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Let the Cowboy Ride: Cattle Ranching in the American West (Creating the North American Landscape)

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Let the Cowboy Ride: Cattle Ranching in the American West (Creating the North American Landscape) [Paperback]

Paul F. Starrs
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 17, 2000 Creating the North American Landscape

The dime novel and dude ranch, the barbecue and rodeo, the suburban ranch house and the urban cowboy—all are a direct legacy of nineteenth-century cowboy life that still enlivens American popular culture. Yet at the same time, reports of environmental destruction or economic inefficiency have motivated calls for restricted livestock grazing on public lands or even for an end to ranching altogether. In Let the Cowboy Ride, Starrs offers a detailed and comprehensive look at one of America's most enduring institutions. Richly illustrated with more than 130 photographs and maps, the book combines the authentic detail of an insider's view (Starrs spent six years working cattle on the high desert Great Basin range) with a scholar's keen eye for objective analysis.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The title of this book is a bit deceptive as it is really about ranching and the American West, and as Starrs notes, a "cowboy is not a rancher." But they share legends that permeate American history, popular culture and environment--built and otherwise. Starrs's book describes the legacy of this way of life, the fragmented and irrational laws governing the use of public lands and the resulting ecological problems. Starrs explores five regions in detail and tells of the differences and similarities between them. He looks at the history of Native American and Hispanic attitudes toward the land, attitudes that were generally more communal and protective. These attitudes receded before the Anglo ranchers' combination of mistrust and fierce defense of the right to exploit public lands. Anglo Americans identify the wide-open spaces of the West as an integral part of our identity, yet the some 600 acres required to graze one head of cattle in these arid lands has become just too much to sacrifice for one rancher's personal gains. Grazing fees are now routinely charged so that there is some equity in the use of public lands. But Starrs argues that profits are not the real motive of today's ranchers anyway; rather, the honor, tradition and lifestyle far outweigh any real money to be made. Starrs's book is copious with detail and information and well-researched. If it reads somewhat like a textbook, the story is so fascinating and such a part of us all that the reader is quickly drawn in. Starrs adds rational and careful thought to an often incendiary debate.

Copyright 1998 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


This is an important book, a contribution both to scholarship and to urgent public debate. Few of its readers will find their view of the American West unchanged, and those few will probably be of Starrs's party already.

(Hugh Brogan Times Literary Supplement)

Paul Starrs takes us on a lively, insightful ride through the varied ranch lands of the American West. Drawing skillfully on his visits to many different ranching areas, he clearly illuminates the difficulties confronting ranchers yesterday and today. Starrs also levels sharp criticisms at U.S. western land policy. Even readers who disagree with his prescriptions will find Starrs a stimulating, often provocative guide.

(Richard W. Slatta, author of The Cowboy Encyclopedia and Cowboys of the Americas)

Starrs's magisterial book redefines our understanding of the neglected subject of western livestock ranching. He shows the centrality of ranching in the complex and contentious relationship between fiercely independent westerners and historic federal government policies. Starrs provides a thoughtful and vivid overview while simultaneously deciphering five specific land tenure histories. The history of western ranching has a new champion.

(John Opie, author of Nature's Nation)

Product Details

  • Series: Creating the North American Landscape
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press (March 17, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801863511
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801863516
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.9 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,297,270 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating and comprehensive look at ranching . . . September 15, 1999
By A Customer
I came across this book while doing research about ranching in the American West -- this book is by far the most interesting, comprehensive and well-written book about the cattle industry that I've found.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting material but often presented ineffectively December 31, 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Starrs knows ranching. He worked for six seasons as a cowhand before going to graduate school. He's now a professor of geography at the University of Nevada, and writes extensively on ranching and the West. This book reflects that knowledge, and is full of both factual material and analytical insights into the rural West.

Unfortunately, it's often weirdly organized. The chapters don't tell a chronological story, and they don't really organize around an analytical story. There's a group of chapters on "legacy" at the start and a group on the "future" at the end, with case studies of five counties in the middle. But the "future" chapters include a lot of the past, and the "legacy" chapters mix history, lifestyle, politics, geography, and literature reviews in ways that I never could sort out in my mind. The best single chapter, with an overview of his major themes, was Chapter 4. That's an odd place to put your overview.

The presentation could also be better oriented to the reader. For example, Starrs will refer to something, like the Kincaid Act or the Spanish Mesta, without defining it. Then, dozens of pages later after the initial reference, the object may (or may not) be explained. There is a glossary at the end, if you happen to notice it - - but here, as in many books, a glossary is a substitute for thinking through the best way to present the material so that the reader doesn't need a glossary.

Starrs is at his best when he's not trying to wrestle with the general, but instead telling stories about specific places. His five chapters on western counties are very interesting. He's selected these well, with a mix of landholding patterns, ethnic make-ups, and histories.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Study November 3, 2010
Excellent academic look at the cultural evolution of ranching, from the Spanish entry to North America until modern times. Illustrates why ranching is important as a culture and livelihood, and, at its best, a sustainable and productive way to manage landscapes.
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More About the Author

Paul Starrs is a fieldworker, a family guy, and a storyteller intrigued by landscapes and their human occupants. At the University of Nevada, Paul is Regents & Foundation Professor of Geography, and co-founder of the Black Rock Institute. A child of diplomats and born in Bordeaux, France, Paul grew up abroad. He returned to the American West in 1975, and attended Deep Springs College in eastern California. Completing a BA at UC San Diego, he earned a PhD in Geography at UC Berkeley and began teaching at the University of Nevada.

In his investigations and research, he's worked with ranchers and activists throughout the West, with hunters and swineherds, bullfighters and cork-oak harvesters in Spain and Portugal, consulted with miners in Nevada and Utah and California, with railroad owners in Omaha, with film directors, conservationists, museum curators, and literary critics. An able teacher, he has received all of the University of Nevada's teaching awards, and numerous system-wide and national honors. The author of over 100 articles, reviews, and essays, Paul Starrs has so far written and published three books: Let the Cowboy Ride: Cattle Ranching in the American West (Johns Hopkins, 1997), Black Rock, about an isolated but memorable region in northwestern Nevada (in paperback, now, with Peter Goin, Black Rock Institute Press), and, also with Peter Goin, A Field Guide to California Agriculture (University of California Press, 2010, 508 pages), the lead book in a two-volume series on the significance of California agriculture in the world scene (the second being The Nature of Agriculture in California: An Introduction). A raconteur by nature, Paul's enduring ambition is to stay in motion, and while he works on projects, more or less simultaneously, he works with a steady stream of graduate students with fascinating projects and talents.

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