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Special Cowboy Poetry Feature

Spring/Summer 2004, Volume 21.3



Waddie Mitchell

Excerpted from: Keynote Address 2001 National Cowboy Poetry GatheringPhoto of Waddie Mitchell.


The face and name of Waddie Mitchell have become synonymous with the literary genre called "Cowboy Poetry." Waddie has appeared in numerous television programs, from The Tonight Show to documentaries produced by educational stations. He is a regular at many western festivals and is one of the original founders of the world famous National Cowboy Poetry Gathering held each winter in Elko. His life as a poet is a busy one—he is "on the road" about 250 days a year.

Throughout his life, Waddie has been, first, a working cowboy and, second, a poet. But for Waddie the life of a cowboy and composing poetry are one and the same. His poems tell his story, which is that of a "real life" cowpuncher and ranch hand. He is representative of those hearty individuals who settled the West and established a way of life that fit in with the harsh yet beautiful landscape where it took root. As tough and hardy as the cowboy life was, it is now threatened by technology and overdevelopment. Because of his commitment, and that of others like him, twenty-first century America is again beginning to relearn the importance of the life of the cowboy and why holding on to it is necessary both historically and socially.

Check out these other works by Waddie published by Weber Studies:  Conversation with Waddie Mitchell,    Cowboy Poetry—That "No Quit" Attitude and Infraction Distraction


The theme of this year's gathering is the Ranching Tradition of the Great Basin. The name was given to this region for the topographical phenomena within its boundaries.

The Great Basin encompasses parts of Southeast Oregon, Eastern California, Southern Idaho, Western Utah and most of Nevada. The word Basin denotes the fact that rivers run into it but not out. It is actually home to over 100 basins and has over 150 mountain ranges dividing them. It is sometimes called "The Big Empty," "The Big Nasty," or "The Sagebrush Ocean." Virtually all of it is considered high desert.

Early explorers and trappers who came to this region recounted it as "a harsh land with little vegetation and with a scarcity of water, often muddy or stagnant, and not fit for man nor stock." They wrote that game was a rarity, and their journals tell us of them resorting to eating their pack animals on occasion. They tell us of encounters with native people who "ate bugs and pine nuts for their subsistence," and said, "all in all, it is an uninviting region."

Starting in the late 1840s a few of the hardier pioneers did settle. They scratched out a living by trading with Indians and wagon trains or providing goods and services for the cavalry and living a pretty self-sustaining and self-reliant life.

In 1862 Congress passed the Homestead Act. The sponsors of this legislation believed that the vast lands of the west would be of no real value until lived upon and improved, thus providing a tax base. They offered title to 160 acres if you'd but live on the land for five years and do some basic improvements, or you could pay $1.25 an acre in lieu of the residence requirement. After fooling with the laws a bit and upping it to 360 acres in some places, they estimated that by 1900 maybe 600,000 families had settled across the West. They set aside a big bunch of the best acreage to entice the railroads westward. Most of the settlement movement was from east to west, but that wasn't necessarily so for the Great Basin.

California had been settled and lived in for several hundred years, and the new folks there were predominately of Spanish origin. The Gold Rush and the import trade further strengthened the region's economic growth, and in the latter part of the 19th century, real estate that had once been home to thousands of beef cattle was now being much sought after for farming, industrial, and residential use. Many of the California land grant rancheros were not finding it economically feasible to use such land for the grazing of cattle any more. This is what moved the cattle business of California to the vastness of the Great Basin. No one from the grass country would ever look at this area with envy, other than it its vastness. The scarceness of water and farming ground lent it to little other than grazing livestock, and virtually all settlements, other than a few mining camps or railroad stations, sprung up around the livestock industry. So where most states west of the Mississippi were settled from east to west, the Great Basin region found much of its settlement from a west to east movement.

By the 1870s many thousands of cattle were grazing year round throughout the Great Basin. With this fenceless, seemingly endless range, it seemed that the future of this type of ranching was promising. Then the hard winter of 1889-90 hit, and upwards of 85 percent of all stock in the region were winterkilled. This broke the back of a seemingly strong industry. The ranchers who did not go broke or sell out realized that they would have to develop many acres of hay ground to sustain the cattle through winters like that. Tens of thousands of sheep were introduced to the Great Basin while the cattlemen were trying to recover, and open range issues started to become a real problem. Because of the high desert limitations, those who homesteaded this area would typically settle around water sources. And because 320 acres could not support them, they would develop springs and water on the range around them. They filed with the state for ownership of that water.

The area that their livestock would use for grazing was dependent on the water sources they owned, and this is what created the boundaries for their ranches. It wasn't until 1934 that these boundaries were legitimized by the passing of the Taylor Grazing Act, which, over a period of time, defined the areas that had been settled by the ranchers and created an allotment that tied the outside range to the base property the ranchers owned. The Taylor Grazing Act proved that the grazing allotments could be bought, sold, used as collateral at the bank, passed on to their heirs, and would be taxed as part of the rancher's estate when that estate was passed on. Essentially this is the same way that Texas, Oklahoma, and most other states defined the boundaries of a ranch, but with one big difference: they did it through their state or county governments, and their boundaries that were once open range became privately owned.

The ranchers in the Great Basin, however, found that after the Civil War the young states did not have the population base or the tax revenue to manage these lands nor the authority to privatize them. The ranchers were given the opportunity to buy the land outright but felt that in essence they would be paying for the land twice. For oftentimes they had invested more in the development of their range than would have been required to prove up on that land had it been homesteaded. At the time, the Taylor Grazing Act seemed like the fair and equitable way to settle the problems and disputes over the boundaries of the ranches.

