Photos by Thomas Boyd, The Oregonian
The invention of barbed wire in 1874 solved a pressing fencing problem and quickly posed its own problems. Barbed wire is an extremely efficient fencing material. It is also a dangerous fence, a lethal threat to wildlife and livestock alike. The history of fence cutting is fascinating and convoluted.
19th-century Texas newspapers reported that Communists were cutting the fences and/or that Eastern Capitalist Monopolists were building fences. Advocates of free range for their cattle were the fence cutters. New settlers were the fence builders. Then the owners of huge ranches fenced millions of acres and smaller landowners cut the fences that kept their cattle from sources of water.
Edward Abbey’s 1975 The Monkey Wrench Gang revives the art of wire cutting, but this time the fences are cut by radical environmentalists in defense of wilderness. After “monkeywrenching” a bulldozer, an expensive set of geophones, and a drilling rig, Hayduke and Seldom Seen Smith drive along the Kaiparowits Plateau and contemplate its future at the hands of oil companies, power companies, coal companies, and land developers. Down off the plateau, they encounter an additional creator of wasteland: a herd of cows. Incensed, they cut the fences that keep the cows on their intended grazing plot.
“You can’t never go wrong cuttin’ fence,” Smith would say. “Especially sheep fence.” (Clunk!) “But cow fence too. Any fence.”
“Who invented barbed wire anyhow?” Hayduke asked. (Plunk!)
“It was a man named J. F. Glidden done it; took out his patent back in 1874.”
“An immediate success, that barbwire. Now the antelope die by the thousands, the bighorn sheep perish by the hundreds every winter from Alberta down to Arizona, because fencing cuts off their escape from blizzard and drought. And coyotes too, and golden eagles, and peasant soldiers on the coils of concertina wire, victims of the same fat evil the wide world over, hang dead on the barbed and tetanous steel.
“You can’t never go wrong cuttin’ fence,” repeated Smith, warming to his task. (Pling!) “Always cut fence. That’s the law west of the hundredth meridian. East of that don’t matter none. Back there it’s all lost anyhow. But west, cut fence.” (Plang!) (155-156)
With Abbey’s novel, the act of wire cutting becomes an environmental obligation. The fences controlling cattle herds that lay waste to a delicate landscape, like the strip mines and drilling rigs that destroy wilderness to get at whatever can be extracted, must go. The fences that control the “cowboy” of the New West—the wild-assed environmentalist wilderness lover who hates cows (Smith is a polygamist river runner, Hayduke a Vietnam vet and explosives expert)—must be cut.
Now, in a mirror image of the environmentalist fence cutting—done to make it impossible to keep cows on land that ought to be wild—a fence built to keep cattle out of a bird sanctuary has been cut in Oregon
Julie Turkewitz reported for the New York Times on Monday, Jan. 11, 2016 that
“The armed men who have occupied a federal wildlife refuge here escalated their defiance of the federal government on Monday, using bare hands and a Wildcat excavator stolen from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to rip apart a barbed-wire fence erected by the government at a far end of the vast refuge.
“The fence, the protesters said, had kept a rancher from grazing cattle on publicly owned land.
“‘We’re like Boy Scouts,’ said Ammon Bundy, the occupation’s leader, as he watched the wildlife agency’s Wildcat haul away a mountain of coiled wire and his supporters whooped in the background. ‘No trace left behind.’ . . .
“On Monday, the protesters drove out to a snowy expanse miles from the refuge’s headquarters, bringing along the excavator. They approached a fence they said divided private and public land, and cut a space about 80 feet long, a move they said would allow the Puckett family to graze its cattle at the refuge.
“’I feel like this is the first step of many in restoring ranchers’ rights,’ Mr. Bundy said.
“Mr. Holm [of the Wildlife Refuge] warned that unmanaged grazing could ‘wreak environmental havoc.’”
Abbey’s fence cutters go to jail, as did Tim DeChristopher for his environmental protest. What will happen to the Bundy gang?