Rugged individualism and Independence with a government safety net


The standoff in Harney County Oregon highlights one of the great ironies of the rural West. More than any other people, western rural residents are more heavily dependent on government (read taxpayer) largesse than any other part of America. Yet the average rural resident sees himself/herself as a  “rugged and independent” individual and by the way, “hard working” to boot. They may indeed work hard—but no harder than anyone else in this country, but more than other residents, their work and lifestyles are dependent on government and subsidies.

From the pioneer days onward, the federal government has subsidized western rural lifestyles. The earliest federal military expeditions exploring potential trade route, military roads, and railroad routes as well as the military outposts that protected the “independent” western frontier communities from the Native people to the US Army expeditions which helped to subdue the “savages” and sequester them on reservations—all done with tax money from others citizens to largely benefit the western frontier men and women.

Railroads were built, in part, by government subsidies, including the often fraudulent transfer of public domain to private railroads to encourage their construction.

Then laws like the Homestead Act, Timber and Stone Act, Mining Law of 1872, Desert Land Act of 1877, and other development programs assisted the settlement of the West by giving away government land free or at rock bottom prices.  Some of these laws are still on the books like the Desert Land Act and Mining Law of 1872 which gives away government land for as little as $5.00 an acre.

And though there is a strong “anti-government” rhetoric expressed by rural communities, when there is an effort to reduce or modify these subsidies and/or charge the real price for services, the outcry from rural residents about how the government is out to destroy their way of life (welfare) usually puts a quick stop to such campaigns.

Take for instance, the debate over ranching on public lands being promulgated by the so-called militia (armed criminals) and the Hammond family who are now serving time for arson. Ranchers with grazing privileges (they are not rights) on federal lands pay fees considerably lower than the cost for grazing on identical private lands. The current price is $1.69 an AUM (the amount of forage it takes to feed a cow and calf for a month) is considerably less than the average of $20.00 an AUM on private lands.  One can’t feed a cat for $1.69 a month, much less a thousand pound cow and a 500 pound calf for $1.69.

Livestock production has many ecological impacts—the spread of weeds, soil compaction, changes in plant community structure, trampling of stream banks, pollution of streams, springs, and wetlands, social displacement of native animals (elk avoid cattle), transfer of disease from domestic animals to wildlife (as with pneumonia to wild bighorns) and many other costs that ranchers grazing on public lands do not pay, and not reflected in the paltry fee paid by ranchers for the privilege of using public resources. The financial cost of fixing these problems falls upon all taxpayers—if they are dealt with at all.

However, this is only the beginning of the subsidies for the rancher/farmers. Most western ranchers rely on irrigation to grow hay for winter feeding of their livestock. The federal government has spent billions building water storage reservoirs, irrigation canals, pipelines and providing low cost subsidized electricity to run pumps to produce the hay/alfalfa ranchers use to feed their animals. In most cases, the construction of these reservoirs, canals, pipelines, etc. vastly exceeds what the irrigators pay for the water.

Even if the rancher is only diverting water from a stream, few ranchers acknowledge that the water is owned by the public under the Public Trust Doctrine.  Use of this water is not a “right” but a privilege granted to irrigators at the pleasure of the state’s citizens.  Dewatering of rivers to grow livestock feed has led to the endangerment of many native fish species and other aquatic species dependent on reliable water flows. Again the irrigators do not pay for these losses, nor the costs of fish recovery efforts.

It is the infrastructure that government provides that allows the rancher to exist. One of the bitter ironies for many ranching families in the rural West is their dependency on towns for their existence. Most ranchers, with the exception of the very wealthiest, depend on outside income to sustain their lifestyle. It is jobs in town driving a school bus, working seasonally for the Forest Service, selling real estate, working as a county commissioner, and other employment income that allows the rancher to continue his vocation in the first place.

Another subsidized industry is logging. Nearly all timber sales on public lands lose money. Since public timber lands are generally higher, steeper, and less accessible than the private forestlands, logging costs are higher. The cost of sale layout, administration, road building, and reforestation frequently exceeds the revenues the timber industry pays for the logs. Again these subsidies do not include the many environmental/ecological costs associated with logging like sedimentation from logging roads that clogs streams, harming salmon, trout and other fish species or the loss of hiding cover for elk. Ironically subsidized logging on public lands is done at the expense of the private timber owner who must compete against subsidized federal timber.

