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Arizona, like most of the western United States, has an antiquated set of laws that provide that cows must be fenced out, not fenced in. Called the "Open Range" laws, this means that ranchers can turn their cows loose wherever they want, and if you don't like the cows wandering through your yard eating your garden, you've got to pay to fence in your property to keep the cows out.

Back in the 1890's when the west was mostly unsettled, it probably made sense for ranchers to not have to pay a lot of money building fences to keep the cows on their land. And with so much public land around, or neighbors' land, it also made good economic sense to let your cows wander about eating someone else's grass. Thus ranchers wrote the laws preferring their interests over everyone else's.

I recently moved to a little town in Baja Arizona and encountered the Open Range laws first hand. The community I live in is one of those master planned places, with a lot of vacant land. In Arizona, vacant land is taxed for its agricultural use or grazing use instead of its development value, so long as agricultural or grazing uses are being made of the land. What this means is that land worth $15 million for development is on the tax rolls at $500 less because it is being used for grazing. The difference is a property tax of $21,000 for land valued for development versus $60 for the same land valued for grazing.

Thus, the developer of a master planned community has a very strong economic incentive to use his vacant land for grazing. In Arizona this is called "Rent A Cow" ranching where the developer leases his vacant land to a rancher for peanuts who then runs his cows on the developer's property creating the grazing valuation for the developer.

However, due to the Open Range laws, the rancher doesn't just run his cows on the developer's vacant land. The cows roam freely all over the development.

The major road into this particular development is a favorite place for the rent-a-cows. As it is said, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Cows invented this. Thus, rather than stay within the vacant land behind what fences there are, these particular cows are adept at escape. During the days they placidly munch away on the grass inside the fenced land. But at night they sneak out to eat the grass in the median of the roads, and on the shoulders. What is particularly disturbing is they saunter (slowly) back and forth across the road.

In Baja Arizona if one runs over a cow on the road in an Open Range area, the motorist pays for the dead cow. The cow essentially has the legal right-of-way.

Though the posted speed limit on this particular road is 25 mph, one has to be a fool to drive even at that speed at night, because the cows will be wandering back and forth across the road. And many of them are black cows.

When a cow is standing beside the road, it invariably decides to cross the road just as one is about to pass it by. Cows must sense their ultimate fate of being turned into hamburger. Rather than die ignominiously at a slaughter house, many cows like to play chicken with cars. Wander out in the road and take out a sport utility vehicle, and may the driver as well. Die gloriously, cow.

Ranchers are coming under increasing fire for their grazing of cattle on public lands. Their public relations are in bad shape. So you'd think it would occur to ranchers that their cows are a public relations problem as well. Cows wandering around heavily traveled roads does not make for motorists loving cows.

But, given the high cost of fencing and then maintain such fences versus the relatively low price ranchers get for cows (unless they are run over on the road), ranchers are adamant in defense of their Open Range privileges.

Ranchers like to think of themselves as the ultimate free enterprise, independent American types. except when it comes to paying more than $2.00 an acre for grazing on public lands, and especially when it comes to paying for fencing their cows into their own lands.

Urban Americans encountering cows on the road (or eating their gardens) get outraged when they discover the Open Range laws. Some urbanites have been known to shoot trespassing cows, only to find out that you can shoot trespassing people in the West, but cows cannot trespass. Shoot a cow and you go to prison in any western state. Shoot a trespasser and you might get a medal.

So, if there was any doubt who is more important in the new West--the newcomer from New Jersey in his brand new Ford Explorer, or the cow, the cow wins every time. At least until enough of the newcomers encounter cows on the road and decide to pass laws eliminating the Open Range privilege.

Meanwhile, there are some ranchers who turn their herds loose next to heavily traveled roads, and wait until the nightly toll is taken on their cows, collecting enough money to replace one dead cow with two, and so forth building their herds to spectacular limits, and then retiring to La Jolla after a particularly good season of cownage where their herd is wiped out by drivers reckless enough to think that roads were meant for cars to drive on, not for cows to stand in the middle of contemplating a glorious death in a splintering crash of metal, glass and cowhide.

Copyright 1997 by Hugh Holub

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