| Outside magazine, October 1997|
He centers his truck atop a thick carpet of freshly laid gravel winding through a primeval copse of Wyoming cottonwoods. After delicate negotiations over cell phones, I've been cleared to gaze upon a jewel, an item found at the end of this road and currently up for bid at Sotheby's for $6 million. I try to take notes, but my pen keeps hopping around and at times violently piercing my paper, once my wrist. Not that it matters, because my questions aren't attracting much in the way of answers.
"It's in my contract," Budge says again and again. "I couldn't tell you even if I wanted to." Contractually, I can't know who owns what I am about to see. Contractually, I can't know what he does or where he lives. Contractually, I can't know what he paid for this masterpiece just last year.
The gravel peters out at a small creek where the cottonwoods are so fat the dense bark splits into slabs thick as sirloin. Budge halts the truck and on foot we tromp to a clearing beside a swollen oxbow off the Snake River. Just across the way and right in my face are the Tetons, rising in beer-commercial perfection of pure Jungian mountainness.
"A 66-acre ranch, with trout stream and pristine forest as God designed it," says Budge, before adding a phrase that could only be spoken by a high-end real estate broker who specializes in selling multimillion-dollar ranches to billionaires. "And direct Teton views." We stand together in manly silence, songbirds harmonizing in the fresh spring canopy above. For reasons way deeper than need, I long to take a leak. Instead I pick up a twig and begin snapping it, like you do when you're alone in the woods with another guy you don't know too well. Budge looks at me, and I wonder if he's thinking what
I'm thinking: Standing as we are on what's possibly the most expensive ranch land in the West — roughly $100,000 per acre for this spread just up the range from Jackson Hole — how much, theoretically, is my twig-snapping worth? Fifty, a hundred bucks? But I don't ask Budge what he's thinking, because I feel certain that, contractually, he couldn't tell me if he wanted to.
He does tell me that up the river as far as we can see are only half a dozen other spreads. "We call it Billionaire's Row," says Budge, and then he quickly goes silent, as if he's spilled the beans. But he opens up again when I ask him how he would pitch this spread to me if I were a tycoon.
"Land like this just sells itself," he says, hoisting himself back into the truck. "I tell people to forget everything they've learned about sales and just be real." But not that real. "I have in my marketing materials," he immediately adds, "a phrase I like to use a lot: 'eighth wonder of the world.'"
Just then a deer bolts, ping, from the trees and stands in a clearing as still as...a deer in a clearing.
"Look," I say, almost embarrassed for noticing, "a deer." But Budge is still selling land to my hypothetical billionaire. "Oh, yes, now just look at that," he replies, in a peppy tone I suspect he normally reserves for CEOs swaggering with IPO spoils or actors commanding big points off the gross. "You'd have to go to a zoo to see such a sight!"
The deer watches, deadpan, as we hiccup our way at two miles per hour back out to the highway.
They began arriving in the late eighties, when big western ranches became the elite emblem of Midases who otherwise spent most of their time scrabbling for position among the higher rungs of the Forbes list. Blazing the trail was Ted Turner, who now owns eight spreads in three states, a total land mass typically compared to Rhode Island. But he's made some recent acquisitions-his total acreage has topped a million — so it's time to alert the media to ratchet up the metaphor to Delaware. In those days, if it wasn't the superrich riding west it was someone superfamous, such as Harrison Ford, whose Wyoming ranch served as a celebrity beachhead for the conquest of Jackson Hole.
But where it was once the occasional movie star or billionaire moseying into town, it's now a land rush of lesser-knowns. This phenomenon is one of the more bizarre and unacknowledged side effects of Wall Street's six-year bull market. So much money is being gathered up by financiers and entrepreneurs into such increasingly larger piles that the wealth is creating new class-strata of billionaires versus hundred-millionaires versus mere millionaires — all desperately in search of the kind of acquisition that alerts the world to who they are.
