A vegetarian ventures into cow country

Article by Marcia Darnell

Western Resources – August 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN ED QUILLEN ASKED ME to cover the Western Land Use and Agricultural Forum in Monte Vista on June 24, I hesitated. The idea of spending a whole day listening to speeches was less than thrilling, and immersion in a group of cattlemen sounded dangerous. They can probably smell a vegetarian from 20 paces away.

I put my reservations aside and said yes. You owe me big time, Ed.

About 35 people gathered for the session, a fraction of the number attending previous forums. Organizer Sparky Turner said it was a bad time of year for farmers, but they decided to go ahead with it anyway.

There was an opening prayer. The holy man asked — repeatedly — for God’s help in “protecting our freedoms,” which I seized upon as a clue to what the forum was about. It was about anger.

Gary Jones delivered the opening speech. The head of the Colorado Timber Industry Association railed against the Roadless Initiative. There is no scientific basis, he said, for thinking that land is better off without interference. The recent fires in Colorado served as Exhibit A for his assertion that active management is better than natural processes for healthy forests.

According to Jones, the timber industry has declined 50 percent in Colorado in the last 20 years. After his speech, he told me that “no bigger thing than the Roadless Initiative has come along to harm the timber industry.”

A retired forester, Jones feels that forests have changed so much in his 30-year career that a “cost-effective industrial component in management” is now necessary. He’s happy in his new job promoting better forest management, and believes that land use shouldn’t be decided only by the timber industry or the public, but by professional land managers.

The next speaker, Roger Bill Mitchell, is president of the Colorado Farm Bureau. He outlined the bureau’s stands, including: Increasing trade for agriculture; increasing funds for emergency farm aid; regulatory reform; and fighting the Endangered Species Act and laws requiring labeling genetically modified organisms in food. The group is waiting for more data before committing for or against the proposal to convert the Great Sand Dunes into a national park.

The next speaker, Tom Compton, is the new president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. He claimed that open space and clean water come from farmers and ranchers and compared his new job to missionary work. An effective speaker, he joked that Mitchell had “stolen” his speech, by taking stands identical to his own.

Kevin Heikes, the next orator, spoke like an inexperienced but idealistic preacher. With zeal and enthusiasm, he described his work with Farmland Industries Youth Leadership Programs, saying that ag kids are passionate about the industry and its future. His words might have carried more weight, however, if there had been more than two teens at the forum.

The next speaker, Ms. Roni Bell, made me wonder how she got invited to speak. She opened with a poem (her own) which said that real women stay home to bake bread and raise children; they don’t go out into the world. A Denver resident for nearly 30 years, the meat of her speech was sandwiched between reminiscences of her childhood on a farm.

Bell implied — broadly — that farmers and ranchers are universally honest, hardworking, moral people, and everyone else isn’t. In the view she presented to us, anyone who belongs to any environmental group is an eco-terrorist who wants to bomb her farmer friends and trash their land. She warned her listeners that they must present a good image to others to combat this, and emphasized her point by listing some points of etiquette (“Take off your hat when you’re indoors”) that she said she stole from a 1938 book on manners.

I’m not sure her speech tapped into any anger in the audience, but it certainly irritated me. After Ms. Roni Bell, I was ready for lunch and some fresh air.

THINGS GOT MORE INTERESTING after lunch. A man named J. Zane Walley, a self-described journalist-photographer, representing the Paragon Foundation, railed against conservation easements.

According to Walley, the Paragon Foundation was co-founded by a congressman (Ron Paul, R-Texas) and is a 501(c)3 organization. In existence for four years, the foundation claims 16,000 members in 42 states. It publishes Range magazine, for which Walley writes.

Calling land conservation organizations “New Age real estate business,” Walley warned that easements are more dangerous than the Endangered Species Act and that selling an easement makes one “a tenant on your own land.” He implied that the Nature Conservancy is in cahoots with the federal government, conspiring to steal farmland.

His scenario struck many chords with the audience, generating shock and fear in some, and anger and disbelief in others. His challenge to Tom Compton to print Walley’s articles in the Cattlemen’s Association magazine seemed adversarial in what was supposed to be a we’re-in-the-same-boat gathering. (He also offered the same articles to Colorado Central at no charge.)

“The growth in conservative media is enormous,” he said. The foundation can be reached toll-free at 877-847-3443 or at www.paragonpowerhouse.org.

The next speaker, Howard Hutchinson, is the executive director of the Coalition of Arizona/New Mexico Counties for Stable Economic Growth. From what I could gather, his group stands for more logging and the defeat of the Roadless Initiative. His anti-government invective came complete with charts.

The best speaker was last. Bobbi Frank is executive director of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts. This woman knows water. She’s up on all the legislation, policy changes, and trends regarding water in the West. Her group, comprising water conservation districts in Wyoming, is suing the feds over unlawful implementation of the Clean Water Action Plan, the first lawsuit in its 50-year history.

Frank emphasized that good, solid science is the best weapon to use in fighting the EPA. Sending kids and volunteers out to monitor river pollution is cute, but not effective in court, she said.

HER WORDS weren’t all rosy, though. She warned farmers with livestock near rivers or streams to move back from the water. Put in a buffer of some kind, she warned, or the EPA will crack down.

“When your family homesteaded a hundred years ago, it was insane not to build on the river,” she said, but pointed out that polluting streams today is not sensible, let alone legal.

For information about her group, or on water legislation, check out www.conservewy.com.

I learned a lot at the Forum. I learned that ag people consider Clinton-Gore-Babbitt some kind of unholy trinity, and that there’s a lot of fear among them. The Roadless Initiative, the Endangered Species Act, and the proposal to require labeling all food containing genetically modified organisms frighten them. New laws, regulations, and land use innovations are viewed as threatening to their land, water and way of life.

(This fear, in a couple of cases, manifested itself as full-blown paranoia. One attendee buttonholed several speakers, wanting to discuss his belief that the U.N. is going to take over the U.S. government and the world on Dec. 31.)

I heard facts and figments of imagination, data and delusions, passion and paranoia — all mixed together. I heard a lot, read a lot, and learned a lot.

And I’m not going to another one, Ed. You can’t make me.

Marcia Darnell herds cats and farms tiger lilies at her home in Alamosa.