Three lifelong ranchers reflect on private lands values
“For somehow, against probability, some sort of indigenous, recognizable culture has been growing on Western ranches and in Western towns and even in Western cities. It is the product not of the boomers but of the stickers, not of those who pillage and run but of those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”
Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, 1992
One beautiful fall afternoon last year, we three sisters, all now in our 70s, packed a lunch and a thermos of coffee. We struck out on the back roads through the ranchlands of our 1950’s childhood. All of us still live on working ranches in Wyoming, where our ancestors settled in 1879. We deeply love the land, and we’re proud that we still share this legacy and lifestyle. We identify with the characters Stegner called “stickers,” those who’ve stayed for many generations in one place not because it’s easy, but because we like it here and feel at home in the ranching community.
“Remember when the ranchers used draft horses instead of air conditioned tractors?” As we drove, we laughed and reminisced. We considered the many changes to the countryside during the past decades. Today, subdivisions and rural sprawl prevail, traffic buzzes to town and school, and new roads built for gas and oil production go everywhere. Summertime is busy with recreational traffic—fishermen, campers, hunters, and ATV drivers—and sadly most do not respect the manners or protocols of livestock country.
It is not rocket science to see what changes land ownership and landscape: it’s finances, economics, money … plain and simple. Prosperity in agriculture is cyclical. Some ranches in our memory were too small to be profitable and were absorbed by larger ranches. Others subdivided, selling a few acres at a time to meet a debt payment, hoping to outlast a drought or a down market, and soon that ranch unit was not large enough to be viable or productive. Similarly, when opportunities appeared for oil, gas, or mineral development, for timber harvest or recreational businesses, ranchers grasped those lifelines. Others sold to millionaire hobby-ranchers, absentee owners who do not know their neighbors and often do not understand our community values or support our traditions, some of whom might qualify as Stegner’s “boomers.”
Our road trip through what had once been ranch country brought nostalgia, of course, accompanied by an overpowering awareness of the importance of private lands ranching in a state like Wyoming, where roughly half the land surface is public. This importance is about the stability of long-time ownership, the investment in community causes, and the dedication to the well-being of the land itself. Private lands ownership enables relevant, observant decision-making that accepts the risk of success or failure. It supports wildlife habitat, scenic landscapes, and communities and schools.
Late in the day, we stopped on a ridge to finish the coffee, overlooking the big red barn our grandfather built long ago. Antelope grazed across the sagebrush bench, and a hawk flew above. We saw a string of cattle wandering toward water, a soft plume of dust behind them. Sipping the coffee, we wondered how the next generation might strengthen and carry on a commitment to our communities in spite of hard work and uncertain profits. The singular purpose of working and loving one’s land cannot be easily duplicated and is key to the survival of a ranch community. Working landscapes will not be sustainable without strong working communities and people who will tie it all together.
By Mary Budd Flitner, Betty Budd Fear, and Nancy Budd Espenscheid
Authors Mary Budd Flitner, Betty Budd Fear, and Nancy Budd Espenscheid are sisters and lifelong Wyoming ranchers.