"My own theory," says historian Patricia Nelson Limerick of the University of Colorado, "is that when these baby boomers were toddlers, they watched Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. So they were trained in consumerism around open ranches and big Western vistas. They bought the Gene Autry lunch box and the Roy Rogers chaps and the Hopalong crayons." In time, Limerick says, this forgotten youth became as sublimated as Citizen Kane's sled. "When they were five years old, they had to ask their father and mother for these things," she says. "Now that they're 50, they don't have to ask anyone anything. I've talked to a number of them and they'll tell you they not only watched Roy Rogers, but they still have their leather vest and their Gene Autry autograph."
"A ranch in the West is what you buy after the yacht, after the G-4 jet," says Zackary Wright, senior vice-president of Sotheby's International Realty division, who without pause or irony calls these spreads "trophy ranches." Based in Newport Beach, California, Wright oversees the 40 local affiliates that Sotheby's uses to blanket the western United States in order to make the connections for its global clientele. If anything signifies the certainty of this trend, it is that later this fall Wright will host the first Sotheby's Ranch Exhibition at the auction gallery in New York.
"Our buyers come from all over the world, but mainly two areas: California and New York," Wright explains. "In fact, you can be even more specific: Manhattan. Well, you can be even more specific: Wall Street. There is no place where you find a greater number of our buyers than there." Hard numbers are difficult to gather, since land sales are recorded county by county. And no one measures real estate transactions that shift land from the local yokel to the super-rich. But according to folks at Teton Shadows Realty, the Sotheby's office where Budge works, 85 to 90 percent of the sales in recent years have been to out-of-state tycoons. Last year this one firm moved 56,000 acres of prime land in Wyoming, and currently on its ledger are 162,000 acres ready to sell. Because there is so much money smoothing the way for everybody, no one will say the obvious: This bull market of sales constitutes the biggest turnover of land from one tribe to another since Lewis and Clark came through. These newcomers are the pion-aires of the West, the most recent invaders of a place defined by invasion.
Don Kendall, for example, owns two expansive spreads outside Pinedale — one for his cows and one for himself. His cattle manager, Kenny Becker, has agreed to let me tag along to find out what goes on on the "lower ranch," roughly 1,650 acres of blue-green valley and mesa along the Green River. The "upper ranch" is about 30 miles away. Kendall doesn't want me around there. One local I meet will later suggest a theory: "The upper ranch was the sight of Sublette County's only mass murder. 1958. Jack Alexander killed his in-laws, his wife and daughter, and then himself. Only found out after someone on the road noticed a lot of ravens lingering at the house." There was another theory, too: "Kendall don't want you to see his house. We call it the Pepsi Palace."
So Becker and I are hauling bags of phosphate from the bed of his pickup over to cow feeders stationed every other pasture or so and blending it with salt. Becker's a 45-year-old redhead dressed in waders, since it's snowmelt season, and a beat-up gray cowboy hat ringed in one funky stain. His cowboyness seems fairly solid, judging from one of our first exchanges. A big cloud is rolling over our heads, so I tell him the weatherman on the radio said it would soon clear up.
"Clear up to my ass is what I always say," and Becker goes ahead and says it.
But as cowboy as Becker seems, it ain't altogether so. As we drive the land emptying sacks, Becker's language and description of the ranch never really achieve the color of his weather parlay. For example, he has convinced Kendall not to fertilize any of the hay pastures here, and he happily segues into an interesting lecture about the "cryptosphere," that "magical area just an inch above and below the surface" that is destroyed, he says, by fertilizer. For the rest of the morning, the stories I hear are about other, highly sophisticated ecological efforts-installing new ponds in the upper ranch to attract trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, and migrating birds in the flyway; digging new fishing holes next to trout-breeding wetlands; and plans to turn a dried-out bend in the river into a duck pond. The day grows less and less cowboy and more and more Sierra Club. Becker trashes the 4-H for perpetuating old ideas about the land before moving on to question the Wyoming penchant for shooting everything that "crawls, walks, or flies." Unless he's hunting for food, Becker doesn't kill anything, including coyotes, which he says he's never seen eat a calf, only mice. As he speaks, he spots his brand-new ranch hand down a hill. A big fella named Gary with a mustache the size of a fist is out plugging up leaks in an irrigation canal. Becker and I stand atop the hill shouting introductions, and then a bit of cowboy conversation occurs.