A growing subsidy is the cost of fighting fires in the West. Most of the growing cost is associated with protecting homes and structure built in fire-prone areas. Of course, whenever someone suggests that people should be prevented from building in these areas, rural residents scream about property “rights” and their right to stupidly build in these places. But they then complain when the government doesn’t act swift enough or forcefully enough in their view to protect their homes.

There are many other massive federal programs that are primarily or wholly available to rural residents and rural industries. These include below cost farm loans, Rural Development and Loan and Grant Assistance Program, Beginning Farmers and Ranchers loan program, Crop and Livestock Insurance, Drought Insurance, Federal/State Marketing Improvement Program, Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, Electric Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, Telecommunication Infrastructure Loans, and many other programs.

In fact, in many years, western farmers and ranchers sometimes “earn” as much as half of “their” income from farm/ranch subsidy programs. For example, the Hammond family which is the original spark that started this latest militia event, have received at a minimum of nearly $300,000 in direct subsidies from the federal government, not to mention other federal benefits like taxpayer-funded predator control, and below cost grazing on public lands.

These are just some of the subsidized industries, but it goes further than industry. Rural residents enjoy greater federal largesse in many other forms. Government funded rural airports, postal service, the massive state and federal highway system, satellite communications, water treatment plants, schools, and much of the other infrastructure that permits these “independent” people to live in sparsely-settled far-flung communities in relative comfort and even permits a lot of their economic activity is a direct result of government largesse.

Of course there are other federal programs that largely benefit urban residents. We all benefit from various government programs, and personally I am very grateful for them. I appreciate the highways, libraries, schools, parks, and all the rest of the infrastructure that my taxes provide. I believe most urban people do not despise government, though most of us probably think it could function better. Still we are wise enough to understand we are dependent on government programs and grateful for the assistance we all receive.

However, many rural westerners live in a mythological land where they are independent. But the outrage expressed in rural America represents a cultural pathology born of resentment, perhaps over their own dependency. It is an ideological cognitive dissonance that is reinforced by the media, cultural institutions and politicians that maintain the dependency.

A lot of the rhetoric against government is a form of self-loathing. Government employment is the largest contributor to Harney County income with 44% of all jobs and 57.4% of the wages resulting from government employment.

In that regard, these “independent” westerners remind me of teenagers who demand the keys to the family car, and oh yes, please give me gas money, but do not tell me when to come in at night. And how dare you even inquire where I’m going or doing.

What it represents is a cultural immaturity that fails to appreciate the many benefits bestowed upon rural residents, particularly those living near large blocks of federal lands. Whether it is the wide open spaces and abundant opportunities for camping, hunting, fishing, and just plain enjoying the clean air, water, and scenic landscapes that public lands provide to the infrastructure in the form of boat launches, campgrounds, fishing access sites, and all the rest that are typically paid for by all Americans, rural westerners get a disproportionate benefit from the government largesse.

What the militia take-over in Harney County represents is a temper tantrum. What rural westerners need to do is grow up. If they really wish to have the “gubmint” out of their lives, they will likely find themselves in greater poverty and their communities in population decline.



  1. snaildarter Avatar

    Also demonizing the Federal Government overlooks the simple fact that most Americans want their Wildlife Refuges preserved and protected. So it’s not really the government they are angry with it’s the American people. The government is just enforcing the people’s will.

  2. Kayla Avatar

    Good Article …. So True! How many of these Ranchers and Loggers and such who love to protest against the government look for a handout from the government in some way. Here with one hand they love to rebel against anything federal, but with the other hand … they have it extended out to Uncle Sam for a handout in whatsoever that the Federal Government will give them.

    Do think like Snaildarter above, most Americans want and desire protections on the land here in the west rather it is Wildlife refuges, Wilderness Areas, Nat’l Parks, and such. How many flock to the large expanses of the federal acreage here in the west to recreate and vacation – to hike, to horseback ride, to fish, to hunt, and so forth which is always overlooked by these overly such greedy ranchers and such who just want it all for themselves. I remember reading how in every western state when a bill was proposed to give back the land to the states in the state legislature, there was a crowd of conservative hunters and fisherman who were gathered opposing such bill. If it all was given to the states then just like that how soon it would belong to the super rich and ‘We The People’ would be locked out. Then once we are locked out where would the people go to recreate, to fish, to hunt, to hike, and such. Remember 2/3rds of the American People or near 70 or so percent of us reside in large metropolitan areas anymore in the country.

    1. rork Avatar

      Can’t find link right now but the Bundy-lead knuckleheads in Oregon claimed to be trying to do hunters and anglers a favor. Maybe they mean the kind that don’t like regulation.

