Tuesday, April 05, 2016

A new threat to the American cowboy?

They can cope with the harsh climate and tough job but America's cowboys say there is a new threat that could end their way of life. Ranchers in Oregon are worried that plans to create a conservation area will stop them using the land to graze their cattle. 

If you've never heard of the Owyhee Canyonlands of eastern Oregon, think high desert - deep canyons, sandstone columns, and mountains that seem to dissolve into the sky. It's a place where the deer and the antelope play. And elk, and bighorn sheep, and mustangs even. Many creatures here are home on the range.

To complete this iconic American scene, dot the giant landscape with cowboys on horseback. They are there, if you look closely. I have to go halfway up a mountain to find one, a middle-aged man called Nick.

He points to his peeling face, then to the sky. "Cancer," he says. "That sun's close. We run cattle up to 8,500ft (2,600m). I've seen it freeze here and crack the trunk of a tree - in June!"

As a Canadian raised in deep cold, I am impressed. "Extreme climate," I commiserate.

He agrees. "Look around. Nobody lives here because of it."

Indeed. Settlers coming west in the 19th Century hit the Owyhee and turned right - hoping for, and finding, an easier route to the Pacific. A few flinty families like Nick's stayed through the generations and made ranching the Owyhee's main industry. But the coming of the tractor reduced the need for horses and people. The decline is told in a glance at the shuttered shops of the Owyhee's main town, Jordan Valley.

Today, it is this splendid isolation that environmentalists hope to lock into law. Campaigners call the Owyhee "the best conservation opportunity in the lower 48" - which is to say the entire country minus Alaska and Hawaii.

The charge is being led by Oregon's outdoor industry - the guides and outfitters who enable a growing number of city folk to hunt, fish, hike, climb or just camp under the stars in America's vast wilds.

The company at the forefront of the Owyhee campaign is called Keen Footware. It makes hiking boots that it says will take you from the city to the trail and back again. Its headquarters are in a converted warehouse in the hippest district of America's capital of eco-cool, Portland. The smell of freshly-brewed coffee lingers on every floor. A big TV sits in the basement for staff who need to chill out.

And just outside the president's office sits a whole team dedicated to preserving the wilderness. The woman in charge of it, Linda Balfour, is articulate on the need for solitude in modern life and for preserving special places for future generations.

"It's about protecting the places where we play," she says.

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