Becker: How's it going?
Gary (thinks for a good minute): There's a badger right over thar on that little hill.
Becker (lets two minutes pass, almost out of courtesy): Yeah.
Gary (folds his arms and takes three or four minutes to ponder his next line of confab): I didn't bring my rifle.
Becker (checks on the horizon for a few minutes): Welp.
Gary (spits, checks on Kenny's horizon monitoring, spits, then spits again): I'll shoot him tomorrow.
We climb back into the truck in a silence made awkward by such a scene so purely indicative of the old land ethic and the new. We feed another set of cows without comment and drive back to Becker's bunkhouse. As we climb the steps, Becker looks at me.
"He's a ranching man, so I'll have to break it to him gently."
Becker's land ethic seems extremely progressive for a cowboy, not to mention costly. (The cows I was feeding haven't broken even in a while, Becker admits. Cattle prices tanked two years ago, from more than a dollar a pound to now about 60 cents.) It's one of the big changes the rich newcomers are effecting on these easy-going spreads that once were subsistence ranches. The tycoons don't know a lot about the land, to be honest. "When I began acquiring my ranch, I bought Tennessee walkers instead of work horses," admits Kendall. So earning an old-fashioned rancher's profit off the cattle is irrelevant when it doesn't happen and chicken scratch when it does. With an owner like Kendall, Becker can go right along working his habitat projects and re-educating old hands about the unorthodox badger policy because making the land earn anything is really of secondary, even tertiary, importance. Why does Kendall absorb a loss on his lower spread that would send a normal rancher groveling before a banker? What does he get besides being able to say "my lower ranch" and "my cattle operation" and "my ranch manager, Kenny" at the best parties in New York?
Well, there is one other thing, a rather significant thing: Kendall gets one of the biggest tax write-offs in America. It's called a conservation easement. And while Bruce Babbitt and his cohorts are fanning passions between East and West with a lot of Crossfire bile about grazing fees, this single tax deduction is effectively underwriting the resettling of the West by global capitalists.
"If you are a third-generation cattle rancher," explains Keith Lenard of the Wyoming branch of the Nature Conservancy, "and your father dies, you are going to find that the $100,000 ranch he bought is now appraised at full development value for $10 million." As a result, the young rancher is asked to pay estate taxes on $9.9 million-roughly $5.5 million. This at a time when cows are selling for 60 cents a pound.
"We get a phone call a week from some rancher who has about one nostril out of water and is looking for the Nature Conservancy to buy them out," Lenard says. "You have to understand just how desperate that is. The only thing worse than calling the Nature Conservancy is chopping up the land." Rarely, he adds, do sales go to another local rancher. So unless the rancher wants to bury his family heritage beneath tracts of ranchettes, he typically has but one other place to turn to raise the kind of money he'll need to pay the IRS: Sotheby's.
The tax break comes when the new rich owner writes the conservation easement into the deed. In effect he pledges not to develop the land at all or to allow, say, only three houses on 5,000 acres. The more restrictive the easement, the bigger the write-off. The IRS gives this "diminution of value" a monetary amount, typically between 40 and 60 percent of the purchase price. The rich guy donates this value — i.e., the right to develop the land — as a permanent gift to an institution, such as the Nature Conservancy or a local land trust. And that sum of money, in Lenard's example about $5 million, can be written off the owner's taxes as a charitable gift, just like giving to Easter Seals.
Which is dandy, as far as many environmentalists are concerned. The other alternatives for protecting land aren't that attractive: Public parks have to accommodate thousands of obese Americans grinding through in their Winnebagos and ORVs. And traditional ranching — which Lenard is careful not to disparage — can't really compete with the luxurious eco-pampering of rich folks who belong to the Audubon Society and are excited about rehabilitating their trout stream and tossing around words like "riparian" and "flyway" with their ecological consultants. Listening to Lenard makes me realize that this new market of multimillion-dollar ranches is in fact a direct result of the success of environmentalism. One of the more provocative arguments since the original Earth Day has been that the beauty of the land — open space, loping moose, snowmelt rivers, migrating cranes — are worth something, namely, protection. What no one could have predicted is that the superwealthy would come along and translate such an easy platitude into a hard cash number.
