11 March (1985): Edward Abbey to Gerald Marzorati, Harper’s, NYC

Here, writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey responds to letters criticizing his essay Even the Bad Guys Wear White Hats: Cowboys, Ranchers, and the Ruin of the West, about the degradation of western grazing lands by privately owned cattle. In the essay, which was published in Harper’s in 1986, Abbey equated grazing on public lands to “cowboy welfare,” prompting a slew of responses from westerners and politicians alike.

Dear Mr Marzorati:

Herewith my reply to the critics of “Bad Guys in White Hats”:

It’s good to know that so many people share my interest in cowboys, ranchers and our public lands. In addition to the letters shown above, about a hundred others were sent to my home address, many of a highly personal nature and most too enthusiastic to be printed in a decent family magazine like Harper’s.

Now to the business at hand.

Mr Beer agrees with my central thesis, that the public rangelands are overstocked and overgrazed. He differs from me in placing primary blame on the responsible government agencies. I agree with him that the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service have done a poor job, but I think they do a poor job because of the undue political power exercised by the livestock lobby and its hired politicians here in the West.

Mr Beer raises the question of wildlife exploiting private property. Indeed that is a problem for many ranchers; it is not the problem I was attempting to deal with. He also accuses me of speaking only for some elite group of “sports.” Wrong: I was speaking for myself, the wildlife and the general health of the land.

Lee Hollingsworth thinks my college buddy was only another urban cowboy. Not so. My friend “Mack” now owns and operates a working cattle outfit in New Mexico.

To Mr Eppers I say this: All citizens should enjoy the privilege of living on, with and for the land. When the American population is reduced to a sane and rational number (say about 50 million), we can do so. Until then, however, the public lands should be reserved for the pleasure of everyone and for the livelihood of our most underprivileged minority—the native wildlife.

Georgia Jones suggests making an open-season range of Manhattan Island. From what I hear, Manhattan—like Los Angeles—has already become exactly that.

Barbara Myers is mistaken. In the West as a whole, nearly all forms of wildlife have lost habitat and declined greatly in numbers since the advent of livestock grazing. The elk, the buffalo, the bear, the lion, the bighorn sheep, the wolf, the pronghorn antelope do not need electrified water wells—they need room to live.

Governor Herschler is partly right: As a place to live, Wyoming is still more pleasant than New Jersey or California. But he and his fellow promoters, developers and empire builders—throughout the West—are doing their best to change all that.

Aid Goodloe is correct: the abuse of public lands by “recreational vehicles” will soon equal and surpass the damage done by a century of overgrazing. We should stop it.

To Robert A. Jaynes—always talk back. Don’t let an old desert rat like me buffalo a young cattleperson like you.

Finally, again, do cowboys work hard? Of course they do—part of the time. And they love it. 

Edward Abbey—Oracle


From Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast. Abbey, Edward, and David Petersen. Minneapolis, Minn.: Milkweed Editions, 2006.

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