrun by Merino sheep hundreds of years ago, the steppes of Asia, and the biblical lands were all permanently stripped of their vegetation by herds of domestic livestock whose numbers no doubt never reached those of the cattle and sheep that covered the Great Plains country. When the grass is gone, there is nothing left to hold the soil in place. Inches of topsoil, which have taken tens of thousands of years to make, are destroyed in mere generations. Rainstorms, infrequent but torrential, drive the soil into the instant rivers they create, where it is eventually deposited in the main water-flows at the rate of more than 6,000,000 tons a year, far more than would happen naturally. The result is often “water that is too thick to drink and earth that’s too thin to plow.”