"People are starting to pay a premium for these lands," Lenard notes. "Subsequent resales of easement properties aren't suffering that big a loss. That's good and bad for us — good because we can say that to people who might otherwise be queasy about giving up that much value — and bad because it means that the window will snap shut in a few years when the IRS catches on that these people are taking a bigger deduction than the value of what they are giving up." And when that window does close, enormous swaths of the region will have been lofted — legally and eternally — into a new class of property way out of reach of the average rancher. Most of the big land trusts in the West — such as the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund in New Mexico, and the Montana Land Reliance — have programs that facilitate these purchases, as do many of the smaller local organizations. There are more than 1,100 such trusts in the country, and a new one is opening every week, according to the Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C. For these trusts, the procurement of easements has become the main tool for protecting land throughout the United States. The Nature Conservancy has gone so far as to maintain lists of "conservation buyers," i.e., well-heeled donors or other bigwigs whom they can take to the local Sotheby's affiliate to seduce into a sale.
"The land," Lenard admits, "doesn't really care whether the owner is chewing Copenhagen or not."
Having a list of names, though, is not enough. Bringing the financially melancholic son of a third-generation ranching family together with a global entrepreneur intoxicated on Wild West dreams is a difficult and obscure art form, but one Sotheby's seems to have mastered.
In Jackson, I meet with Zackary Wright, tan and blond, just in from Newport Beach, wearing beautiful pointed cowboy boots and a creamy sports jacket. Today he's taking me out to lunch with his local Wyoming sales staff. Chad Budge is here, sporting a casual L.L. Bean look, along with Richard Lewis, a long drop of water in clean jeans and crisp cowboy hat, and Scott Shepherd, who opts for the comfort of tennis shoes. As we park our trucks, I can sense that through them I will be glimpsing a rare and new view of the West. Jackson has many restaurants, and I'm excited, walking down the faux-frontier wooden sidewalks, about where we might eat: the Rocky Mountain Oyster, the Merry Piglets, Jedediah's Original House of Sourdough, the Bar-T-5 Chuckwagon Suppers and Original Western Show, or maybe the Sugarfoot Cafe, whose promotional material promises "good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good food."
We wind up at the Silverdollar. "What I love about Jackson," Wright tells me as we go inside, "is that it's still western and authentic."
I'm stunned by his earnestness. I had just assumed that everyone, from the most leathery Wyomingite to the most bronzed Beverly Hills transplant, would agree that Jackson is to the West what, say, the Pirates of the Caribbean is to sailing. But I realize that the remark is plainly meant and that the West and its ranches are suffering from the national malady described by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan as being defined down.
At no time during the meal will the Sotheby's team talk openly about their buyers. It's hard to find a real estate broker — or anyone in a middle-class service job — who doesn't make nervous noises about being unable to discuss the "clients." The powerful rich people moving in are like ancient lords taking over feudal estates. They inspire fear and dread in the peasants. In Jackson, it doesn't matter which cornball shop you enter, whether it's the Moosely Seconds outlet, Mangy Moose Liquors, or the Moose Be Christmas store, you come away feeling that you are not so much in a town as on a plantation where perpetually grinning minstrels, liveried in Gore-Tex, are terrified even to say out loud the names of their new seigneurs. At one point one of the brokers accidentally outs a software baron (you've never heard of him) while describing how absurdly detailed his interests are. This digital rancher collects trout-stream properties, has grown bored with brown trout, and is now looking for some spreads with cutthroats. The broker's faux pas inspires a chorus of bleating from his colleagues, who beg me not to print the name. I promise, and I will keep my word.
"When we sell a ranch," Budge says, "well, it depends on what you mean by a ranch. Sometimes you end up selling them five acres and they think that's a ranch."
