Many people think ranching is doomed. I'm not ready to concede defeat.
True, the traditional rusty pickup with a dog drooling over the tailgate is being replaced by shiny extended-cab jobs with clipped dogs in cages. No one wants to talk about water, the silent partner in any speculation about the future. And the value of agricultural land is debatable, altered each time ranches are diced into subdivisions.
Some cynics suggest that once all the recalcitrant old ranchers are replaced by politically correct tofu eaters, the West will be knee-deep in garbage shipped from the East Coast. Now that tourism has moved ahead of agriculture as South Dakota's primary business, some folks might welcome garbage. We could pave it, providing jobs, and creating an ever-growing parking lot for Mount Rushmore.
A few activists predict an open range will stretch from the Canadian border to the southern tip of Texas, unfenced and untenanted, covered with wild bison, wolves, recreationists, and other critters. One group even wants to bring back the woolly mammoth but would settle for elephants.
I can visualize that future: Angry bison chase bicyclists along the paved roads and parking lots of endless suburbs. Folks on ATVs and ORVs and other alphabetical recreational transport aim their movie cameras at a couple of lean wolves trying to get a little privacy behind the last sagebrush. Joggers in bright orange elastic underwear pause to scrape elephant dung off their Nikes.
By contrast, in my ideal future, ranching would remain the backbone of the arid shortgrass plains for simple economic reasons. Millions of years of evolution has developed plants best suited to the landscape. The best way to harvest their bounty so far is by packaging them inside an animal.
Of course, there are some real ways ranchers and newcomers can keep ranching alive. For a start, we can teach people who move into ranching communities how to get the most from their new homes. Just as we instruct new residents on the dangers of weather and wildfire, let's educate them on the meaning of community, something they came here to find.
Rural communities might adopt an idea from Driggs, Idaho, where a handbook provided to prospective residents of the Teton Valley offers detailed information on soil, wildlife, water rights and weeds. The chapter on grazing, for example, provides tips on native vegetation, riparian management, livestock rotation and fencing methods and customs. Suggesting ways to be a responsible horse or dog owner, to burn trash safely, is a friendly way to help strangers become informed residents.
As for ranchers, they could start saving their own skins by devising a way to charge for their work of preserving wildlife, native grasses and open space.
Beyond that, they might have to actually consider a concept many find hard to mouth, let alone stomach. Forty miles south of my ranch, NO ZONING signs decorate fences through a pretty valley where new houses spring up every week as ranchers exercise their right "to do what I want with my own land." Those ranchers would probably agree that rights require responsibility, and may realize that other Western communities have chosen to prohibit development in terrain best suited to grazing. If Western ranchers decide not to decide, they will give up their right to choose their future. They may sacrifice their "right" to ranch.
They'll be like that rancher who came into the bar and started downing whiskey after whiskey. When a sympathetic friend asked him what was wrong, he shook his head in despair. "Some blankety-blank Californian took my ranch away from me."
"That's terrible. But how could that happen?"
The old rancher gulped and said, "The so-and-so met my price."
If ranchers want to avoid exiting the western stage (to the sweet strains of the fiddle, of course), they need to be their own best friend. That means making some tough choices.
Linda Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). She writes and ranches in western South Dakota.