My daughter just turned 11, and she’ll be taking Montana’s hunter safety classes next fall. We’ve been shooting more this spring, running rounds through an old Ruger 10-22 that I tricked out with a Burris Red Dot sight because I was having trouble getting her on the paper using open sights. She’s hitting pretty consistently now, and I’m ready to take her back to the open sights on the forward-heavy (for a small person) Remington Fieldmaster pump .22, a very accurate 1952 model with a lot of miles on it and the magazine duct-taped to the barrel, bought for 50 bucks from an old friend who crossed over the river a few years back. In my crystal ball, I can see a Rossi Trifecta birthday present in my daughter’s future, and lots more shooting with it right here on this windy, empty stretch of prairie with the perfect hills as backstops, an expanse where my son and I have killed antelope, dodged rattlers, sniped gophers and called coyotes over the past 12 years or so.
All of this has taken place on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Other than our elk hunting, which is mostly done in the Bob Marshall Wilderness or one of the National Forests, most of our hunting and shooting and camping is on BLM lands. Over the past two decades we’ve roamed the big open of the West, watching sage grouse dancing on the leks, drifting forgotten coulees littered with buffalo and older, more indecipherable bones and fossils, watched bull elk battle it out north of the Missouri Breaks, woken in windy dawns to a sky lit like a hippie dream with streaks of red and purple and rose. We’ve enjoyed crossing paths with the lone-riding men and women who make their living on these lands, pushing cows or horse herds from one grazing allotment or waterhole to another on horseback or ATV, ranchers and cowboys who follow an older code and always seem to have time for a conversation, out here where the opportunities for that are so scattered. It’s great country for an older breed of outdoors fanatic, as well, the hunter and fishermen or wanderer who can see the beauty in a vastness of sage and gumbo and knows how to make camp where night overtakes, who carries two spare tires, an extra jug of gas for the truck and extra drinking water for the family.
These are austere, even harsh lands, and most of them cannot produce enough forage to put enough pounds on cows to pay for the property taxes a rancher would have to pay if he or she owned the property themselves. That is one reason they are public lands, in federal ownership rather than private. Huge expanses were once occupied after the Expanded Homestead Act of 1909, but homesteaders abandoned them during periods of drought or after a series of brutal winters. The explorer, geologist, soldier, and scholarly wild man John Wesley Powell (I highly recommend the biography by Wallace Stegner) warned against that kind of conventional agriculture in the arid West, but the railroads, which would profit from as many people as could be hoodwinked into plowing them, lobbied Congress to the contrary, and won. “Rainfall follows the plow!” was the slogan, backed up by books and pamphlets and a barrage of media, but it never did. By the Dirty Thirties, the dust was a-blowin, much of the land was ruined, and our roads were filled with legions of destitute environmental refugees.
To help solve what had become a full blown crisis in national security--the Dust Bowl was replete with homeless people, erosion gullies that used to be cropland, rivers once used for irrigation clogged dirt and sand--Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, creating grazing districts (managed by the Department of Interior) on unclaimed and federal lands, which had become so degraded by overgrazing during the years leading up to the droughts of the 1930s that it was feared the land might never recover, hampering our nation’s ability to feed itself. The Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act followed in 1937, allowing Interior to manage and heal abandoned homestead lands, establish grazing fees to help support land grant colleges, and restore wildlife and fisheries. Today, the Bankhead-Jones lands, hundreds of thousands of acres of them, are leased for grazing and other resources, and are open to public use. A lot of good wandering and hunting country north and south of Montana’s Missouri Breaks is Bankhead-Jones land, now managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and grazed by local ranchers.
I’m not trying to put on my professor hat (I don’t have one) and give a history lecture here. It’s just that, like everybody else, I followed the uproar in Nevada over the Bundy cattle, and I watched enough television news to realize that not a single person I listened to on TV knew anything about the history of those public lands. (The situation was different here in Montana, and I’m sure it was in rural Nevada, too. My neighbor, who was in a bind trying to find a grazing lease for his horse herd of 65 head, said “Man, if I had 20 years’ worth of free grazing like that guy, we’d have a brand new house.”)
