A Short History of Fence Cutting

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?

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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2 Responses to A Short History of Fence Cutting

  1. I have never been described as a “cowboy” before. The wild-assed wilderness lover who hates cows part I like.

    We had some guests at Torrey for a few days recently just as the Bundys went at it yet again. My guests are well educated, quasi progressive types, a bit younger than me. They were amused by my ranting about equal justice and Bundys running about above the law. They described me as sentimental and quaint. An idealist they said. I was surprised how much that bugged me. But, you know, I used to think quite highly of free markets too. Alan Greenspan and I rode that quaint notion into a ditch. Maybe in the New West where senators still love their cowboy hats, equal justice is just a quaint notion? Whatever. Call me sentimental and naive, I am sticking with my outrage on this one. -Mark Bailey


    • Scott Abbott says:

      Mark, I read some of the coverage of this in the Oregonian and it made me gag. They (the anti-fed guys) are going to explain themselves in a town meeting on Friday. Wonder if they’ll be lynched? The citizens of Burns don’t seem very happy about the circus.
      Can talking about equal justice be called ranting? A quaint notion? Last night as President Obama gave his wonderful speech the ranters were already busy — Urine Hatch calling him feckless, for instance — demanding justice for themselves while denying it to others.


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