Elko Gathering Fosters Robust, Respectful Public Lands Debate

Feb 3, 2016

Historian and ecologist Dan Flores gives the keynote address at this year's Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Flores says public lands may be the most effective tool to preserve the remaining big-game animals of the Great Plains.
Credit Julia Ritchey

The Oregon standoff at a national wildlife refuge enters Day 33 with only a few holdouts remaining. So far 11 people have been arrested, including Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of defiant Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. As Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey reports, many ranchers say the issues involving public lands are too complex to be minimized to just one group’s actions.  

Ever since Ammon Bundy and a band of anti-government protestors took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, attention has turned to the role the federal government plays in land-use policy.

While there are some in the ranching community who would like to see more local control over public lands, there are also ranchers who say the Bundys have hijacked a very complicated matter.

"Every region is different."

That’s Randy Rieman, a horse trainer from Montana. He manages a 2,500-acre ranch with permits from the state and the Bureau of Land Management.

He describes his relationship with both permitting agencies as good, though he admits the state is far easier to work with in many instances.

"Many of the workers now, unfortunately, in those federal jobs don't have a ranching background and they have a good education, certainly, but that comes with some pre-conceived notions that aren't always accurate."

Rieman says much of the debate comes down to views on multi-use and how to raise cattle in a way that is sustainable for both the rancher and the land.

"Some people are consumed with ownership. Other people are devoted to stewardship, and we need to be stewards first."

He says what’s happening in Oregon speaks volumes about society's obsession with conflict.

"I blame that partly on our culture. We have decided that we need to be adversaries with everyone that doesn't agree with us."

Gale Steiger, a ranch foreman from Prescott, Arizona, shares this view.

He’s also the chairman of the Western Folklife Center, which organizes the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko that just wrapped up Sunday.

He penned an op-ed in Elko's paper last week encouraging participants to work toward common ground on the issue.

"I don't say it's bad to have people on those extremes, but I want to be more toward the middle because I think it's in the middle that things get done."

Steiger manages a ranch of 50,000 acres, most of which is publicly held by the U.S. Forest Service. He frequently partners with both federal and state agencies.  

"We have a good relationship. The guys that I work with, they get up in the morning and try to do the best they can with the job they're charged with."

He considers their public lands permits a privilege, not a right, and says no one group can speak for all ranchers.  

Several panels at the poetry gathering this year furthered the discussion. A keynote address by historian and ecologist Dan Flores focused on the ways in which public lands could actually be the best way to save the remaining big-game animals of the West.

"In terms of preserving remnants of the original western ecology, it's the Northern Plains with the most public lands that seems to be doing the best job."

He says places like Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico where public lands comprise 3 percent, are far less ecologically diverse than those in places like Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas where public lands make up more like 10 percent.

"The natural vegetation cover on the Southern and Central Plains in many places is less than 40 percent, but on the Northern Plains, about 60 percent of the natural vegetation is still in place there."

Gale Steiger says the poetry gathering has become a place where people from across the West, and the political spectrum, can come and discuss these topics openly.

"I'm really hopeful for the future because we are communicating better with each other and we are hearing each other better."

Despite how dire the events in Oregon may seem, Steiger says, he’s optimistic that more dialogue with federal and state land managers will result in finding more understanding.