The anger I saw in the news coverage was baffling. The brandishing of American flags infuriated me, since the American public lands, and the reason we have them, is a source of tremendous pride for anybody who understands the issue. What other nation would respond to the ecological calamity of the Dust Bowl with the brilliant Taylor Grazing Act? What other nation would hold onto these lands in trust, allowing public access and leasing them to grazers like Bundy for around $1.35 for the forage eaten by one cow-calf pair for one month—a cost that is much less than almost any grazing fees for state or private ground? That lease agreement alone, despised by so many environmentalists, is responsible for the survival of smaller-scale ranching across the American West. If the lands were given to the states, as some claim they want, the grazing fees, at least here in Montana, would have to be raised over 600 percent. There would be a whole-scale abolishment of what we know as ranching culture in the American West, replaced by…what? Ranchers would have gone from some of the cheapest grazing fees on the planet to oblivion, all because they refused to adjust their grazing plans to accommodate a desert tortoise, sage grouse, or other federally protected flora or fauna.
Are the demands of wildlife protection and environmental regulation on federal land onerous? Heck yes, they are. But is the grazing price among the world’s lowest? Yes, it is. Does public land ranching lose money at the rate of over $36 million every year? Yes, but it is also the lifeblood of many rural Western economies, and that subsidy helps support a huge and too-often overlooked list of benefits, including watershed protection and recreational opportunities (a $256 billion dollar economy in the West alone) that are a big part of the American quality of life.
Is it a situation tailor-made for conflict? Indeed it is. But conflict is a primary energy in America, a dynamic luxury that helps to measure the health of our republic. May the best idea win, and the devil take the hindmost. So far, the American public lands have been one of the best ideas we ever came up with.
If the states obtain control of the lands, they have no incentive to keep them, because they don’t make money. They lose money, and always have. It’s possible that some company could buy the lands, and do something with them, farm them for whatever could be gained, graze them intensively, settle refugees from various parts of the world, but then we’d be right back to the Dust Bowl.
Energy companies might be interested in buying the lands outright, at least where there are energy resources, thereby bypassing some of the more onerous laws created to protect wildlife and fisheries on public lands…but they already have a pretty sweet deal, simply paying royalties on production and low reclamation bonds, holding a lease and being able to move on when the resource runs low. Why would they want to own? And what would happen to the lands owned by energy companies when the resource was played out? No state or federal reclamation bonds and few laws to protect wildlife, no public access, resources drained and then the lands abandoned or sold again, but to whom? Would that be a step forward for us as a nation?
In listening to the news coverage, I realized that not one of the pundits pronouncing so solemnly on the Bundy situation knew about Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), another federal law, enacted in 1976 that pays money to states and counties where there is a preponderance of federal lands. PILT is widely lambasted in the rural West as insufficient and insulting, as if the public lands, if they could only be seized from the feds, would yield a perpetual source of treasures (“rain follows the plow!”). My state of Montana got $26,497,071 last year. Nevada took in $23,331,913. The anti-federal firebrands in Arizona got $32,203,852 . PILT may be widely despised in the rural West but it has not ever, to my knowledge, been refused.
This weekend, I’ll join the tens of thousands of other Americans who will be taking their families on summer adventures on BLM lands. Some of them will be working on their handgun skills in the coulees of Wyoming, or riding horseback in the green and cool high mountains of Colorado. There’ll be rock climbing, river rafting, and canyon running in Utah, or long ATV rides and cross country hiking in Nevada. If it does not rain and turn the roads to impassable gumbo, I’m headed for a place called Crooked Creek, a big block of public land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, that falls away into the fantastically rough Breaks of the Musselshell River. I’ll walk south and east and see what the river bottoms look like, see if there are any catfish in that windy, muddy old stream, haunted with the ghosts of outlaws and Native Americans and homesteaders with grit, busted luck, and iron determination.
Hal Herring is an award-winning journalist and contributing editor at Field and Stream magazine. He specializes in deeply reported, long-form journalism stories and essays. A lifelong outdoorsman, mountaineer, hunter and fisherman, he is based in Augusta.
This essay was originally published at fieldandstream.com