Bob Higgins

Open Range? Get Off My Lawn

Posted in Environment, News, Politics by Bob Higgins on October 12, 2010
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Open Range

Painting: Open Range by Kimball Warren

Open Range

“Open range,” The term conjures images of cowboys and the west, of black and white movies, barbed wire, and cattlemen pitted against sheepherders and homesteaders in black and white struggles.
The wars over open range still rage today, the cattlemen are still there, although they’re more likely to saddle up a pickup truck than an Appaloosa gelding. The fences are there as well, a regular chore in ranching, keeping the cattle where you want them and off the roads where you don’t want them means staying after the fences.

I don’t know what happened to the sheepherders, wearied of the same tired old plot lines I suppose and just moved on.

The modern range wars are between the cattlemen (the modern pickup version) and a modern version of the homesteaders created by urban flight, by suburbanites looking for somewhere extra-suburban to sprawl.

They come from the cities and the inner burbs looking for retirement homes or bedroom communities removed from the bustle and traffic, from the crime and pollution of urban and suburban life. They come looking for a slower pace, a bit of quietude perhaps and for that quaintness that comes from rubbing against the “country” and its “people” and its wide open range.

They bring with them all the baggage and the “needs” of the city and its burbs. They bring lawns and lawnmowers, a need for supermarkets and schools and WalMarts, a need for paved roads and public utilities. They bring a need for protection by police and firemen and zoning commissions, protection from unwelcome sights, smells and the occasional cow in the yard or on the road. They really never leave the city and its burbs, they just pack them up, along with all their complaints, and bring them along.

Marc Lacey explores this today in “Arizona Rethinking Open Range Laws” at the New York Times:

“They have startled the residents of Ahwatukee, a bedroom community in southern Phoenix. They have tramped on lawns and damaged vehicles in Rio Rancho, a neighborhood of tract homes outside Albuquerque. A Border Patrol agent lost his life crashing into one of them near the Mexican border in Texas. Nancy Duke and her husband, Jerald, have had to chase hungry cows from their lawn in Rio Rancho.

Free-range cattle roam widely across the West, protected by centuries-old laws that give them the right of way while grazing and force landowners to fence them out. But as urban sprawl has extended into what used to be seemingly endless pasture land, cow-friendly open range laws are under fresh scrutiny, criticized as anachronistic throwbacks to the Wild West days before Interstate highways and tract homes.” Arizona Rethinking Open Range Laws“Marc Lacey, NYT

I’ve witnessed this, people who buy a piece of property on the downwind side of a working ranch or farm, build a house and then complain that their quality of life is being diminished by the smells of the primary products of the feeding of cattle.

I’ve spent most of my life in areas where there’s a more or less remote possibility of having a collision with a cow or a deer or someone’s pet pony and other than the tragic smashing of a raccoon in North Carolina in 1966 I’ve been lucky. If you are careful and attentive and aware of the possibility of a collision you’ll improve your luck with the critter collisions.

Once, at a meeting of the Castle Valley Property Owners Association in southern Utah, the topic of discussion was the maintenance of the Valley’s unpaved desert roads. We owned a road grader and paid for an operator to blade the roads on a regular basis, which was the major expense of the association.

At every meeting someone or several people complained about the dust from the grader and from cars traversing the valley on the main road. Arguments for and against, and solutions to the problem of dust in the desert were guaranteed to absorb 60% of the time at each monthly meeting.

One night an old miner, prospector, logger, muleskinner named Earl, who lived in the middle of the valley, in a less than attractive trailer/house hybrid, (a dwelling that was often the subject of the other 40% of the meeting) stood, removed his cowboy hat and addressed the meeting:

“You folks, you come out here from the city, from your fancy houses in your shiny cars. You come out here to the desert, the desert dammit.” Earl emphasized the second “dammit” by slapping his right thigh with his cowboy hat, raising a small but impressive cloud of the red valley dust currently under discussion and continued, “If you don’t like dust, why’d you move to the desert? If you don’t like dust, move to Oregon. There ain’t no damn dust in Oregon. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

That meeting was thirty years ago and I remember Earl’s clear cowboy eloquence every time I read about this clash of cultures and classes and times.

People are moving to the open ranges of the west and where there is no water, they demand water, where there are cows they demand protection from cows, where there is dust they demand Oregon.

I guess people just naturally have a lot of wants, needs, desires and conflicts but it’s nice to occasionally witness someone like Earl who was able to get to the core of the problem and offer a simple solution.

I wonder what they’ll bitch about in Oregon?

Bob Higgins

Arizona Rethinking Open Range Laws


6 Responses

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  1. Lewis VanAusdle said, on May 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    Earl is my grandfather. He was quite a man. I remember visiting his hybrid house.mi also remember the scent of that red desert dust in Castle Valley.

    • Bob Higgins said, on May 30, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      I loved Earl and Nettie. I worked shoulder to shoulder with him many times over a couple of years and although I was twenty years younger he just flat wore me out. Nettie had the most beautiful eyes and a smile that contained more mysteries than her chili.

  2. Barbara Turner said, on May 31, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Hi Bob, Earl is my dad and he didn’t usually cuss. Are you sure he used those exact words? I guess it depended on how much whiskey he had drank that day though maybe. Or maybe he just got really riled up. Mom is still alive and well.
    Barbara Hotz Turner

    • Bob Higgins said, on May 31, 2012 at 8:50 pm

      The incident is true and I’ve reported the gist of Earl’s remarks faithfully but I wouldn’t swear to the dammits or damns. He was pretty civilized around the ladies and kids but he could cuss with the rest of us.

      I’m glad to hear Nettie is well. Remind her of the time I asked her how much Earl would charge me to breed the milk goat he sold me. (Tell her my name and that I’m the guy who bought the sawmill and built the addition over the top of the trailer.) I still laugh at her response today, after thirty years.

      • Barbara Turner said, on June 1, 2012 at 8:49 pm

        I am almost afraid to ask!! but I will.
        I know Dad could cuss and Mom too. When we were little Nancy and I started cussing and Granny Hotz put her foot down and Mom started washing our mouths out with Ivory Soap.

  3. Ron Drake said, on November 13, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    Hi Bob. I printed your remarks nearly a year and a half ago and someone mentioned Earl yesterday and I was thinking about him and re-read your article. I enjoyed it very much. I was at that meeting with the POA and I remember the incident but not the exact details as clearly as you do of his remarks that night. I’m still here in Castle Valley but the people with the shiny cars from the fancy houses seem to be winning out. I miss the old Castle Valley and Moab but I fear that they are gone forever.

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