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The romanticized image of a cowboy out on the Western range is woven tightly into American identity and folklore. A lot of old-time cowboys built up their stock on U.S. public lands. Today, the number of actual independent cattlemen and women working on publicly owned ranges is falling. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from the mountains of southern New Mexico.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Seventy-four-year-old Terry Lewis has probably ridden every trail, every gully and meadow you can find in the mountains around his boyhood home of Weed, N.M.
TERRY LEWIS: I taught school for a year and a half. I do have a college education with a math major, but that's not what I wanted to do. It ties me down. I don't want to do that. I want to live in the outdoors.
SIEGLER: As we bounce along a dirt road in an old pickup, he laments the fact that a horse would make this trip so much quicker.
LEWIS: It's harder to get to know our country if you don't do it horseback.
SIEGLER: Today, you're more likely to encounter an ATV rider or a camper here than a cowboy on horseback. It's not like it used to be when Lewis was growing up and ranchers ruled the range in this corner of the West. A few years back, he says he was forced to sell his cows. He couldn't afford to stay in business.
LEWIS: The way I have been able to do my life and own a ranch - I think that's gone for people like us now.
SIEGLER: There are so many reasons why small, independent cattle operations like Lewis had are going away - corporate consolidation of the cattle industry, global economics, drought, to name a few.
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SIEGLER: Today, in the tree-covered hills around the tiny town of Weed, there are only a few ranchers left trying to scratch out a living. Many will tell you they're being squeezed off the land by economics and a changing culture but also environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act.
GARY STONE: America - rural America is down here suffering.
SIEGLER: Gary Stone is with the Otero County Cattlemen's Association. He says ranchers were hopeful when Donald Trump was elected he'd help the small, independent cattlemen so they could survive. The administration is rolling back a lot of regulations, but out here on the land, the cattlemen's optimism is fading.
G. STONE: We can't tell that there's been an administration change at the district level and the regional level.
SIEGLER: Now, most small-time ranchers in the Southwest don't own much actual land themselves. The range is publicly owned, so they have to lease it from the government for grazing. And the amount of land open to grazing has been cut steadily down by more than half since the 1950s. Environmentalists like Matthew Koehler of the WildWest Institute want to see that drop even further.
MATTHEW KOEHLER: As an elk hunter and a deer hunter myself, I can tell you that cows and sheep - they wreak havoc on our public lands.
SIEGLER: Koehler says ranching today is simply more efficient on private land in states like Texas and the Midwest that have a lot more grass. The livestock industry has shifted in this direction, too. Today, less than a fifth of all the beef raised in the U.S. comes from Western public lands. So why all the attention on these cattlemen?
KOEHLER: I think some of it is the mystique of the Marlboro man and the cowboy and his cows. I think it pulls at a lot of heartstrings of people, even people living in more urban areas.
SIEGLER: Ranchers may conjure up this iconic image in our minds, but a lot of the smaller guys today are worried about becoming irrelevant. And that's the tension. Gary Stone couldn't afford to stay in the game himself either. He now has to work as a foreman on another man's ranch.
G. STONE: It should be managed better. There should not be an agenda to discontinue grazing. That's what we feel like is there.
SIEGLER: Here on the Lincoln National Forest, the chief land manager, Travis Moseley, insists there's no agenda to kick ranchers off the land.
TRAVIS MOSELEY: I would be breaking the law. Livestock grazing is a recognized use of national forest systems. And until that law changes, it's my job to allow for that.
SIEGLER: Moseley does believe the ranchers are getting squeezed, but he blames it on an explosion of recreation on public lands recently - hikers, hunters, off-road vehicle enthusiasts all clashing with cattle herds and endangered critters. There's just a lot more pressure on the land.
MOSELEY: It feels like there is more of that polarization and less tolerance for each other's interests in how they use the National Forest, whether it's for wildlife viewing or livestock grazing.
SIEGLER: In New Mexico, the ranchers' frustrations are a slice of some of the broader economic anxieties you see in rural America right now. Their world is changing fast.
SHIRLEY STONE: I'll show y'all this here.
SIEGLER: In the town of Weed, some afternoons, 83-year-old Shirley Stone likes to put on old bluegrass recordings she used to make with her friends. Shirley is Gary Stone's mom.
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SIEGLER: The fiddle tunes are a reminder of better times when hundreds of people lived here, working at the saw mills and the ranches. Today, a lot of ranching families like hers have left. All the mills closed. So did the school.
S. STONE: It just nearly died (laughter). We lost our school, and it just nearly died.
SIEGLER: What happened in Weed is an all-too-familiar tale for rural Western towns that sprung up around a once-reliable supply of lush range land and timber.
S. STONE: There's not any jobs, you know, around up here much to draw people to come in, the young ones especially.
SIEGLER: Folks worry if the last of the cattlemen go, so goes what's left of their tightknit little community. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Weed, N.M.
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