RENO, Nev. — As troubadours, fiddlers and scribes head to northeast Nevada for a national gathering to celebrate cowboy poetry and culture, the topic of the sometimes tenuous relationship between the Old West and the realities of the New West will be more than campfire conversation.
The 32nd National Cowboy Poetry Gathering opens Monday in Elko, a rural community halfway between Reno and Salt Lake City that is similar in its turbulent history to the place about 200 miles away in Oregon where a national wildlife refuge has been seized by armed men protesting federal ownership of land.
The weeklong festival features a slate of speeches and discussion panels about many of the wide-open spaces where conservation is a good word, but environmentalism sometimes is not; where patriotism is revered, but the U.S. government is often despised.
The keynote speech will be given Thursday by a world-renowned cultural and environmental historian who thinks government ownership of land can be a good thing, and it may be the only way to save some of the last great wild places where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains.
Dan Flores’ latest book, “American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains,” examines the similarity between the wildlife that still exists in the African grasslands and the American bison, antelope, wolves and grizzly bears that roamed the great expanse from the Missouri River to the Rockies when American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark entered the wilderness in the early 1800s.
“Until we destroyed it, there was this other historic version of the Serengeti on the plains,” Flores says in remarks prepared for the Elko gathering. “‘Between 1820 and 1920, in the largest destruction of animal life discoverable anywhere in the world history, we almost entirely wiped the Great Plains clear of its wildlife. The 19th century Great Plains was a slaughterhouse.”
Flores said he isn’t sure what to expect in Elko after talking with event organizers who requested he “leave the politics at the door as you go in.”
“They engaged me in a conference call that, as I read it, was kind of a warning about the audience and about what you can say, and what is going to be controversial ,” said Flores, who was the chairman of Western History at the University of Montana from 1992 to 2014 and now lives outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. “The truth is, given the politics of modern America, almost everything you say about the West is controversial. I may be occupied by the militia by the end of the event, but I guess we’ll find out.”
Dave Roche, executive director of the Western Folklife Center in charge of the event, said they wanted a keynote speaker who could offer a cultural, social and environmental perspective on the Northern Plains and the American West.
“We don’t take a political side, but at the same time, we don’t step away from the real issues that are working their way in one way or another through the community, and the Western community in general,” Roche said.
The ongoing standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, was organized by the sons of Cliven Bundy, a southern Nevada rancher who staged a similar show of force in 2014 at his ranch where he continues to graze cattle on federal land without a permit. They urged Oregon ranchers to renounce U.S. ownership of public land at a ceremony over the weekend and plan to open up the 300-square-mile refuge for cattle this spring.
Such conflict is nothing new to the people of Elko County, or as the leaders of the “Shovel Brigade” called it nearly two decades ago, the “Republic of Elko.” In January 2000, the same week as the 16th annual Cowboy Poetry gathering, more than 1,000 people marched through town with parade floats and pickups filled with 10,000 shovels in a protest against the Forest Service in a battle over who should control a remote grave road in a national forest — a legal fight that continues 16 years later in federal court in Reno.
Charlie Seemann, who directed the folklife center for 16 years before he retired in 2014, said at the time “the shovel thing” put him in an awkward position, but that he understood the frustrations of cowboys, miners and others who work the land.
“Just living in this open space, doing the job they do, they have to be self-reliant,” he said back then. “They don’t like to be told what to do.”
Seemann doesn’t anticipate any tension at this year’s gathering as a result of “the Oregon occupation situation.”
“There will probably be private conversations among folks,” he said, but “the gathering is a place that is so much about camaraderie and friendship that it tends to defuse these things.”