Every state has its iconic symbol. Cheese in Wisconsin, corn in Nebraska, Arnold Schwarzenegger in California.
In Wyoming, most of us would say our symbol is the cowboy — which we sport with pride on our license plates. To many the symbol might be Old Faithful, Devils Tower or the Tetons. In fact, on the home page of the State of Wyoming’s website, four of the five images are of our national parks, monuments and forests. So we might have two symbols: the cowboy and our public lands.
Proponents of a public land takeover have done a funny thing, however, when it comes to Wyoming’s symbols — they’ve tried to co-opt the image of the cowboy as the front man of the land grab movement. One of the movement’s chief supporters, William Perry Pendlay, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, chose the image of Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat for the cover of his book, “The Sagebrush Rebels.” And despite local ranchers speaking out against the occupation of Malheuer National Wildlife Refuge last January, supporters of the seizure of public lands painted Ammon Bundy as a sympathetic cowboy figure fighting against government oppression.
Neither could be further from the truth. Ronald Reagan was an actor and politician, and the majority of the occupants at the refuge had no ties whatsoever to agriculture. The truth is, the public land grab movement is driven by corporate interests with an eye toward privatizing these lands for development,and extraction. They then want to auction them off to the highest bidder. It’s time they just come out and say it instead of meddling with, and soiling, the integrity of the cowboy hat.
The cowboy and public lands go together like hand in glove. The cowboy needs and thrives on wide open spaces for his livelihood, and time spent in wide open spaces cultivates the rugged and independent spirit of the cowboy. When my great-grandfather traveled to Wyoming in the late 1800s to throw his hat in the cattle industry, stockmen grazed all their livestock on public lands. And despite a small number of conflicts that grab a large amount of attention, most ranchers have continued to graze their livestock beneficially, collaboratively and without conflict on public lands.
At the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, we recognize the importance of both preserving public lands and helping our private land stewards to maintain and enhance healthy wildlife populations in the state. Both public and private lands provide open spaces and healthy habitat, and both public and private lands provide the livelihoods, economic benefits, and recreation opportunities that make Wyoming our home. We have a healthy balance of both in Wyoming, and we should focus our energy on collaborative efforts to help both agencies and landowners maintain and enhance wildlife stewardship practices on the lands they manage, instead of focusing on taking over our lands.
If you agree, please show your support and join the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and a host of other groups at a Rally for Public Lands from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Fort Caspar Campground, 4205 Fort Caspar Road. It’ll be a lot of fun, and it will be a family-friendly event. We will have a great lineup of speakers, live music and food and beer. For more information and to sign our petition, visit http://keepitpublicwyo.com/.
Shane Cross is president of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.