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Glenn Brunkow: Cowboys, the original environmentalists

Glenn Brunkow: Cowboys, the original environmentalists

I am not sure why I watch television, I guess it is a habit. Increasingly I am finding things on TV that irritate me or just flat out make me mad. That was the case this Sunday. I had just gotten in from doing chores and I was enjoying a cup of coffee, watching the news. A puff piece came on talking about our national lands and how they preserve our disappearing natural resources.

That statement alone gives me mixed signals. I think we do a pretty good job of preserving those natural resources and it gives me a little heartburn to think of the lands being pulled off the tax rolls forever and not allowed to earn income. That is another debate for another day. I guess I am OK with the idea of unique, special places being public lands, so they can be enjoyed by all. That is, if they are managed properly. However, I think we have plenty of public lands and national parks, especially if they come at the cost of lands that are in private hands now.

The news piece started out showing clips from Dances with Wolves. Vast expanses of waving prairie grasses and massive herds of buffalo. They went on to talk about how this was an important part of Americana and how we were losing it rapidly. Then they cut to a map of Montana showing a large tract of federally protected grassland. The American Prairie Reserve is in the process of buying up ranches and hopes to put together over 3.5 million acres to make a national park.

Don’t get me wrong — no one else appreciates the prairie like I do, except for my fellow ranchers. We all acknowledge that the prairie ecosystem is both very fragile and unique. I am sure these well-meaning environmentalists do want to protect the prairie but, in my mind, they are going about it all wrong and, in the meantime, threatening a way of life and the livelihood of many ranchers who have been saving the prairie for generations.

I won’t mince words here. The American rancher is the original environmentalist, and no one is more invested in preserving the prairie than we are. Ranchers have spent generations learning to understand the land and working to make it better. Now groups with huge bank accounts are coming in and buying up those ranches at prices higher than those who must make a living on them can afford. All of this to take the land out of production.

Buying up the land will take many productive cattle and sheep ranches out of action just when a starving world needs more food. Potentially, this land grab could also take many acres off the public tax roll and devastate a local economy built on ranching. The ranches in question were paying their own way and contributing to the schools, roads, and protection of all in their community. Think it won’t have an effect? Go check out logging towns.

The environmental groups make the contention that they will preserve and protect the grasslands. I can only hope that they will do a better job than they have with other national forests and protected lands; often after they are taken out of production, the ecosystem falters and is not managed correctly. Again, I urge you to check out what has happened to our forests since logging has been curtailed. One only must look at some of the devastating wildfires out west, caused by years of mismanagement allowing fuel to build up.

Why should we care about an isolated piece of Montana? Well, for one thing, the ranchers affected are our neighbors and share our passion for the prairie. We are becoming a smaller and smaller community and that puts us in jeopardy of being overwhelmed by well-meaning but misguided groups who think they know what is best for the land. We will be outgunned and out-financed if we don’t act soon.

What should be done? It is simple — we need to tell our story. We need to show everyone who will listen that we are the original environmentalists and that no one takes the health of the prairie as seriously as we do. We understand proper stocking rates, brush control and other management techniques that preserve the grasslands and keep them healthy. We just must be proactive and show the rest of the world how much we care. Invite groups and individuals on your land, share pictures and stories and most importantly, tell anyone who will listen.

There is nothing that beats a sunrise or sunset out on the prairie. Listening to the wind rustle through the grass and watching the cattle graze are two of my favorite things on this earth, and I want to make sure that happens for many more generations. I guess in the end, I understand what this group is trying to do and why they are doing it. However, I also know with all my heart that they are misguided if they think the best way to preserve the prairie is to take the cowboy from it.

Glenn Brunkow is a fifth-generation farmer in the Northern Flint Hills of Pottawatomie County in Kansas. He was a county Extension agent for 19 years before returning to farm and ranch full time.

Midwest Messenger Kansas Weekly Update

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Glenn Brunkow is a fifth-generation farmer in the Northern Flint Hills of Pottawatomie County in Kansas. He was a county Extension agent for 19 years before returning to farm and ranch full time. Reach him at

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