  3. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    Instead of complaining about all of the “Federal Employees”, they should be demanding that there should be MORE money spent on maintaining public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The money comes mainly from urban citizens.

    Federal employees buy homes and groceries and pay property and sales taxes just like everyone else. This supports local rural communities and provides good paying jobs for the wives and kids of those hobby ranchers.

    It amazes me how to hear Idaho politicians bitch about all the wasteful spending that goes on by these federal agencies and then fall all over themselves to spend more money on the military at the Mountain Home Air Base and at Gowen Field in Boise..
    Federal Military spending GOOD, Forest Service and BLM spending BAD. Insanity!! The only Idaho towns that benefit from that kind of thinking are Mountain Home and Boise.

  4. JB Avatar

    Why preserve? In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “We are not building this country of ours for a day. It is to last through the ages. We stand on the threshold of a new century. We look into the dim years that rise before us, knowing that if we are true that the generations that succeed us here shall fall heir to a heritage such as has never been known before.”

  5. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Thanks George for showing the hypocrisy of all this. I wonder why we haven’t heard a ‘peep’ from the Interior Dept. either. I fear for natural water supplies with some ranchers (not all) banging down the door of this bird sanctuary and wanting to take it all for themselves. And they could have done a hell of a lot better for the people who were displaced by all of these activities. This is why I get mad when I hear environmentalists being called ‘elitist’ for wanting to maintain what little wild lands are left out there. Pure BS.

    You’re right, the Federal government could do a much better job, but just think we’re our wild lands would be without them!

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      oops, that should read ‘just think where our wild lands would be without them!’

  6. EG Avatar

    It’s not just ‘the west’. I think it is nationwide. We like to curse what someone else gets while sticking our hand out for the handout.
    I work for our local conservation district. I love my farmers. But there seems to be a total disconnect. As long as they are on the receiving end it’s ok.
    I once had a farmer come in to sign up for a ‘government’ cost share program. He spent the first 30 minutes cussing ‘welfare trash’ and our president. Back before there was direct deposit they were referred to as ‘mailbox’ farmers. As you stated, most of their farm income came from federal subsidies. This web site can be an eye opener:

  7. Karen DeBraal Avatar

    Excellent piece. I wish this context ended up in the media. So tired of the lies.

  8. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    I wonder what would happen if armed wildlife advocates occupied federal property to demand an end to public lands ranching in order to protect and preserve wildlife and wild habitat? I’m sure they’d be labeled as “eco-terrorists” by ranchers,the mainstream media, and politicians, and arrested and charged with domestic terrorism by the FBI. Just sayin’….

    1. Yvette Avatar

      We could be tried as a terrorist and quite possibly get lost in a CMU within a prison. Have you seen Will Potter’s Ted talk on the ‘secret prisons’ or read his book, “Green is the New Red”?

      I came in here to escape the coverage and discussion of the double standard on the Bundys on the Free Speech TV show ‘Ring of Fire’. I’m trying to not read or listen to it since it still ticks me off a lot, but at least it is being discussed on some programs. However, as I was watching that show, I thought, “these people need to interview Ralph and George Wuerthner because they are missing a lot of pertinent information.

  9. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    The Bundys may be doing us all a great service. They are being portrayed correctly as crazy cowboy welfare cheats on most media and on the web. Millions of readers are getting educated about how the public land ranchers are subsidized by the rest of us.

    1. Yvette Avatar

      ++++ Larry Thorngren.

    2. birdpond Avatar

      Good point, Larry –

  10. Gary Grimm Avatar

    George Wuerthner points out government subsidy dollars ranchers and the rest of us benefit from that should be obvious to any curious person. The problem may be that many are not open to discussing the pros and cons of these subsidies, especially as they relate to the past, current and future degradation of local, regional and global ecosystems.

  11. Susan Marsh Avatar

    Right on, George. People forget how government largess has subsidized so much of what people in the West take as god-given rights.

  12. Louise Kane Avatar
    Louise Kane

    as always George, excellent

  13. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    A few one liners come to mind, “the squeaky wheel always gets the grease”, “about 5% of any given population are problematic” and “trust me, they know who butters their bread”.

    The first two sum up the Bundys and it is my experience that the third phrase depicts the vast majority of ranchers, loggers, farmers and westerners in general. They may not be vocal in their praising, but deep down, they are very appreciative of the role the federal government plays to allow the lifestyle they live. I don’t have any proof of my statement, but is based on a long federal career working with loggers and ranchers and talking with hunters and others that use the outdoors.