In the community makeup of early California, those who controlled land and livestock were the holders of the base of their economy. Those in the livestock industry were at the top of the social and economic ladders and could afford to breed and ride the best of the horses and keep the men in their employ well mounted. They would adorn their equipment with silver and employ the finest craftsmen to build the gear they used. These were the men who came to this country. It's true today as it was then, that a well-mounted man feels a pride deep inside. Although the Great Basin buckaroo is certainly not near the top of this social ladder and is likely near the bottom of the economic scale, the pride that the Californio brought with them has endured.

You'd be hard pressed to find a group of men in any vocation who take more pride and achieve a higher level of skill than the buckaroo of the Great Basin. Cattle ranchers and buckaroos lived pretty well here until a small faction of people in the late '60s and '70s became dedicated to removing livestock from the range. This began the weakening of the Taylor Grazing Act.

In the mid 1960s the administration appointed some folks to the Land Law Review Commission. They held hearings throughout the West to determine the best way to manage these public lands until such time as they were "disposed of by the Federal Government." The recommendation of that commission was for the implementation of the dominant-use theory, which meant managing areas with preference give to its dominant use, be it grazing, mining, recreation, or anything else. Since then they have gone from the dominant-use theory to the now multiple-use theory for the management of public lands, still keeping a definite place for grazing livestock and the continuation of these ranches that are dependent on the use of those lands.

In recent years, with the political environment and the environmental movement, we have seen a drastic decrease in the number of cattle in the Great Basin. Because Nevada is over 87 percent owned by the Federal Government, it has allowed the agencies managing these lands, which are heavily influenced by outside interests and political agendas, to make drastic reductions in cattle numbers. More dangerous to the livestock industry and to the ranching way of life or the loss of A.U.M.s is the present trend of the Federal Government buying up ranches they consider environmentally sensitive, believing they can be best managed by these agencies. I don't believe that the Federal Government can take better care of the land, make it more productive or care for it like the family rancher will. I don't believe they have the expertise, the motivation, or the reasons for pride that are inherent with private ownership.

Before settlers developed waters and induced irrigation, rivers and streams in the Great Basin were but slivers of green winding their way through a sea of sagebrush. Now that the government is buying up this productive land that ranchers developed, we might just see these rivers and streams revert to those slivers of green that the first settlers came upon.

As for the U.S. Government owing 87 percent of this state [Nevada], I have failed in my endeavor to find its legality in the Constitution. All I have found in the Constitution that addresses what the Government should own is in Article 1, Section 8. It spells out what Congress has the power to do. I quote: "To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession a particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of Government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the Legislature of the state in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dock yards and other needful buildings." (I can't find where they ever purchased Nevada's lands.) It seems to me that what our forefathers foresaw was land being owned by individuals, and if not by individuals, then corporations, or at least by the state it's in.

Nothing in the many federal papers that were submitted to the states in support of the ratification of the Constitution talked of anything but limited powers for the Federal Government. The Federal Government controls most of this state through somewhat of a default, and I believe that Congress had every intention of disposing of that land into private ownership; but, through a growing, all-powerful bureaucracy, the Federal Government has now taken the position of not only owning the land but aggressively seeking more.

The BLM has a lot of land in the Las Vegas Valley, which has become very valuable. They are allowed now, by law, to sell that land, then turn around and spend up to 85 percent of the proceeds from that sale to purchase so called "environmentally sensitive lands" which, when translated, means ranches. Law also gives them the authority to trade land for equal value land. Not long ago a California land speculator bought and traded seventy thousand deeded acres of ranch land to the BLM for six or seven thousand acres near Wendover. That transaction alone took over sixty thousand acres out of private ownership and off the tax rolls. The BLM estimates they have between 750 million to one billion dollars worth of land to sell in the Las Vegas Valley alone, between now and 2018.

Grazing rights on federal lands have always been tied to water, and both are tied to the deeded property ranchers own. It now turns out that the Government can pay for private property with money from the sale of public lands. I don't understand that. And I don't understand how they own these public lands in the first place. Think about it. They could buy every cow unit in the state of Nevada and have money left over. Today there are now fully 40 percent fewer cattle in the Great Basin Region alone than there was in 1984, when we were just starting this Poetry Gathering and finding that there was an interest from people all over the country in preserving and perpetuating the cowboy and ranching lifestyle. My question to you is: If we are here at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering to relish and help preserve this heritage and the ranching and cowboy way of life, what are we preserving it for? And more importantly, whom are we preserving it for? Are we saving this way of life for our children and our grandchildren, who we hope will wear hats and wild rags and know which end of a cow gets up first, or for government employees who wear brown uniforms and use the ranch bunkhouses and ranch homes as administrative sites? Are we here to celebrate this lifestyle or eulogize it?


Come gather 'round the fire folks, with open mind and ear
And get ready to experience three days with no compare
For among us are the balladeers, the poets of the trail
The pickers and philosophers, the weavers of the tale
They are here to take us places that in life we might not see
Address issues, ponder questions that have plagued eternity
Make us laugh and cry and wonder, feel another's joy and pain
Get a glimpse into the future and the past from whence we came
They'll amuse us with their antics and delight us with their wit
Give us insight into courage, explore cowardice and grit
Remind us the importance of retaining dignity
Help us recognize the closeness of the human family
They'll educate and entertain us and inspire everyone
So sit right down and listen up—we're 'bout to start the fun.

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