Free Speech: The Cowboy and His Cow

Monday, April 1st, 1985. Missoula, Montana. Edward Abbey approaches the podium and gives the following address.

Douglas Balmain
16 min readMar 16, 2022


Edward Abbey’s speech reprinted in zine format. Photo and artwork by Douglas Balmain. 2022.

“Cattle are a worldwide curse. Besides the methane they produce, cows are an excuse for burning the Amazon, the loss of which, many think, will be the tipping point for the global carbon exchange keeping the planet alive.”
-Doug Peacock, Was It Worth It?


I was well into my adult years before I learned how to see the land. My first clear view of the American West broke my heart. At last, I saw how we’ve abused and depleted the land. At last, I saw that cattle, barbed wire, and cheatgrass are not native to our western landscapes.

After graduating high school and completing a few semesters of Junior College in California, I moved to Wyoming. The myth of the cowboy had seeped into me and I thought I wanted to become one. If I had known the works of Edward Abbey then, I could’ve saved myself the trouble. But in the early-2010s, I had not yet found my band of renegade naturalists.

It did not take long to debunk the popular fiction of the American cowboy. I found nothing romantic about brandings. Nothing mystic about pushing cows. Nothing admirable about stringing barbed wire.

As I nudged the flanks of the patient horses that were gracious enough to carry my weight, my senses started to nudge my intuition awake from its deep, static sleep.

The work being done was not right. The animals we were fattening for slaughter did not belong in the environment that we’d placed them on top of. The cattle were trampling and wasting the watersheds, denuding the land, and displacing the wild species that I loved. The ranchers were not working with nature, they were battling against it.

Today’s western rancher is a serf, a slave in service to their own abusive industry. Public lands ranchers aren’t welfare ranchers because they want to be, they’re welfare ranchers because that’s what they’ve been reduced to. Big Ag, the USDA, and the…