    One of the problems is how the media sensationalizes the news. They find spokespersons critical of government agencies in general terms but rarely specifically.

    Another problem is we humans just do not like change and want to blame someone (i.e.government agencies) and fight to keep status quo. Whether it’s changing livestock grazing or logging practices to protect resources, folks complain at first, but most accept the new ways with time.

    The community of Burns has sent a clear message to the occupiers, go home, you are breaking the law and are not wanted here!

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      What worries me is the big companies trying to get at Federal land, hiding behind these people.

    2. Mal Adapted Avatar
      Mal Adapted

      It’s true that ranchers, like humans in general, inherently don’t like change. But while there are plenty of profitable corporate welfare ranches, many smaller ranches are low-margin economic enterprises even with public subsides. Anything that increases their costs (e.g. having to manage their animals more intensively), or reduces their revenues (e.g. having to reduce their stocking rates) threatens to drive the most marginal ranches out of business. Their owners will have to sell their property and find another way to make a living, which will usually mean moving away. Their departure will have ramifying economic and social impacts on their communities. No one likes that kind of change in their lives. I trust everyone here understands that.

      As a conservationist concerned with protecting native biodiversity, I want to see the numbers of domestic animals on public lands drastically reduced. Inescapably, that entails reducing the human populations those lands support. That will be painful and difficult.

      As a biocentrist, I can personally live with the dislocation of welfare-ranching families and the abandonment of their small towns. As a pragmatist, though, I can’t ignore the political obstacles that presents. I’m lobbying for redirecting the public money currently spent to keep economically marginal ranches in business into buyouts, retraining and relocation of ranching families so they can make new lives elsewhere. If that will prevent the loss of native species and ecosystems, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        I trust everyone here understands that.

        We do; but only up to a point. Sometimes change is inevitable, and we can’t destroy wildlife because of our resistance to change. Killing off wildlife to maintain human interests is unacceptable.

        With the advent of the Model T, horses, blacksmiths, and the covered wagon business were lost due to change too. I have to say I do not have a lot of sympathy for this, especially when it is only the one-way kind, where they refuse to accept views other than their own. What’s happening with the sage grouse is unacceptable.

        1. Ida Lupines Avatar
          Ida Lupines

          It really is maddening also to realize how many people were displaced with the founding of this country, and I don’t see a lot of sympathy for that. To paraphrase what Charlotte Rodrigue, the Paiute chairperson, has said in an interview – ‘they think time started when they got here’. I’m reminded of that ghastly painting of the goddess Columbia heading Westward in American Progress ‘Spirit of the Frontier’, or that terrible symbol of dominance, Mt. Rushmore.

          I’m dismayed that calling these people the terrorists they are is being downplayed by the media, I can only imagine the reason being because they are white Americans and not ‘the other’.

          Anytime we are made to feel fear by a group and being held against our will from coming to work or our children going to school for fear of possible harm to them, or destruction of places we value, that is terrorism. They are also heavily armed.

          1. Ida Lupines Avatar
            Ida Lupines

            Attack of the 50 Foot Woman! *shudder*


      2. Yvette Avatar

        “I’m lobbying for redirecting the public money currently spent to keep economically marginal ranches in business into buyouts, retraining and relocation of ranching families so they can make new lives elsewhere.”

        You do realize that sounds identical to the ‘Indian policy’ America has had since Europeans first began settling this continent. I’m not being sarcastic. One thing I’ve noticed, not studied, but noticed, is when anyone starts suggesting changes to any group that involves a major change in multi-generational cultural mores there will be trouble and resistance. Too often the group will feel the suggestions are coercion or enforcement, and I believe those suggestion often lead to that.

        People resist cultural changes to the point they will fight and die for it. Any person or group. Tribes, ranchers, farmers, coalmine workers, fishermen or anyone in any group or sub-group. Again, not something I’ve studied but the theme seems to keep popping up throughout history.

        1. JB Avatar

          Hardin wrote that the solution to our commons’ dilemmas was “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” All coercion involves some level of injustice. The key to make it acceptable is to recognize this and make every effort to limit such injustice.

          In any case, I don’t agree that the two scenarios are analogous. At the time that Native Americans were being “acculturated”, they were not viewed as citizens at all, and were treated in absolutely appalling ways. Helping someone to relocate to different lands and change their occupation is a lot different than forcibly moving them to the worst lands where they can have no occupation.

          1. Ida Lupines Avatar
            Ida Lupines

            I don’t think anyone said they were analogous. They obviously are not.

            There is a glaring inequity, and we have yet to do anything substantial to address it other than talk, and more assimilation. Whey aren’t we helping the Native and other people is the point I am making, and yet, these crybabies that are already getting assisted by the government just want more and more.

            I’m getting a little concerned that pictures from the refuge are showing campfires and cut trees. If this isn’t taking the refuge and people hostage, I don’t know what it.

  14. Mal Adapted Avatar
    Mal Adapted


    You do realize that sounds identical to the ‘Indian policy’ America has had since Europeans first began settling this continent.

    Yes, and I’m reconciled to it. I called myself a biocentrist, but without splitting philosophical hairs (and without getting into the intellectual weeds), I’m more of an ecocentrist: my heart bleeds less for individuals, human or otherwise, than for populations, species, and ecosystems. The continued existence of an entire species is worth more to me than the livelihood of a ranching family, or even the economic viability of a ranching town.

    Let me assure everyone that I don’t claim to possess Truth, and I recognize my vision is idiosyncratic. Others are perfectly entitled to their own viewpoints, and I expect everyone to defend theirs in proportion to how dear they hold them. In my seventh decade of life, though, I’m pretty sure I know what kind of world I want to live in, and what costs I’m willing to accept, to others in addition to my own. YMMV, but the end of welfare ranching is worth working towards for me.

  15. Nancy Avatar

    “In my seventh decade of life, though, I’m pretty sure I know what kind of world I want to live in, and what costs I’m willing to accept, to others in addition to my own. YMMV, but the end of welfare ranching is worth working towards for me”

    Just shy (by about 5 years) of your 7 decades of life Mal and I’d also like to see not only the end to welfare ranching but the end of abuse on public lands, by ranching.

    Some interesting facts on meat consumption, worldwide:

    20 years in Montana and one thing I’ve noticed, there’s seldom little growth around most small, rural communities because of ranching and while that might seem to be a good thing (that whole cows verses condos debate) the land continues to be beaten down and then sold to other ranching interests.

    Its only been a little more than a 100 years since the area around me was “settled” for cow production but I’ve witnessed not only the small ranching families around me grow, mowing down habitat (spurred on by the price of beef AND the need for it in other countries, with less land for grazing) but also witnessed big tracts of land/ranches being bought up, here and around the west, just to continue that need for beef here and the sudden interest of beef, elsewhere around the planet…..

    Makes you wonder, when you have the time to connect all the dots 🙂

  16. Nancy Avatar

    Just another new adventure? Or could humans (in this country anyway) be running out of places to go, to get away from “the all” we’ve created?

  17. monty Avatar

    Thanks for the great article and comments. Having experience and knowledge is critical as Mark Twain wrote: “We should be careful to get out of an experience all the wisdom that is in it…not like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again…and this is well…but also, she will never sit down on a cold stove anymore”.

  18. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    I have tried to stay out of the name-calling, but one commenter had one that I think is the best so far – ‘High Plains Grifters’. I happened to watch the original the other night on TV, with the town giving The Stranger whatever supplies he wanted in order that he protect their town. 🙂

  19. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines
  20. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    After anti-government protesters took over Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this month to support two ranchers convicted of arson, it emerged that the convicts, Steven and Dwight Hammonds, had received thousands of dollars in financial support from the federal government. The public aid included the killing of five coyotes by a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) agent on Steven Hammonds’s ranch, to the tune of more than $11,000, according to documents obtained by Reveal News.

    Five coyotes might not sound like much, but the revelation shed new light on Wildlife Services, a federal agency long mired in controversy for what critics charge is excessive and indiscriminate killing of millions of animals and birds on public land at the behest of ranchers and farmers.

    Inside the US Agency Charged With Killing a ‘Mindboggling’ Number of Animals

    I do not want my taxes supporting these rogue ranchers.

  21. Sabrina Avatar

    This is unfortunately the most elitist thing I’ve ever read.
    Before you judge an entire group of people consider the factors that have shaped this culture to be the way it is. When the area is isolated and without the academic or environmental resources that are available in urban/suburban locations, of course the predominant mindset is going to be different. Look into why rural communities are existent, why sociality and culture and economic ties are the way they are because of historical factors and policies.

    Enjoyment and recreation in the outdoors is geared towards the upper-middle class population. If you’re working all the time or don’t have the transportation available to “go to” the “wilderness” (not to mention the money it costs to camp, fish, boat, etc), the idea of what outdoor enjoyment looks like is not going to appeal to you.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner