(Originally published in USA Today, March 31, 2004)
New West Code for City Folk: No Whining
By Mary Zeiss Stange
Call it Homesteading 2004: You move to the country to escape the urban rat race, and a coyote eats your cat. On days when your neighbor's Angus cattle aren't grazing in your front yard, they're milling around the road blocking access to town and kicking up enough dust to make a Bedouin wheeze.
You buy a couple of horses and purchase hay from a neighbor, but the drone of his haying machinery wakes you up at 4 in the morning. Or you build a trophy home on a hilltop with a commanding view, but you can't even coax a petunia from the rocky soil.
Welcome to the New West.
The lure of country living is hardly new. But latter-day settlers who have hearkened to the "Westward ho!" of enterprising developers face a rude awakening: A 20-acre "ranchette" in Big Sky country is a very different proposition than the same size parcel in, say, Massachusetts.
Even Robert Frost, in his celebrated poem debunking the idea that "good fences make good neighbors," made an exception for cows. Here, under the open-range law, if you object to a rancher's cattle moseying onto your property, it's up to you to fence them out. If you don't like the way those cattle smell, well, you'll have to learn to live with it.
And that's just for starters.
According to the University of Colorado's Center of the American West, the population in the Rocky Mountain/High Plains states has been growing steadily, thanks primarily to retirees and urban refugees. This trend is expected to continue at least through 2050.
With longtime ranchers, generally resistant to change, increasingly coming into contact with naïve newcomers disgruntled about the unexpected lifestyle changes that awaited them in the rural West, social tensions haven't been as high in the region since its original settlers in the 19th century were trying to decide whether the farmer and the cowboy could be friends. And with a farm-and-ranch economy threatened by everything from the North American Free Trade Agreement to mad cow disease, the last thing your average rancher wants to contend with is the clueless city slicker who bought the mini-ranch down the road.
This has led many counties in Montana, Idaho and Colorado to promote something called the "Code of the New West," a pamphlet intended to acquaint newcomers with the realities of ranch-country life:
That residents in these parts can expect far fewer services for their tax dollars than city folk get and that they need to exhibit considerable self-sufficiency.
That, as the Gunnison County, Colo., code phrases it, "You can't mess with Mother Nature (and expect to get off easily)."
That, in the words of the Gallatin County, Mont., code, "Often newcomers are much more romantic about the West than the old-timers and have false hopes about bringing their urban lifestyles into the great outdoors. They come with false expectations. They believe they can fax and e-mail from the mountaintop. In the New West, the information superhighway often is a dirt road."
And about those cows: "Animal manure can, and often does, cause 'objectionable' odors. What else can we say? No whining!"
This Code of the New West is itself part of a larger "Right to Farm" movement. During the past 20 or so years, every state in the U.S. has enacted legislation aimed at shielding agriculturalists from nuisance civil lawsuits — the legal equivalent of "whining" — aimed at curtailing established farm practices. More recently, the commissioners of Madison County, Mont., have proposed beefing up its right-to-farm policy at the county level to head off at the pass "those with an urban sensitivity."
But every wave of settlers in the West has come with "false expectations" of one sort or another, mostly having to do with striking it rich or living off the fat of the land.
In the 19th century, the original settlers fought to preserve the open range, where their cattle could roam as freely as wildlife. A hundred years later, many of their descendants were selling off that open land for subdivisions for a variety of reasons: They could get more for it from developers; they had no choice in the face of mounting farm debt; their children had moved away and didn't want it. Those ranchers who have hung on, many by a thread, are living with an increasingly dim set of expectations and harboring their own nostalgia for a West that no longer exists.
Its promoters say the Code of the New West was inspired by novelist Zane Grey's idea of an older, unwritten Western code founded on such values as integrity, self-reliance, accountability and cooperation. They call for a shared spirit of community and stewardship of the land. But that call rings hollow to the extent that neither side in this newest range war has exhibited much interest in changing its ways.
The environmental stakes are high. Those ranches that newcomers resent for being dirty, smelly and inconvenient represent the only sizable tracts of largely unfenced land in private hands and, as such, are of massive ecological importance. Yet too few ranchers are adopting environmentally friendly practices. Meanwhile, their new neighbors are accelerating the drain on limited water resources, disrupting wildlife migration corridors and increasing the costs and inefficiency of fire control.
The fate of the New West ultimately may hinge on whether the two sides truly can come together in the spirit of community. If they cannot, they will lose the Western ideal they both profess to cherish.
Mary Zeiss Stange is an associate professor of women's studies
and religion at Skidmore College. She is the author of Woman the
Hunter (Beacon Press, 1997) and co-author, with Carol K. Oyster,
of Gun Women: Firearms and Feminism in Contemporary America (New
York University Press, 2000).
Creative Thought Matters.