The trick, the brokers explain, is to figure out which clichë is playing in the revival theater of the buyer's mind: Trout streams? Elk herds? Grazing cows? Cowboy bunkhouses? Once that's defined, the brokers work as a team to exploit the mogul's desires, but they have specialties. If the buyer's a fishing fanatic, then Scott Shepherd is important because he can talk a good river-runs-through-it line better than anyone else. If it's cattle ranching, Lewis is critical because he not only can talk "animal units" but looks exactly like a cowboy as imagined in a climate-controlled conference suite at Bear Stearns. At the Sotheby's Ranch Exhibition, Wright intends to have Lewis flown in and brought to the gallery "in full regalia, because the clients like to know they are dealing with a cowboy."
No matter what kind of ranch a baron buys, the brokers will help him straight through the other side of his vision. If he buys for trout, then Shepherd can help with stream rehabilitation, relying on an entire infrastructure of environmental consultants — local firms such as Headwaters Ecology or Biota — that will assist in turning a used-up old ranch into arcadia.
It's the same with cows. Some of the wealthy, Lewis says, buy the ranch and then lease it back to the owner to continue the operation. Since the burden of actually making money has been lifted, the former rancher, his former cowboys, and his former cows more or less serve as living lawn ornaments on a vast front yard stretching out before the picture window in the 10,000-square-foot log cabin that inevitably gets built.
Some buyers prefer to start from scratch. "We can help them find a ranch manager, if that's what they want," Shepherd says. "Heck, we'll handpick the cows and get them to market. We'll do the whole thing."
As we step back into the street and the sun glints off the Pink Garter Plaza with its Espresso West coffeehouse around the corner from the Jolly Jumbuck Leather and Sheepskin shop, Lewis sums up the dream of the West's new homesteaders: "What they want is to wake up feeling like Ben Cartwright, but they don't want his day job."
Wherever one goes now in the West, it's easy to hear stories about the remarkable habits and schemes of the billionaire cowboys. Philip Anschutz, an oil and railroad man with a 32,000-acre spread north of Denver, has security men dressed in boots and ten-gallon hats. As the owner of a large private collection of Remington art, Anschutz employs a full-time curator whose job, allegedly, is to rotate the paintings and sculptures as the great man moves among his many houses, on and off the ranch.
"There were a couple of checkpoints we had to clear just to get inside," says one former employee who requests that I not give his name, a blacksmith who made Anschutz's furniture and wrought-iron doors. "Everywhere you looked were these cowboys carrying shooting irons but who weren't doing nothing except every once in a while talking into the air or at their lapels."
In New Mexico, Ted Turner and his squad of biodiversity consultants are responsible for bringing back the black-tailed prairie dog and upping the ranks of endangered bighorn sheep. In Montana, he almost single-handedly revived the North American population of bison. During one of his many interviews on the topic of his concern for the land, Turner said he was interested in expanding the diversity of his private stock of wildlife to include some of the superstars of the Endangered Species Act, such as the California condor and the Mexican wolf. Because of the notoriety he's received for these conservation efforts, Turner is arguably the one man to credit for making ecology a priority among nouveau ranchers. As he himself has brayed, "When Noah built the ark, he didn't turn any animals away."
So everybody is happy in the New West, even the land. The old spreads can relax after two centuries of subsistence ranching that strained flora and fauna to the crashing point. The old cowboys can move into their Florida condos or retire to classy exurban ranchettes. The real estate brokers can invest their commissions in no-load mutual funds. And the magnates can prowl their new baronies in Pentagon-surplus humvees with their trophy wives and bought politicians. Or so it would seem. But not if you linger for a while. In time the silence that comes of the fear of big money begins to break, and even a stranger can get wind of a low-boiling resentment.
For me, it happens in Pinedale after I spend some time in a saloon called the Cowboy Bar, whose sign offers the helpful ministrations of the Pinedale Thinking Service. Run by the town's cordial mixologist, Courtney Davis, the PTS gives customers the luxury of letting someone else do their thinking so they can get completely hosed. In short order, I'm discussing ranching with two veterans of cowboying for the billionaire buckaroos, both of whom are still frightened enough that they want their names withheld.
"They were going to send our kids to college," one says, sounding like your average microserf complaining about his benefits package. "You had to work there for four years for that. Then one day they said, 'Deal's over.' But the manager's kids, they went."
He looks at me, as if to put it in terms the media can comprehend. "I think it was a little bit of discrimination," he says.
"Then there was our health insurance plan," the other cowboy says, ticked-off. "They upped our deductible to $1,500."
I think I've struck it rich to find two cowboys willing to dish on one of the town's mogul ranchers. But as it turns out, these old hands had worked for Leon Hirsch, the surgical staple guy (whose office would not return my calls). In time, I find that I can stop almost any man on the street with a gnarly hat and odds are good that he's quit on Hirsch or has been fired by him. One young cowboy, also nervous about being named, finally abandoned ranching altogether because of Hirsch and has taken a job in a hardware store.
"He didn't understand cows, and he didn't understand cowboys," he says. "He expected you to work from eight to five, but if you're moving cows 40 miles, you don't stop in the middle because it's five o'clock."
Meanwhile, the perks kept frittering away. The manager cut the ranch hands' gas allowance (devastating to people who work 40 or 50 miles outside of town), ended the free-beef policy, and discontinued one of the most important ranching traditions: allowing the hands to run their own cows among the owner's cattle.
"Basically the only retirement a ranch hand gets is a cow," says the cowboy. "We were told we could run up to 25 head. Well, it come down one day from Hirsch that we lost that. No old-timer would do that. But to a corporation it don't matter, because if their numbers don't come out on paper, well, that's just tough shit."
Late one afternoon, I speed down the most beautiful three hours of highway in America at 95 mph, alongside the Continental Divide, to Lander. At a little store, I spy a sign that reads, scented nightcrawlers: large-baby, and I feel that maybe I am entering a more authentic part of the West.
Before coming to Wyoming I called a friend of mine, a former rancher who got out in the eighties when it was difficult to give a ranch away. He reminded me that while the rest of the country struggles between regional myth and reality, the West has always been a bit different.
"It's more a tension between myth and people struggling to live up to that myth," he said. "Reality's never been of much use out here."
On the highway, I find myself cruising right in the midst of the current attempt to embrace that myth as I pass one utility vehicle after another — Silverado, Bronco, Sierra, Blazer, Ranger, Cherokee, Pathfinder, Pioneer, Dakota. In so many ways, this recent shift in land ownership is not new but the same old same old that has always plagued the West. "There's a pretty long history of rich people playing out their fantasies in the West," says Patricia Limerick. In the nineteenth century, she continues, "it was commonplace for the rich in Scotland, England, or Eastern Europe to buy a ranch. That's where you parked your second son to develop his 'character.'" The Jackson Holes of that era, Limerick says, were "Cheyenne and Laramie, which had millionaires' clubs, very elite operations, places where the rich went on vacation. Just like today."
Another way to look at it is this: The West has always relied on outside help to maintain life in these beautiful but unforgiving landscapes — cavalries to remove Indians, New York bank money to float big loans, federal ag programs to stabilize yo-yo markets, army engineers to redirect water flow. Now that the West has exhausted these sources, it's time to woo the next big sugar daddy: global capitalists, whose first homes are Hong Kong, Bonn, Geneva, and the Upper East Side. To attract them here, the temptation has been to offer them not the badlands but the glamour lands. What's happening is a kind of greenlining of the West — the trophy properties, which can be found just off any spectacular mountain range or nuzzled up against national parks, going to the rich, leaving to the traditional ranchers the shit land. (You can still buy plenty of $50-per-acre pasture in eastern Wyoming, but there are no direct Teton views).
And that's why I'm heading to Lander. There one finds the Red Canyon Ranch, bought a few years back by the Nature Conservancy and then handed over to Bob Budd, a progressive rancher, to serve as a kind of laboratory. Budd is trying to find out if the values of environmentalism can coexist with a real cattle ranch worked to make a profit. Or, as Budd puts it, "to take good conservation methods and meld them into good ranching practices."
Budd's a 41-year-old Wyoming native wearing rubber knee-boots and covered in mud. Ranching has preserved the thin muscular body of a high school senior. Besides working with a couple of other cowboys to run 850 head of cattle on the 35,000 acres of the ranch, he also shows the place off to some 2,000 people a year. Most are schoolkids, but a few hundred are other ranchers, some traditional, some tycoons. Like the Sotheby's brokers, Budd shuttles between the two worlds, but as a land manager, trying to square new practices with old ways.
He shows me a pasture whose grazing schedule he has altered to attract "neotropical songbirds, western tanagers, and orioles." I ask him if managing the land for wildlife values must sound nice to some superstore magnate whose idea of the West was formed from reruns of F Troop but certainly must sound like liberal environmental hooey to a traditional cowboy. Budd stuffs a pinch of tobacco in his lower lip and tries to wave me off my own clichës.
"Now I ain't saying that an old cowboy is gonna go into the local saloon and say, 'I saw me a warbler today,'" he says. "But a cowboy might share that knowledge with his daughter or his grandson. It's a mistake to think that ranchers, as a rule, are unconcerned about the land. We wouldn't have what we have if they hadn't been such good stewards."
Late in the afternoon, Budd invites me to drive over to Riverton for a visit to his chiropractor. He gets a good drubbing a couple of times a year to help with his aching back. On the way home, we stop at a drive-through liquor window and buy a six-pack. Drinking and driving is legal in Wyoming, a frontier attitude not of individual lawlessness but of community trust. The law assumes you and everyone else on the road will safely drink one or two beers while driving and save getting blasted for when you get home.
So that's what we do. As we cruise the back roads, we pass a ranch owned by a local Budd knows is having financial trouble. He pops another brew, and suddenly it feels like the top has come off more than a bottle.
"These conservation easements only forestall development, you know," he says. "They don't get at the root problem, which is the economics of ranching and the new pressures on these guys. Easements work just fine for people like Ted Turner and the folks who've got beaucoup bucks and a big tax problem. But not for my neighbor who netted $4,200 last year. Oh, he's got a tax problem all right. He doesn't get to pay any."
I ask him if these two kinds of ranchers ever met or socialized at the cattlemen's association or the grange hall.
"They don't mingle," Budd says, and recounts what was clearly a seminal moment in his life as a progressive rancher. When the Nature Conservancy first bought the ranch, he was widely disrespected and given the cold shoulder. Then one day he was talking to an old rancher who mocked the sellout ranch hands who go to work for the rich guys. Budd hesitated, not knowing where that put him. "I'm not talking about you," the old hand reassured him. "I'm talking about the kind of ranch manager who has a white shirt on in the morning and the same white shirt on at night."
Just then, we pass a scruffy hill, bald for the most part with an exhausted, dusty pasture below.
"See that there?" Budd says, taking a long slug on his beer. "That's a rich doctor who owns that ranch — no names, now. But just look at the land. That's fucking disgusting. He doesn't maintain it. He doesn't even see it. He can't see it. He's got that big fancy house down there and all that shit. But the land's just not integral to him.
"I don't know Ted Turner," Budd continues, "but I wonder if he really knows his land. I wonder if he's ever been out there under a cloudburst while it washed out his gol-durned dam."
We drive in silence for a while, and Budd's naturally forgiving nature takes over. Oh, he understands the longing of the rich guys to come out here — the land, the people, the warm sense of local community and interdependence that defines the West as much as the more salable myth of rugged individualism. The paradox is that these latest immigrants are so rich they only have to subscribe to one-half of the West's history and as absentee ranchers undermine the very thing that has created the place of their dreams: the kindness of neighbors. So far not even the IRS has created an easement for diminution of value that occurs when human-scale community, the local body politic, and down-the-road camaraderie are lost.
"One of the funny truths about all this is that if a rich guy buys a ranch owned by somebody none of us likes, no one cares," says Budd. "The big problem is when we lose a real neighbor. Then part of the community is shot. One of my new neighbors spent as much money on gravel for his road so he wouldn't get his Cadillac stuck as we spent on everything we've done out here. And then right afterward, up went the locked gate and security fence. So that spread is just kind of gone. It's as if it's not even there anymore. That's not just a property sale. That's a human loss. It's like a funeral for something."
We crunch to a halt beside Budd's house and, having obeyed the letter of Wyoming's drinking law, step inside to obey the spirit.
Photographs by Ted Wood