Cowboys fight for a home on the range: US ranchers fear rising grazing fees will force them to the towns, writes David Usborne in Fort Bridger

AT PETE'S AND PATTY'S, one of only two bars in this old frontier town in south-western Wyoming, famous for its rowdiness and occasional fights, a small group of ranchers has gathered for a supper of steak and beer. There is no trouble tonight and when the sheriff strides in, tall and with a drooping moustache, it is only to inquire about a pick-up truck blocking the road.

The talk, at first, is about the melting of the snows and the well-being of cattle and sheep. Quickly, though, it turns to a topic that makes their placid eyes burn with anger and anxiety - plans in Washington to increase dramatically the fees the ranchers pay to graze their animals on federal lands.

The backdrop for countless westerns, and cigarette commercials, these rugged rangelands, spanning 280 million acres in 11 states, are the lifeblood of these men and their families. Though they all have some acreage of deeded property, often homesteads handed down from their forefathers, their animals mostly roam public lands for extra grazing.

It is a landscape, however, that may be in trouble. Almost two thirds of the western rangeland, according to a recent government report, is in poor condition after years of agricultural use. 'The land has been overwhelmed and overgrazed since settlement in the last century,' says Nancy Green of the Wilderness Society, a leading environmental group. 'It simply cannot stand it and something has to be done.' The extreme view is that the ranchers should be made to leave the ranges entirely and their animals moved to the prairies.

The administration is hardly likely to attempt so drastic a step. But it has decided that all users of public lands in the west - ranchers, loggers and miners - are being subsidised by artificially low fees that derive from laws going back to the days of Wild Bill Hickok and designed to encourage settlement. 'It's a brand-new era of land management,' Bruce Babbit, the Interior Secretary, declared recently, adding that the higher fees would 'give incentives for good management of the land'. The additional dollars 1bn ( pounds 662m) the new charges would generate would partly be paid back into improving the rangelands and mending ecological damage, Mr Babbit promises.

The consensus at Pete's and Patty's is that an increase in fees alone would cripple ranches and possibly drive ranchers off the land. Implicit is a warning that the cowboy culture, symbolic of the conquest of the west and preserved by only 30,000 ranchers remaining on the rangelands, could simply be wiped out. Today the grazing fee they pay is dollars 1.87 for one cow and her calf a month. They fear it could go up to anything between dollars 4 and dollars 8. Although the White House recently agreed to drop the increased fees from its 1994 budget, it promises to pursue them through legislation.

Carl Larson, whose grandfather came from Norway in 1877, herds 6,500 sheep over an area extending from the Bridger Valley high into the Uinta mountains, 30 miles (48km) south. Both his sons work with him and, until now, he had taken it for granted that his first grandson, not yet two years old, would be herding in the next century as well. Now he believes Washington wants simply to evict him. 'The bottom line is that they want us off. They want to send us back to the urban areas. The people back east want this as the playground of the US,' he says.

His neighbour is Richard Hamilton, whose grandfather came to the valley at the end of the last century to trade with federal forces in the fort that gave Fort Bridger its name. He is angered by the suggestion that ranchers abuse the rangeland. 'As far as managing the ecosystem properly, I hope I'm doing that now. I can't be a viable operator without making sure my land is sound. What would I do if this was to become a dustbowl?'

Several hours drive east of Fort Bridger, the Dickinson family, third and fourth generation ranchers, herd cattle over an area of 500,000 acres along the Green River, mostly in Colorado but straddling Wyoming and Utah. Most is federal land for which the Dickinsons hold precious grazing permits. 'We're busting our butts out here and now we're being crucified by folk who have no understanding but who have access to microphones and newspapers', says Wright Dickinson.

Most of these ranchers identify with the conclusion reached by Bob Wolverton, a columnist for the Fort Bridger Pioneer. Of the environmentalists and politicians he writes: 'In saving us from ourselves, they will change the face of the land to suit their purposes. We'll see rotting ranch houses, dust-covered lumber mills and rusting well-heads. And as we walk past these relics, we'll see the winners of the latest conquest sipping on Perrier, munching granola and admiring their purple-and-blue and teal- green Gore-Tex boots and latest high- fashion backpacks.'

(Photograph and map omitted)

Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
People walk through Autumn leaves in St James's Park yesterday
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits