In the press on the recent Cliven Bundy conflict, the word ‘recent’ is thrown around an awful lot. More local articles trace the tension between western rancher and government back to the 1980s and the Sagebrush Rebellion led by Wayne Hage, with Cliven Bundy merely the third act in a 30 year play (DeLong, 1a). However the true origins of the conflict began a century earlier, leading to a region-wide upheaval with Nevada at the head. This earliest Nevadan history is obscure, overlooked, and yet has shaped the subsequent history and flavor of the Sagebrush State and its northern city. How was Reno’s culture influenced by our Cowboy heritage? It all began with one question: who owns the land?
After the West was ceded to the United States in 1848, the government began handing out land to encourage quick settlement. Cattle ranchers were the first newcomers to stay and utilize the dry, inhospitable Nevada land, long before the discovery of gold or silver. Although cattle and sheep were present by the 1840’s, a large population of cattle was fully established on the range by the 1860s while sheepherding was not widespread until the 1880s (Rowley 9, 14). These early ranchers would buy water sources, in effect controlling the land around them for hundreds of miles in any direction, without having to buy large expanses of relatively worthless desert land. Overcrowding became a problem as prospective entrepreneurs flooded in, hoping to take advantage of the high demand for beef, mutton, and wool from local mining booms. Subsequent overgrazing stripped the land bare, permanently altering the local ecology from bunchgrass to sagebrush habitat and increasing fire damage.
The first taste that western ranchers had of government management, and conflict, was through the establishment of National Forests in 1891(Rowley 4). Before, ranchers had free access to the public range with minimal fees or restrictions; now, they found that a government agency could control access to crucial rangeland situated high in the mountains, which ranchers and sheepherders relied on for spring lambing and summer grazing (Wentworth 502). After loss of access to this land, users fought for grazing rights and a permit system was created. This first clash of interests set the precedent for western distrust of federal interference, at a time when the need for regulation of western rangeland was becoming increasingly apparent.
Enter the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934; the first successfully passed federal legislation that directly addressed grazing on public land (Buckman 2). A growing conservation movement, turmoil from the Great Depression, and a sympathetic president were all tipping factors in the slow fight for passing the law. Nevadan ranchers were at the heart of the discussion, as over 85 percent of Nevada’s land was federally owned at the time of the Taylor Grazing Act, and the state contained one-third of the public domain left in the contiguous United States (Merrill, 182). Already distrustful towards “Easterners”, the western ranchers’ experiences following the passage of the Act proved to further heighten the disparity between East and West and set the stage for future conflicts. This contributed to Nevadan culture’s indifference to regulation and defiance of social norm during the defining hour of the state’s history; Reno was on the rise.
Grazing history in Nevada and Reno is complex and far-reaching. Economically, the ranching industry was our state’s first source of revenue. Physical reminders are everywhere; ranches and open spaces are common all around Reno. Our sagebrush-covered hills are a direct result of overgrazing, as the introduction of large ruminants transformed the fragile desert ecology. Culturally, the independent spirit of the western buckaroo is mirrored in Reno’s history and present, such as the legalization of gambling, and the popularization of divorce. Cliven Bundy, the Sagebrush Rebellion, and Westerners’ distrust of federal involvement are a direct result of the radicalization of range politics. It all begs one last question: if not for the cow, what is Nevada?
Buckman, Thomas. The Taylor Grazing Act in Nevada. Bulletin 76. University of Nevada, Agriculture Extension Service: Reno, Feb. 15 1935. Print.
Georgetta, Clel. Golden Fleece in Nevada. Reno, Nevada: Venture Publishing Company, 1972. Print.
Hage, Wayne. Storm Over Rangelands: Private Rights in Federal Lands. 3rd ed. Bellevue, Washington: Free Enterprise Press, 1994. Print.
Rowley, William. Personal Interview. 10 May 2014.
Wentworth, Edward. America’s Sheep Trails: History: Personalities. Ames, Iowa: The Iowa State College Press, 1948. Print.
DeLong, Jeff. “Rebellion in the Sage”. Reno Gazette Journal 4 May 2014: 1A, 6A-8A. Print.
Merrill, Karen. Public lands and political meaning: ranchers, the government, and the property between them. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Google.com. E-book.
Pellant, Mike. Cheatgrass: The Invader that won the West. Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project. Bureau of Land Management, Idaho State Office, Boise, Idaho. PDF.
Robbison, Jennifer. “Before Mining and Gambling, Ranching Shaped Nevada’s Culture”. Las Vegas Review-Journal. May 3, 2014. Web. Access 10-6-2014.
Rowley, William. U.S. Forest Service Grazing and Rangelands: A History. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1985. Print.
Young, James and Abbot Sparks. Cattle in the Cold Desert. Expanded ed. Reno, Nevada: University of Nevada Press, 1985. Print.