Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Life's little mysteries: A review of Lazy B by Sandra Day O'Connor

A few weeks ago Tracy over at Possum Living had a review of Sandra Day O'Connor's memoir, Lazy B. The book is loose collection of anecdotes about growing up on a large cattle ranch in eastern Arizona. Tracy owns a patch of desert in western Texas, so he was naturally intrigued by Justice O'Connor's descriptions of the ranching life on what has to be equally arid ground.

Tracy also tends to be more than a tad skeptical about the ability of the federal government to manage anything, so he pretty much agreed with Justice O'Connor's conclusions regarding the role of the Bureau of Land Management in pushing ranchers out of the business. My skepticism usually falls in a slightly different direction -- I don't trust memoirs (people self-edit) and I don't trust family histories (they miss the bigger context). We did a little back and forth discussion about the book, I recommended a book or two that provides more of a big picture view of ranching (Starr's Let the Cowboy Ride, for example) and I promised him I'd read Lazy B for myself when I had the chance. And I did.

First, the good stuff: Justice O'Connor's descriptions of her childhood, the ranch, and the ranch hands are fascinating. She contradicts herself a lot -- for example, at one point she says all the hired help were bachelors, and then a few pages later she describes a rather colorful character, a long-time employee, who married, divorced, and remarried -- but that's a minor quibble in a memoir. This isn't a book written to provide a definitive history of anything; it's a memoir in which Justice O'Connor gets to remember fondly her pet bobcat. Her brother, Alan, is credited on the cover, too, so I have a hunch the book was "written" by the two of them sitting down and swapping stories in front of a tape recorder.

If a person is interested in Justice O'Connor as a person this book might provide some insight into things that may have shaped her character, but it's not going to tell you much about her life as an adult. She was the oldest child, and there was a long gap between her birth and those of her two younger siblings. When she reached school age, her parents sent her to El Paso to live with her grandmother during the school year. The Lazy B became a place where she lived for only a few months out of the year, and that she then left behind fairly quickly after going off to college. She entered Stanford at 16, combined her last year of undergraduate studies with her first year of law school, and was married about the same time she passed the bar exam.

In any case, although the book would have benefited from tighter editing, it is an interesting and easy read, and you do learn a lot along the way about ranching in Arizona in the first half of the 20th century. That's the good part.

Now for the slice and dice -- and why I referred to life's little mysteries. One of those little mysteries to me has always been why the people who benefit the most from government largesse/subsidies/handouts/freebies/whatever are the same people who always bitch the loudest about government interference. This is particularly true in the western and southern states. According to Justice O'Connor, the Day family ranch, the Lazy B established by her grandfather in the 1880s, the land they considered theirs in terms of where they ran their cattle, consisted of over 160,000 acres. How much of it did they actually own? About 1/2 of a percent, or approximately 8,000 acres. The rest was owned by the state of Arizona, the state of New Mexico, and, of course, the largest land owner of all: the federal government in the form of either the BLM or the U.S. Forest Service. For the first fifty years the Days used that federal government land they paid nothing to do so -- no grazing fees, no leases, not a dime in property taxes or other land ownership costs. They had labor costs (the cowboys), they had livestock costs, but the majority of the land they used as pasturage was essentially gratis -- all they had to do was push the cows on to it and persuade the neighbors not to run their stock there, too.

Which in turn explains a great deal as to how the Days were able to make any money at all ranching in desert country. Based on the numbers Justice O'Connor provides, it took 80 acres of land to support one animal unit. 80 acres! No wonder every dry year found cows dropping dead from starvation. Carrying capacity, in contrast, in the Nebraska sandhills (also a dry, fragile environment, but obviously not nearly as dry and fragile as Arizona desert) ranges from 15 acres to 30 acres per animal unit, with the eastern Sandhills having a higher carrying capacity than the western regions. Having done a fair amount of research into ranching while working on a history of the Niobrara drainage, I know that 30 acres is considered the upper limit for being able to run cattle and still make money. After that the critters are walking too much to find food to put on the weight they need to be marketable as anything other than canners and cutters. In short, if the land hadn't been available free no one in their right mind would have tried ranching on it.

Apologists for ranching always claim that the ranchers didn't own the land because land laws prevented them from buying it. Hence, they were forced against their will into exploiting the public domain. Unfortunately for them, that explanation is totally bogus. The truth is that as long as public domain land was available at effectively no cost, there was little incentive for ranchers to spend money acquiring anything other than the key to western livestock success: the acreage that controlled access to water. So a rancher (and selected hired hands) would homestead a few hundred acres and end up controlling many thousands. The fact that the Days themselves wound up owning 8000+ acres fee simple stands as proof it was possible to buy the land; the Day family chose not to.

In any event, the entirely foreseeable consequence of being allowed to graze with minimal regulation on the public domain was that the public domain was thoroughly abused. Historian Donald Worster noted in 1992 that "after more than a hundred years of ranching, more than half the lands devoted to it are still in poor to very poor condition." As early as 1929 historians such as Ernest Osgood began documenting western history and describing how ranchers routinely overstocked the range as the cattle industry overall followed a boom and bust mentality well into the 20th century. The cattlemen eventually learned to make hay and practice a more intensive style of ranching on land in private ownership, but continued to abuse the public domain until forced by law, e.g., the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, to change their ways.

The Days were quite obviously no different than their peers when it came to using and abusing the land. Like every apologist for ranching I've ever read, Justice O'Connor trots out the line about ranchers being good stewards. Pshaw. It's utter humbug*, and O'Connor herself provides the proof: the only examples she provides of good stewardship, if they can be called that, are of her family drilling wells on the land they owned. When asked to invest money in a spreader dam project designed by the BLM to reverse generations of erosion and ecological damage, a 15% match to the government's paying 85% of the cost, O'Connor's father's response was to say no. At that point in the 1950s, the Days had been ranching on the Lazy B, sucking off the government teat for close to 80 years, but Mr. Day was unwilling to give anything back. Justice O'Connor's mother said she'd put up the money herself, and the project went forward.

It proved highly successful and became a demonstration project used to persuade other ranchers to undertake similar efforts. Once that happened, of course, Mr. Day promoted it as though it had been his own idea.

In the final chapters of the book, Justice O'Connor lays many of the woes of the ranching industry in the dry states at the feet of the overbearing and meddlesome federal government, e.g., unreasonable regulations promulgated by the Bureau of Land Management. She tells a sad story about a neighbor who willfully and repeatedly breaks the rules by running more cattle on federal land than his BLM lease allows, as well as refusing to practice rest and rotation as instructed, and then she is horrified and sympathetic when he's made to pay the consequences for doing so. I find it distinctly odd that a former Supreme Court justice thinks it's fine for laws to broken when they're a personal inconvenience, but perhaps Justice O'Connor is more of moral relativist and judicial activist than I thought.

[*Worster notes that "every study of the Western range made since the 1930s has tended to the same conclusion: the combination of scientifically trained, disinterested supervisors and public land tenure provides better protection for the range environment, on the whole, than simple private ownership."]

Benjamin Hibbard, A History of the Public Land Policies, NY: Peter Smith, 1939 [1924]; Ernest Staples Osgood, The Day of the Cattleman, University of Minnesota Press, 1929; E. Louise Peffer, The Closing of the Public Domain: Disposal and Reservation Policies 1900-50, Stanford University Press, 1951; Richard White, It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991; Donald Worster, Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West, Oxford University Press, 1992.


  1. I never bought into her from day one..dont like her and dont think i ever will..and refuse to give her any of my money...and she's another one that's 'all hat and no cattle.'

  2. Spent some of my youth on a good cattle ranch, it was good. Some of it living in a sheep herders wagon with my grandparents in no god damn where Wyoming. It was good also, I loved that life.

    I've not read that book so have no opinion of it. I hate it when I don't have a frigging opinion, ha ha ha.

  3. This is a great review. God you're smart. Oh how I could afford to hire you to edit my book.

    You've just gone through the reason I'm not popular with some of my old friends who grew up in families that made their money sheep farming in much the same way O'Connor's family ranched cattle. On public land and over grazed, so that erosion was a serious problem. Never paid a penny, and poisoned coyotes and the occasional stray dog.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.