THE COWBOY LIBERTARIAN: Why the Range War In the West Matters

Since last September the federal government has been spending money like a drunken greenhorn cowboy on a Saturday night. Bank bailouts, stimulus spending that ain't done much stimulatin', and taking over automobile companies all have added up to a federal deficit soaring to a record $1.42 trillion -- the highest it has been since World War Two.

But wasting hard earned taxpayer dollars is not unique to this president or this Congress nor is it the exclusive purview of either political party. In fact, over the years the only danged bipartisan thing they do in Washington is to spend money recklessly and with no accountability.

You might be surprised to learn that some of those taxpayer dollars are being used to fund a radical environmental agenda that if successful will ultimately result in the destruction of a way of life and a business deeply rooted in our history. It will also prevent us from taking advantage of the West's abundant natural resources to produce the energy we need to fuel our economy.

Last July I wrote a piece for the Fox Forum called "Range War in the West" in which I described how one outlaw environmental group, the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) was trying to run ranchers and sheepherders off the public lands that belong to all of us and that the ranchers have used under permit and strict federal guidelines for 75 years.

And their weapon of choice? The lawsuit.

They are using the federal courts and a law meant to protect small businesses, farmers and ranchers from an overbearing and overreaching federal government to put some of your fellow citizens out of business.

Let me explain.

Almost 30 years ago, with the best of intentions Congress passed the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). Simply stated the EAJA said that if the government had done wrong against small businesses, including farms and ranches, and they challenged the government in federal court, they would not have to go bankrupt awash in legal fees from protecting their rights. Call it a leveling of the playing field. If they were victorious in court, the government would have to pay their legal fees. Sounds fair right?

But as with all good intentions, there are some radical environmentalists who have figured out a way to use EAJA against those same small businesses in order to further their radical environmental goals. And even though they aren't being sued directly the ranchers must hire lawyers to give them a seat at the table. -- That's kind of like paying to watch your own hangin'.

In the last 10 years in one Federal District Court in Boise, Idaho, Western Watersheds Project has received $1,150,528.00 of your tax dollars for their jihad against the ranchers and sheep men. They have a found judge in that particular court who has been particularly accommodating to them and who seems to have his thumb on the scales of justice in their favor.

And that is just one organization. It is estimated that in that same time frame billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent settling these ridiculous legal claims.

Here's how it works. WWP sues the government challenging the rancher's public land use permits on trumped up charges over water use or endangered species that aren't really endangered, in the hope of having the permit rescinded. They tie up the ranchers in court and financially bleed them. They don't have to win the case to be given your taxpayer money. The government which is a font of useless legal mumbo jumbo says they only have to "prevail" in the case. And guess who makes the decision whether they "prevail" or not? The federal government!

And it's not just Idaho. This group has offices in Arizona, California, Nevada, Montana, Utah, Washington and Wyoming dedicated to the same goal of no commercial development on the vast public lands of the West. That means no cattle, sheep, solar farms, wind farms, natural gas or oil development or vitally needed new transmission lines to bring electricity to the cities of America.
This ain't just about cowboys folks.

Recently I went to Idaho to see firsthand what the Western Watersheds Project was all hot and bothered about. I was invited by some rancher friends who had first told me about this issue.
It was gathering time for the cattle and I had the rare privilege of riding and working alongside some real cowboys and ranchers. I wish all of America could see this beautiful land and the hard working people who battle Mother Nature and now mankind, to preserve a way of life and leave a legacy to their children and grandchildren.

I saw a land where herds of elk and pronghorn antelope live side by side and graze on the same range as cattle. I saw the range that the environmentalists say has been ruined with cattle and sheep and could not tell that either had even been there. Ranchers and sheep men are under strict rules about rotating where the livestock grazes so as not to over graze thereby maintaining the ecological balance of the region.

And I saw a land that can live in harmony with the competing demands of strong economic activity and sound environmental stewardship-- just as it has been doing for over 100 years.

But the most beautiful thing I encountered on my journey were the people.

Folks like Dick and Betty Baker and their sons Doug and Wayne, nephew Junior and Doug's daughter Sarah. They live in a pristine valley along the East Fork of the Salmon River and have done so for six generations. The original log homestead still stands.

Dick is 87 and on the day we met there he was helping with the vaccinations and pregnancy testing on his family's cows much as he has done for many years during the fall.

We went back to his house where his wife Betty welcomed us with a warm smile and a hot toddy to take the edge off the chill in the air.

Dick and Betty told me many stories of the struggles and challenges of running cattle but I never heard a complaint.

When I mentioned WWP they just shook their heads. They just can't understand what motivates someone to want to take away all they have worked for and who has told them -- to their face--that they intend to run them off the range and out of business. And they wonder why the government that is meant to protect their rights seems either unable or unwilling to do so.

At dusk, I stepped outside and one of my traveling companions pointed to some rocky bluffs. He handed me the binoculars and there were three bighorn sheep standing proudly at the top of the bluffs.

I then looked around and saw cattle grazing in a green meadow and a river just beyond. As we drove out I saw deer and a large herd of elk. Man and nature living side by side.

I trust ranchers, sheepherders and cowboys who depend on a vibrant environment to make a living more than I do any outlaw environmentalists who only seek to destroy lives and the Western heritage that belongs to all of us.

And remember they are doing it with your money.

Patrick Dorinson blogs at The Cowboy Libertarian. He is a frequent contributor to the Fox Forum.